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30 Jan 2014


Refugee boy battles war trauma on first day of school

Like most children, Noran Zahrooni was terrified of starting school today.

But it wasn’t teachers or lessons that had him anxious.

The six-year-old and his family arrived in Australia late last year after fleeing war-torn Syria.

Father Farhan Zahrooni told SBS his son was traumatised by the conflict and struggled to understand he was now safe.

“In Syria they usually targeted schools, so he thinks that if he goes to school he will be in danger and no one will save him,” Mr Zahrooni said through a translator.

Originally from Iraq, Mr Zahrooni and his wife, Ebtisam Al-Zuhairi, fled to Syria seven years ago after the family was targeted as members of the minority religious group, the Mandeans, in violent attacks.

“My wife was alone at home with the kids, and she was beaten and assaulted,” Mr Zahrooni said of one incident.

Shortly before they escaped, Mrs Al-Zuhairi’s brother was kidnapped and shot.

“We found him dead in the street,” Mr Zahrooni said.

But escaping to Syria provided only short-term relief from violence.

“The first three years were OK but after the war started, the situation became worse,” Mr Zahrooni said.

The family’s house was twice the target of attacks, and in one event Mr Zahrooni and his young son were crushed by a window that fell during an explosion.

After a number of unsuccessful applications for refugee status, the family were finally able to move to Australia in December 2013 after being recognised as genuine refugees.

The couple have four sons ranging in age from six to 17 – and son Raghdan, 16, said the older boys had not been in school for at least four years due to the conflict.

Yamamah Agha, a service delivery manager with Settlement Services International, told SBS that refugee children commonly struggled with “trauma, loss of family, fear of war, fear of strangers and an inability to cope and focus”.

But she said NSW had good systems in place to help with the transition.

“Our experience with schools, with a large number of multicultural students, [is that] they do have extra help for them,” she said. “They’re usually welcoming, they’re very supportive.”

Raghdan and brothers Arduan, 14, and Saman, 17, start school tomorrow and are excited to get straight into an intensive English-learning program.

 “The main thing is to learn English so I can gain confidence,” Raghdan said.

And they have a lot to look forward to if brother Noran’s first day is anything to go by.

Parents Farhan and Ebtisam said that despite his fears, their son’s first day at Marsden Road Public School – where he was registered and shown around – had gone off without a hitch.

“His experience today was really positive because he saw all the kids playing and smiling and he didn’t feel the danger around there,” Mr Zahrooni said.

“I can see how happy he is and this of course, as a mother, brings me happiness,” Mrs Al-Zuhairi added.

The couple hope it’s a sign of things to come.

“When I looked at his eyes and I see how happy he is wearing the uniform, I feel really happy and relaxed, Mr Zahrooni said.

“And I feel that everything will be beautiful.”

 Note: This story by Sylvia Varnham O’Regan first appeared on SBS News.


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