Imagine for a moment that the walls of your home have begun to shake. You hear the sounds of thudding and booms growing closer, but you can’t place what it is. You’ve never heard it before.

You rush outside, but instead of the fresh Kiwi air we all cherish - it’s thick, black, and blinding. You’ve never seen it before.

Heart pounding and gasping for air, you try to move forward, but nothing is where you thought it was – the footpath has been ripped from the Earth. 

It’s no longer safe; rockets, bombs and planes are the new normal. And there’s no place left to hide.

What would you do? Where would you go? Would you run? Or stay, and hope to survive?

Tragedy and trauma in Syria

March 2021 marked 10 years since the Syrian conflict first began, triggering more than a quarter of Syria’s population to flee the bombs and bullets, to escape across borders, and for countless more to be displaced inside their own country. It has been devastatingly brutal for civilians who’ve faced unspeakable violence and a desperate and ongoing need for humanitarian assistance. 

Nisrine Zarzar, her then 7-year-old son Kasem and 2-year old son Mohammad, are one of those families who have made it here – arriving in Dunedin in 2017, years after a horrific tragedy that had cruelly ripped their world apart. 

Nisrine remembers it as a day that began like many others – one where she was busy preparing food for her family, until suddenly she heard the deafening sounds of an explosion.

Rushing outside to look for her children and husband, she first found Kasem, lying on the ground with his right leg detached and one of his arms left hanging by a thread of skin. Nisrine recalls, “I picked up Kasem, his leg and his arm, and we started running. I couldn’t see my husband, my daughters, or anything but Kasem. I could only think about getting him to the hospital and hoping that my husband and other children were hiding somewhere.”

Arriving at the emergency department alongside hundreds of others seriously injured, Kasem was lucky to be brought in immediately, where surgeons began operating on his arm and his leg, telling Nisrine it could take multiple surgeries to save him.

Left alone to anxiously await the news of his survival, Nisrine, who was six months pregnant at the time with Mohammad, began to gravely fear for the safety of her three other children and husband.

She still had no idea if they were alive.

A frantic search

Frantically, she began asking everyone around her if they would help her look for them. “I remember thinking, maybe they were hiding somewhere, maybe they’d gone somewhere,” explains Nisrine. "But then a man arrived carrying my deceased daughter. She was two years old," says Nisine. 

"After that, another car came, carrying many more dead bodies. I removed the cover, saw my second son and just dropped to the ground. I still have no idea what happened to my husband or other daughter - but they all died."

Thankfully, Kasem was spared. After 17 surgeries, his arm was saved, but he would have to learn to live without a leg for the rest of his life. 

Nisrine quickly realised that she had no choice if she wanted to keep him and her unborn child safe. As soon as Kasem recovered, the three of them escaped across the border to Lebanon where they applied for protection as refugees under the United Nations Refugee Quota Programme, and following years of ongoing uncertainty, were finally given a new home in 2017 - Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Nisrine, Kasem and Mohammad outside their home in Dunedin. 

Finding refuge

Despite the horror and unimaginable loss Nisrine, Kasem and Mohammad have gone through, they’ve found a new home in Dunedin and are rebuilding their lives one day a time. “The whole of Dunedin is a beautiful, safe place,” says Nisrine with a contagious smile. From fishing off the wharf, to going to the park, riding bikes or horse riding, Kasem and Mohammad, along with their Mum, are making the most of their new Kiwi lives.

For this, I know Nisrine is incredibly grateful to the Red Cross Refugee Settlement team who have done so much to help her family settle in Dunedin - a team who works tirelessly to connect families to their new community for this reason.

Whether it be helping to set up their new home, introducing them to their neighbours, or assisting them with day-to-day necessities like navigating public transport, booking medical appointments, managing bank accounts, or enrolling children in school, they play a crucial role in helping families like the Zarzars make it through the first critical year of resettlement. 

"At the beginning I was feeling so 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 Nisine. 

For all the other women struggling to make Aotearoa their new home, whatever their circumstance, Nisrine has one message: "Don't give up. You must work very hard for what you want."

Watch 'Being me: Kasem' below - a beautiful documentary made by Attitude about Kasem, Nisrine and Mohammad's journey to New Zealand.