Former refugee Mohammad – from Syria to New Zealand

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We are grateful to ELPNZ’s new Ethnic Advisory Group member, and former English for Employees learner, Mohammad Hilal, for sharing his story of struggle and success with us.

My name is Mohammad Hilal. I’m from Syria and I was a teacher. I want to tell you about how I came to leave my beloved country back in 2012 and about my journey as a refugee.

My wife Fatima and I decided to flee our city when bombing started in 2012. My house was one of the first to be bombed and half of it was completely destroyed. My wife and I took our two children, then aged 1 and 2 years and escaped for our lives with only the clothes we were wearing.  We walked for about 5 km – through our completely bombed out neighbourhood – to get to safety at my father’s house, where we stayed for a week.

We couldn’t stay there long because he had about 100 people sheltering at his house, most of them relatives – my 10 brothers and sisters, their children and my aunts and uncles.

Former refugee Mohammad Hilal ai English Language Partners Wellington

Generations of my family have lived in Syria for thousands of years. My home city of Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in the world – its origins date back to the 6th century BC!  Some of you will have seen tragic and devastating destruction of my city over the last seven years. 80% of Aleppo has been destroyed in the war, there is no power, very little drinking water and most of our basic infrastructure, like hospitals and schools have been bombed. Before the war, Aleppo had a population of almost 5 million and was the largest city in Syria. Over 4 million people have now been displaced, and over 470,000 people have been killed.

We moved to Malaysia where we could go without a visa and registered with UNHCR to get refugee status. Then there was a long five-year wait until we learned we could come to New Zealand. In Malaysia there were no opportunities to get permanent residency or a passport. It was illegal for us to work, and there was no education available for the children. I was able to get a job teaching in an Arabic school but it was pretty much ‘under the radar’. We found a small flat we could share with another family – with just one room for each family. My wife got a job with very little pay working at the refugee school.

In July 2016 we finally received the email we’d been waiting for, for so long, telling us we’d been accepted as refugees into New Zealand. I was so excited I didn’t sleep that night! A year later in July 2017 we finally arrived in Auckland and settled at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre for the next six weeks. We loved being there; there were five other Syrian families as well as people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Colombia, and Iraq.  Everyone was very friendly and there was a clinic, school, lovely teachers and a lot of lectures to educate us about the rules in NZ, our rights and duties and hundreds and hundreds of information about living in New Zealand. When I asked if I need (I.D) to go walking in Mangere I was told I didn’t need it – I was amazed!!!

We arrived in Wellington and set up our first New Zealand home in Kilbirnie. We even have a garden! And we sometimes spend a good time with my lovely neighbours. Now my children are settled at school in Lyall Bay, and my wife is studying at English Teaching College and I’m going to study a Masters of Software Development at Victoria University. I feel so comfortable with English Language Partners (ELP) because the relationship is so friendly with the staff. English language is the main key for a better future so I have worked hard since I arrived in New Zealand. I chose ELP because they provided an appropriate course called English for Employees in the evening. It was so useful and I have noticed an improvement in various English language skills. Especially the teacher was so helpful and skilful in teaching.

I appreciate the opportunity the New Zealand government has given to me and my family to settle in a safe life here.

I will not forget that New Zealand society has helped me so much since I came to Wellington. I have had an opportunity to study academic English for free and enrol as a postgraduate in software development. I hope to fully contribute to New Zealand by gaining a good qualification and full employment. Life here is not easy, like any place around the world I have to work hard to build a better future. My dream is to become an expert in software development. I hope that one day there will be no more refugees in the world. I am really happy to be here.

If you speak English as a second language, and want to improve your English skills for your workplace, talk to your nearest centre to join our English for Employees class.


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English for Employees

  • 2-4 hours per week (Up to 45-hour course, flexible hours)
  • For people with a job (full-time, part-time, casually/seasonally or self-employed)
  • Improve your workplace English
  • Qualified teachers
  • Small classes
  • For New Zealand citizens and residents
  • Free programme
  • In all centres
  • Find out more

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