Syrian refugees become volunteers within a month of arriving in Australia

Syrian refugees become volunteers within a month of arriving in Australia


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Johnny and Carol Bilouna. Photo: Adam McLean

Johnny and Carol Bilouna. Photo: Adam McLean

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"It's a way of saying thank you."

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Less than a year after arriving in Australia, with their bullet-riddled Aleppo home a fading memory, Johnny and Carol Bilouna pulled on matching orange jumpsuits and prepared to help patch a stranger’s roof somewhere in the peaceful, if storm-damaged, Illawarra.

Life in Syria’s largest city had been good. The couple had lots of friends and family living nearby, two prosperous businesses to run, two young children and their own apartment. 

When the war came near to their doorstep in July, 2012, they didn’t want to leave at first. 

Then the road to the airport closed and it seemed there was no way out.

For four months they stayed, teaching Wendy - then five – and Joseph, nine, to hit the floor whenever bullets sounded.

The family spent a full month sleeping on the floor when the shootings intensified. They stopped sending the children to school for fear of attacks and fretted at the bullet holes that had pierced their bedroom wall. 

It was in the pre-dawn that an Islamic opposition group came to their street and began an indiscriminate, senseless shooting spree. 

When Mrs Bilouna looked outside, she saw a ute with a black jihadist flag mounted in the back. The shooting would endure for six hours. 

“We were sleeping, but we woke up because of the sound of shooting,” Mrs Bilouna said.

“It was terrifying.” 

The family fled to Lebanon then, two years later, were granted entry to Australia, settling in an apartment in Wollongong.

They were in Lebanon when they learnt their old home had been destroyed by a handmade explosive. 

“It is bad, all our memories …” Mrs Bilouna said.

“But we keep looking at the positive side. We try not to be sad.

“I was happy because I wanted to go somewhere to give my children a better life. This is why we applied for Australia.” 

The couple joined the State Emergency Service (SES) within a month of arriving in Australia, and have since undergone training in land searches, floods and bushfires.

They have helped to fix three storm damaged roofs for people who have what they now do not – a home of their own.

Mrs Bilouna said the volunteer work was a way of meeting people and giving something back.

“It’s a way of saying thank you to the government maybe,” she said. 

“It’s a good way to be involved with Australian people, to be part of Australia and also for Australia by itself – we’re doing something.

Illawarra Mercury

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