SSI News Blog

Yasmi, 101, escapes Syria to start again in western Sydney

Yasmi Houmi (centre)

Yasmi Houmi, 101 years old, from Iraq, has survived the Assyrian Genocide, World Wars I and II, the Iran-Iraq war, US and Allied Forces wars in Iraq, and the Syrian civil war, to arrive safely in Australia.

Having endured many conflicts across several countries, Yasmi was accepted as part of Australia’s humanitarian settlement program for refugees and brought to Sydney in January.

She now lives with long-time friends in western Sydney and is supported by Settlement Services International’s (SSI) Humanitarian Settlement program.

SSI CEO Violet Roumeliotis said Yasmi was a living treasure and her resettlement as a refugee in Australia after a lifetime of struggle is something all Australians would be proud of.

“Yasmi has survived too many conflicts for one person,” Ms Roumeliotis said, “but she has still managed to live a fruitful life and remain positive.” Yasmi is just one of the 2.5 million people who have fled Syria to escape the violent civil war, and she is one of 13,750 refugees who will resettle in Australia this year under the Humanitarian settlement program.  

“The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has described the Syrian conflict as the largest humanitarian operation in history, so, as a humanitarian organisation and as Australians, we are proud to support Yasmi and other refugees seeking a safe haven.

“The relative quickness that Yasmi was granted protection and brought to Sydney to be united with her family and friends who can care for her, is a testament to Australia’s successful humanitarian program and something we should all be proud of.”

Yasmi’s story begins in a small farming town on the border of Turkey and Iraq called Madia, where she was born on July 1, 1912.

“We used to grow a lot of rice,” Yasmi said with her friend Nada Shiba, who she now lives with, interpreting. “We did everything by hand.”

“We had cows and sheep. We took them in to the mountains to graze. We used to make butter, yogurt, and cheese. We even made our own bread. I was very happy.”

Yasmi married when she was 18 and lived with her husband in the town where she was born and raised. She had two children, a boy and a girl, and they lived in relative safety as the First World War passed.

Then, the series of conflicts broadly referred to as the Assyrian Genocide reached the region. In 1933, Yasmi and her family fled as Christian Assyrians were killed in towns around them. An estimated 750,000 Assyrians were killed in the genocide but Yasmi and her family were lucky.

Yasmi said her first marriage did not work out and her husband moved with her children to Syria. She remarried in 1941, as World War II reached the region, to a man who had two young children, a boy and a girl, who she raised as her own.

Years later, Yasmi moved to live with Aokil Yonan, another Assyrian woman whose brother had married her daughter. The pair would spend the next 35 years together.

The eight-year war between Iran and Iraq came and went. The second Iraq War reached Yasmi and she again feared for her life. After a bomb exploded outside their home, Yasmi and Aokil escaped to Syria in 2008.

“I was so scared,” she said. “I had no bad feelings about leaving.”

As the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, bombings again closed in on Yasmi and Aokil until one exploded in their street, destroying houses and shattering windows in their home.

Yasmi and Aokil applied together for humanitarian visas with the Australian Embassy in Jordan. But although both were accepted, they were separated for many months. Aokil, now 72, first arrived in Sydney in August last year, and moved in with her cousin Nada. Yasmi was finally brought to Sydney in January.

“I was so happy to be in Australia,” she said, “it is a place for all the needy, all the poor and hungry people.”

Now, as the Middle East lurches from crisis to crisis, Yasmi and Aokil can finally live in peace.  


- By Callan Lawrence 


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