These are the words I can't ever forget: 'You all care more if your cat dies than what they did to my son'.

For two hours I sat on the thin mattress on the rough concrete floor of a small, windowless shed a Lebanese farmer had offered the family as refuge, listening to Em Ayman's harrowing story of the killing of her youngest son in Aleppo, Syria. I wasn't meant to cry.

For nearly two years I had been working for an international aid agency, being sent between different humanitarian crises. I spent much of this time working with Syrian refugees on the Jordanian and Lebanese borders.

I met thousands of people and documented how their lives had been destroyed for reasons out of their control. My role was to give voice to these people, who were often reduced to numbers and labels, to make sure their needs, their humanity was not forgotten.


Em Ayman said her youngest, Ahmed, 24, had refused to leave Aleppo, despite all her older children fleeing across the border to Lebanon. He loved his home, and she couldn't bring herself to leave him there alone.

One morning she sent him off to buy them food for dinner and he never came back.

Every day after he went missing she walked the same route to the market asking after him and was finally told he was shot by a sniper and captured alive. But a month after he went missing she learned they had locked her boy in a fridge.

She had the photograph on a mobile phone that was handed to me. I really didn't want to raise my eyes to the image, but I had to in respect. There he was, frozen, folded up in a fridge, crouched with his arms wrapped around his knees.

Em Ayman told me how after losing Ahmed, she can no longer show love for her other children; her grandchildren no longer bring her joy. They now all sleep together, in a dark farm shed with no idea when they will be moved on. By this point, she has had enough of talking to me. She goes outside and tends to the six rose bushes around the side of the shed. Her last words to me were to tell me how beautiful her garden had been at home.

I often wished I was one of the handy humanitarian water engineers who could drill down into the parched land of the camps to provide fresh, safe water for drinking and washing. Instead, I sit and listen and share people's stories. Sometimes it just doesn't feel as useful. But the recent impact of the photograph of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan's lifeless body on a Turkish beach, reminded me of the power of telling a person's story.

The western world responded to the tragic image that flashed across our screens. But Aylan's image is long gone from the media coverage, so too are the over-crowded boats and long lines of refugees fleeing for safety to Europe. ISIS has taken their spot in the limelight.

The attacks made me sick to the stomach imagining the pain caused to so many families and loved ones of the victims - maybe especially because I've heard so many stories of anguish from people whose loved ones have been slaughtered.

But the years I have spent hearing these stories also tell me something else.

It tells me that turning back refugees who are themselves fleeing from the same sort of violent extremism we saw in Paris would not only be morally wrong, it would be a tragic victory for the terrorists.

I'm incredibly uncomfortable with the reaction, particularly in the United States, where there are calls for a lockout of the Syrian families who have fled for safety.

Instead, what should be taken from this heinous act is a sharper awareness and understanding of the horror millions of Syrian and Iraqis have been enduring - not only from ISIS, but also at the hands of the very governments that are meant to protect them.

This is why they have risked their lives to find safety. Instead of shutting the doors in their faces, we should be opening them wider - to take any other approach would be to let ISIS win. It is the very ideals of our societies that they detest and want to destroy, and for that reason we must fight to uphold our ideals even more.

Although the New Zealand Government responded to the call to increase our refugee quota recently with a small temporary increase, our generosity in welcoming refugees is ranked at an embarrassingly low 90th in the world.

We can do more and we must do more; it is not about having enough resources, it is about choosing where those resources are spent. The outpouring across this country offering to support the new families when they arrive shows that kiwis can and want to welcome refugees.

Em Ayman and her family deserve to live in a house, just as they used to; they deserve the opportunity to rebuild their businesses; their children deserve to go to school everyday, just as they used to. Em Ayman deserves to have a garden full of roses. Like us she deserves to have that joy and hope in her life.

Janna Hamilton is a New Zealander who worked for Oxfam in the Middle East and Africa, largely with Syrian refugees on the Jordanian and Lebanese borders.