Photo: SYRIA FREEDOM

Sarina's pledge: 'I'll be in Australia praying for Aleppo'

Justice

She thought she was going to die. Sarina Mouzenian was sitting in a café in Aleppo with her sisters, too busy chatting to hear the TV when guns started firing and people started screaming and fleeing – the bodies were dropping to the floor.

"I was in shock. I'm not sure what I was thinking at that time, but [something like] 'this is the end of my life. I'm dying today'. It was really terrible, one second you're really happy and the other you hear people screaming and … explosions happening," says Sarina, then 13, of that day.

In the mayhem that followed, she and her sisters saw their bus driver shot in the head, as they struggled for five hours to find a way back to the relative safety of their family home.

When the civil war came to Sarina's home town in 2012, it was Syria's most populous city, with a UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old City. Four years of grinding conflict later, the UN estimated 60 per cent of the Old City had been severely damaged, with 30 per cent totally destroyed. Of an estimated 350,000 to 500,000 Syrians said to have died in the civil war, up to 10 per cent died in Aleppo.

What is Aleppo? The roots of my soul. The source of my blood flow. The heartache I retain, sheltered in sorrow
- excerpt from "What is Aleppo"
by Sarina Mouzenian

As Aleppo descended into a war zone, so began a refugee journey for Sarina and her family: from Syria, her birthplace; to Armenia, the land of her ancestors; through Turkey to Lebanon; and finally, to Australia where she has lived for the past two years.

Sarina is one of the 12,000 displaced Syrians and Iraqis granted visas to Australia under a special humanitarian intake announced by the then Abbott government in response to the escalating horror of the Syrian civil war. All are now residing here.

Sarina Mouzenian, right, with her sisters after the family fled to Lebanon.Photo: SUPPLIED

Sarina spoke to Newsworthy in English, admitting she does not speak a word of Arabic, only English and Armenian, despite the status of Arabic as Syria's only official language.

"I was at an Armenian school in Syria and they never teach Arabic, only English [and Armenian]. Everyone gets surprised when I say that … I couldn't speak, I just used to take a piece of paper to the shops, my mum used to write it [down]," she recalls.

Sarina's family, who are Armenian Apostolic Christians, did not set out to leave Syria permanently. Initially, they travelled to Armenia for a respite vacation with extended family to escape the violence, but once there, were convinced by relatives not to return.

After a year in Armenia, they were on the move again, hitchhiking across the snowy Turkish border to catch a bus to Istanbul. From there, they bought the cheapest plane tickets to Beirut, where they remained for four years.

"It was terrible to leave [Syria] without knowing that I'm going to go back … I haven't been home for seven years now, so sometimes I do get homesick." she says.

The smell of the spices in the souk of the city and my unstoppable sneezing, walking through its alley.
The queen of our hearts, the Citadel of Aleppo
- excerpt from "What is Aleppo"

Now 20, and living in Liverpool, in Sydney's west, she completed her Higher School Certificate at Miller Technology High School in 2018 and aspires to become a paramedic. "I [hadn't] been in high school for like four years. You know in Lebanon, they're a bit racist. When we told them that I'm Syrian, they were like 'no'… I went to school illegally for a year and a half, and it was an Armenian school."

Sarina quit the school as she was not allowed to take official government exams and says she was being charged double the usual fees. She found work in a café during the day and as a bartender at night.

She expected to remain in limbo in Beirut, which in better times, had been only a five-and-a-half-hour drive from her family home in Aleppo. Then came the invitation from Australia: her family had been sponsored for refugee visas by an aunt living in Sydney.

"I had no idea about Australia. My head was blank … I just knew about the Harbour Bridge, nothing more."

"I wouldn't think of coming here as a refugee, because as a kid all I dreamed about was travelling and studying and knowing that I have a home to go back to, Syria," she says.

Sarina, right, and her sister take part in the Sydney Colour Run.PHOT0: SUPPLIED

From half a world away, she misses her homeland, but Sarina says she has had positive experiences in settling into Australia: she camped out near the Opera House on New Year's Eve to see the fireworks, she braved the 'slingshot' ride at the Easter Show and she faced her fears by telling her story in public, to her peers at a school prefect assembly and in a public performance of her poetry.

"I'm pretty sure there were like 600 students and it was my very first time facing my fears … I was just shaking; it was a big joy," says Sarina.

The fear of facing her peers pales beside the residual anguish her memories stir of surviving a civil war. In that, her love of poetry has helped. She writes of love, loss and about her home as a coping mechanism, and to reflect on her experiences as a refugee.

Initially, she says, "I was just writing and writing and I never told anyone anything about it". Then, in 2017, she read two poems in "Suitcase Stories", a series of personal stories of the refugee experience, performed at Sydney's Seymour Centre.

"It was a big relief," she says, of performing her poetry, "because when I write I keep it inside me and decided not to talk to anyone when I have problems, so it felt like I'm just yelling out my problems when I read out loud".

I'll be in Australia praying for Aleppo, Letting the pain take my breath away. You'll be the Chemical splash on my eyelids, taking my flesh away.
- excerpt from "What is Aleppo"