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Behind Nisrine’s beautifully colour-coordinated pink hijab and top, complemented by matching makeup, is a woman with an incredible strength and resilience.
8 August 2014 is a day Nisrine will never forget. It was the holy celebration of Ramadan, marked by millions of Muslims around the world. It was also on that day that her own world was cruelly ripped apart.
Nisrine, who was six-months pregnant with Mohammad at the time, was in the kitchen at home preparing fasting food, like most people in Syria, when her cooking was interrupted by the sound of a violent explosion.
Nisrine ran outside to look for her children and her husband. That’s where she found her son, Kasem, lying on the ground with his right leg cut off and his arm barely attached to his body.
“I carried Kasem, I took his leg and his arm, then told my nephew to hold onto my hand and we started running,” explains Nisrine, through the help of an interpreter.
Nisrine took Kasem to the emergency department, where surgeons operated 17 times on him. They were unable to salvage his right leg, but his arm was saved.
As Nisrine waited anxiously for the doctor to save Kasem’s life, she looked for her three other children and husband.
“One guy came, carrying my [deceased] small daughter. She was two years old,” recalls Nisrine.
“Then, a car came, carrying many more dead bodies. I removed the cover and saw my second son and his stomach opened. At that time, I fell down. I had no idea what had happened to my husband or my second daughter – but they all died.”
Nisrine didn’t choose to flee Syria – she had no other option if she wanted to keep Kasem and her unborn child safe. Once Kasem recovered, they crossed the border to Lebanon where she applied through the United Nations for protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Because of Kasem’s disability, the offer for resettlement in New Zealand came relatively quickly – two years later.
Nisrine, Kasem and Mohammad arrived in Dunedin in 2017. While the Zarzar family was finally safe, starting a new life in Aotearoa came with challenges.
“Moving to Dunedin was a safer place, but actually leaving my country wasn’t easy for me. At the beginning, I was feeling alone. I used to cry every day for almost two months, but later on, I found everybody around me supported me, especially Red Cross,” explains Nisrine.
For some families, it can take some time to feel comfortable in their new country. Families may have trauma, grief or loss which won’t just go away as soon as they arrive. Settling in, adapting to a new way of life, learning a new language and being away from family all takes a lot of work and a good dose of courage.
“In the beginning, Kasem was very supportive of me, saying: ‘Mum, don’t worry, I will be strong. If one leg has gone missing, I still have the other one’,” shares Nisrine.
Today, the Zarzar family is rebuilding their lives in Dunedin, one day at a time. From fishing off the wharf, to going to the park or going horse riding, Kasem and Mohammad, along with their mother, are making the most of their new Kiwi lives.
“The whole of Dunedin is a beautiful place and it’s nice and safe,” says Nisrine with a contagious smile.
Nisrine is a tenacious woman with grace, and her courage and perspective on life is an inspiration to many. Nisrine has found a way to rebuild her life, despite the horror she has experienced, and her resilience is one many of us can learn from.
For all the other women struggling to make Aotearoa their new home, whatever their circumstance, Nisrine has one message:
“Don’t give up. The future will cover everything for you. You must work very hard to achieve what you want.”.
Watch below 'Being me: Kasem' - a beautiful documentary made by Attitude about Kasem's life.