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A Syrian family’s journey to the safety of New Zealand

Four years ago, Ramia Saidawi left Syria, with her husband and two girls, for a life of safety in New Zealand.

Four years ago, Ramia Saidawi left Syria, with her husband and two girls, for a life of safety in New Zealand. Ramia told UNICEF NZ about the day a bomb narrowly missed her daughters’ school and leaving everything to make a life on the other side of the world.
Damascus was a risky place to live in 2013. The Syrian war was two years old by that point, and it was affecting everything.

Gasoline was scarce and there were power outages for up to 18 hours a day. People struggled to find basic items like bread, yogurt and milk, and in winter we were continuously cold because it was so hard to heat our home. When we had electricity, I would turn on the tiny spotlights on our ceiling just to get the sense of heat and make life more bearable.

My girls were still in primary school, and at the time I didn’t realise how even small changes were affecting them. Before the war, I used to take them to swimming lessons but the pool was forced to close as there was no way of heating it. They found it hard to understand the war or why their lives had changed so much. No child should have to live in fear. We all lived in fear.

I was at work when I heard that a bomb had gone off right next to their school.

It was one of the scariest days of my life. I desperately wanted to feel my daughters in my arms, but the area had been sealed off and no one could go in or out. For two hours I desperately tried to find a way in. Fortunately their Grandmother was finally able to reach them.

After that, I was constantly worried. When the girls were at school, I was always checking the news to make sure that they were ok at school. I wouldn’t even let them take the school bus because I couldn’t track the bus route.

As a mother, I know how important the first seven years of a child’s life are – it’s when they learn about the world around them. What my girls were learning was that bombs, destruction and people killing each other was normal. They were learning that being cold and living without electricity was normal. They were learning that not knowing where your next meal coming from was normal.

Syria was my home, but it was no longer a safe home for my kids.

It felt so selfish to leave – I wanted to continue supporting Syrian children but I also needed to keep my own daughters safe.  

My husband started looking for jobs abroad and was soon accepted at Datacom in New Zealand. Not everyone is so fortunate. As I said goodbye to my mum and brothers, suddenly my family seemed very small. My daughters asked me if they would ever see their friends again. I didn’t have an answer.

It took a while to adjust to life in New Zealand. Although I wasn’t a refugee, I had all the feelings of being forced to flee my home. My daughters were nervous about starting school in New Zealand, but they threw themselves into learning English and before long my oldest daughter won a speech competition. She told me it was like winning an Olympic medal!

I want my daughters to be proud of who they are. I want them to embrace this peaceful country but also stay connected to their Syrian culture as well.

When we moved to New Zealand, my daughters were so surprised by the weather.

They kept asking me “When is winter going to come?” They remember the bitterly cold Syrian winters and struggling to stay warm. They worry about their elderly Grandmother still in Damascus and all the children still trapped in this horrific war.

When someone says “We feel your agony, we feel your pain and we want to do something to make it better for you”, it’s so powerful. It’s a feeling that warms your insides and gives you hope that one day you will be able to stand on your feet again.

When you support Syrian children, it’s not just a gift of a blanket or a winter coat. It’s telling them that someone cares, especially if it’s from someone who lives far, far away.

When the world you know is being destroyed, a tiny gesture like that is all it takes to know that you are not alone.

To help UNICEF keep a Syrian child in warm this winter, please donate here