Lilas and Basal now sleep soundly in their New Zealand beds, writes Simon Collins.

Syrian refugees Lilas and Basal Slik have been sleeping soundly this year for the first time in their lives.

Lilas, 5, still has a scar above her left eye where she was hit by a fragment of a bomb that killed her neighbour while she was playing outside in 2012.

Her little brother Basal, who is almost 4, fell asleep while his parents spoke to the Herald in the two-bedroom Mt Roskill state house that has been their home since January.

"This country makes them sleep," said their mother Aesna Alfuoal, 23.


Their home city of Douma, near Damascus, has been bombed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since war broke out between the regime and the Free Syrian Army in the city in January 2011. It is now besieged by the regime, shutting out food and other supplies.

Ms Alfuoal's brother, 27, is sometimes reduced to eating grass.

"Sometimes mowing the grass is something they eat," said her husband Muhanad Slik, 30. "There has been no electricity for two and a half years."

Mr Slik, a pastry chef, was beaten up by soldiers several times just "because I am from Douma, because Douma started the revolution very early".

The family fled in March 2013 to Egypt, where the elected President Mohamed Morsi welcomed Syrian refugees at the time. They received US$70 ($112) a month from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the first five months.

But then the funding stopped "because of finances". Morsi was toppled by a coup and the military regime now makes life a misery for the 100,000 Syrian refugees there.

Mr Slik earned only US$150 a month as a pastry chef and that was only enough to pay the rent on their Cairo flat, forcing him to sell assets to feed the family.

"I sold all my belongings in Syria. I sold my car, my wife's jewellery," he said.


Syrian refugees were barred from Egyptian schools. The two children had no education until they enrolled in the Roskill South Kindergarten after the family was finally accepted for resettlement here.

Mr Slik and Ms Alfuoal are also studying now as English students at AUT University.

They believe they are the only Syrian family that has settled in Auckland out of the 83 Syrians accepted under the refugee quota so far. Although nine Syrians have settled in Auckland and 74 in Wellington, the family believes the other five people in Auckland may be Palestinians or others who were living in Syria.

"I feel safe and the children feel they have a good living," Mr Slik said.

He is still getting treatment for "too much pressure in my head".

"Why he is sick is because he didn't see his brother or brother's son for the last three years," said Syrian community leader Abdul Elah. "He feels lonely here."

His mother has just arrived at the Mangere refugee centre, but his brother and Ms Alfuoal's parents and three sisters are still in Egypt.

Ms Alfuoal also has a sister in Turkey and another in Dubai, as well as her brother back in Douma. The couple would like to bring all of them to New Zealand.

"This is a dream for me," Ms Alfuoal said. "All of them, they hope to come."

Little housing available in Auckland

The country's housing crisis makes Wellington almost the Government's only option for housing an extra 750 Syrian refugees.

About half (2267) of the 4541 households waiting for social housing in June were in Auckland. Fifty households on the waiting list were living in cars and another 137 in garages, mostly in Auckland, according to data supplied to Labour MP Carmel Sepuloni.

Our second-biggest city, Christchurch, has been off the refugee resettlement list since its first earthquake in 2010.

So it was no surprise when Prime Minister John Key said the bulk of the extra refugees would go into Housing NZ homes in Wellington, partly because there were more homes available than in Auckland. Most (74) of the 83 Syrians accepted under the quota last year were in Wellington so there was already a community there.

"There is also a Syrian community in Auckland but obviously our housing resources are more stretched there," he said.

He said the Government would look at establishing another community somewhere else but in the short-term the refugees would need access to language and other services. However, Statistics NZ said 70 per cent (276) of the 393 Syrian-born residents at the 2013 census lived in Auckland. The rest lived mainly in Wellington (69), Otago (15), Canterbury (12) and the Waikato (9).

Auckland community leader Abdul Elah said some of those placed in Wellington were "suffering".

For example, the only family placed in Upper Hutt comprised an elderly widow, her daughter, whose husband was killed in the Syrian war, and the daughter's children. None of them spoke any English.

"They are suffering," he said. "I'd prefer to put them here, we can look after them. I think they should study each family's situation. If the family speaks English, put them in Wellington. If they don't have English, no man, and no one who can drive a car, they need support, because mainly in our country the man is looking after the family."

Mike Hosking: Was the decision to take refugees humanitarian or political?

The only other active refugee programmes are in the Waikato, Manawatu and Nelson. Refugee Council chairman Dr Arif Saeid said Nelson was a standout success where "almost everyone" found work in fishing or fruit picking. He said it would be logical to open a programme in another area with similar jobs, such as Tauranga or Hawkes Bay.

But that will also depend on housing. Tauranga and Western Bay of Plenty had proportionately bigger waiting lists (10.8 for every 100 state houses) than Auckland (7.4) in June, but waiting lists in Napier and Hastings are lower (5.7 for every 100 houses).

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