Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Syrian hopes rest of family can join him

Mohammed Alqoq with his children (from left) Omar, 3, Alma, 9, and Naser, 8, will settle in Wellington. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Mohammed Alqoq with his children (from left) Omar, 3, Alma, 9, and Naser, 8, will settle in Wellington. Photo / Jason Oxenham

New Zealand's newest refugees want to bring their relatives to join them in a place that feels like "heaven on Earth".

Mohammed Ghiath Alqaq, 36, and his three children took their first look at Auckland on Friday after arriving at the Mangere refugee centre on January 7 in the first batch of an extra 600 Syrian refugees due in the next two-and-a-half years.

As the children ran to climb on plastic figures erected in the Auckland Domain for Chinese New Year, Mr Alqaq said it was purely "a matter of luck" that NZ Immigration officials interviewed him and not his three brothers or his sister and their families who also fled to Lebanon.

"Their situation was as bad as mine, if not worse," he said. "I had heard a little bit about New Zealand, but when I came and actually saw it I thought it was heaven on Earth. I would really appreciate it if I could get my brothers and sisters in here."

The United Nations puts the present Syrian refugee tally at 4.6 million, mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Tomorrow, Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne will host an all-day forum at Parliament organised by groups asking the Government to boost New Zealand's annual refugee quota in a three-yearly review that will go to Cabinet in the next month.

The quota was reduced from 800 to 750 a year in 1997 and has not changed since then.

In 2014, New Zealand actually received 737 refugees under the quota, or 169 for every million New Zealanders - a ratio only a third of Australia's world-leading quota of 516 refugees for every million people.

Moreover, most refugees arrive in other countries as informal asylum-seekers. When those nations are included, Lebanon took in proportionately more refugees than any other country in 2014 (73,325 for every million people), with Australia ranked 28th (609 people per million) and New Zealand 43rd (198).

God help those who do not have money.
Mohammed Alqaq

NZ Red Cross secretary-general Tony Paine said the refugee crisis was "the historical issue of the age" and New Zealand should play its part.

He said the Red Cross, which trains volunteers to support new refugees, recruited more volunteers in a single weekend last September, when the media published photos of a 3-year-old Syrian boy washed up dead on a Turkish beach, than it normally gets in a year.

"We are confident that we have the resources and we have the systems in place that can help people settle in New Zealand successfully," he said.

In Syria, Mr Alqaq and his extended family ran a bakery before the Syrian Government started a crackdown on opposition protesters in their city, Homs, in 2011.

His family paid someone to help them escape to Lebanon, and paid someone in Lebanon to act as their sponsor, allowing the children to go to school.

"God help those who do not have money," he said.

His daughter Alma, 9, said the biggest change when she came to New Zealand was that there was "no killing here".

She had to leave her toys behind when the family fled from Syria and she hopes that when the family settle in Wellington on February 26, she may get some toys and a bike.

"In Homs she had a little bicycle," her father said. "Since then she hasn't had any. Now she's looking for a bicycle and a scooter as well."

- NZ Herald

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