The call came last January when Tammam Tamim was at home with his family.

"Congratulations, you are going to be resettled in New Zealand," said a worker of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.

Tamim arrived in Bangkok two years ago after fleeing the war in Syria. Since then he and his 17 relatives were virtual prisoners in a 65sq m apartment, too terrified to go outside for food or medical treatment. The family remained hidden on expired visas, hoping for resettlement.

"When I knew I would be a New Zealand citizen, and not a refugee, I felt for the first time in my life a human being. Upon receiving the news, I cried. We all cried," says Tamim, 38.


Tamim, his wife and two sons, his four brothers and their families, and his parents have been in the Mangere refugee centre for a month, spread across several of the new two-storeyed brick blocks that have replaced the centre's old wooden barracks this year.

"They didn't put us all in one building. We are in here with another family from a different nationality so that we learn to meet different people," Tamim says.

The whole family will be settled in Palmerston North on October 14.

Their long refugee history started almost seven decades ago when Tamim's grandparents fled Palestine when the state of Israel was created in 1948. Tamim's father Mohammed, now 66, was a few months old when his parents settled in Syria.

Ever since, the family has been stateless. They don't hold passports, only travel documents.

"I had no right to vote," Mohammed says. "For the first time I feel free, I have never felt free before." Nevertheless, Tamim was able to live a comfortable life in Syria for many years.

"I studied law and business administration. I had money, farms and cars," he says.

He met his wife, Abeer, working for a Canadian company and they had a son, Mohammed.


That life was turned upside down when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011. The conflict has left more than 300,000 dead.

Made refugees a second time, Tamim's family fled to Thailand.

"We went to many embassies, including those of the Arab countries, but they did not accept us. Only the Thai embassy provided us with a visa," Tamim explains.

Thailand gave the family a one-year visa, but then its attitude to refugees soured. A few days after a blast at Bangkok's Erawan Shrine in August last year, Tamim and 20 other Palestinian refugees were arrested.

The women and children were fined and released. The seven men were sent to court and held at the Immigration Detention Centre, where they slept on the floor for 12 days in an overcrowded cell with little ventilation.

"They sometimes gave us pork [forbidden to Muslims] to eat," says Tamim. "In my cell there were two elderly people and three small children from Afghanistan. They were aged 3, 4 and 9 and they didn't stop crying." In Thailand, UNHCR says there are around 106,000 refugees from Burma in nine border camps, plus another 2000 refugees and 6000 asylum-seekers from 50 countries.

Most urban refugees remain hidden in the slums of the capital. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign estimates there were about 350 Palestinians who fled the war in Syria in Bangkok last year, and 30 have still not been resettled. Others have gone to Canada, the United States, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

Tamim kept his family alive by doing small illegal jobs at home to supplement UNHCR aid and small donations from associations and individuals.

In Palmerston North, Tamim hopes to find useful, legal work again.

"We are looking for anything that helps this country - what this country needs, we will do it," he says.

"We are not coming here just to have money from the Government. All of us here are educated. We want to do the best for this country and for ourselves."

His wife Abeer, 35, also studied business administration and wants to start her own business. "I want to have a beauty salon," she says.

Their son Mohammed, 12, has missed almost five years of school. Thai law allows all children access to schools, but in practice, access is limited for those who have no nationality and do not speak the language.

Abeer gave birth to another son in Bangkok, Hamza, now 20 months old.

- Additional reporting: Simon Collins