6 Jul 2023

Family who fled war-torn Syria fear for safety following suspected arson, abuse

4:22 pm on 6 July 2023
Police are investigating after someone intentionally set a shed on fire in Dunedin.

Police are treating the shed fire as suspicious. Photo: Supplied

A family of Syrian refugees in Dunedin is living in such terror they have installed security cameras around their home following years of attacks and abuse.

The attacks have escalated with a shed just outside their home set alight on Monday evening in a suspected arson.

But the abuse goes back almost three years with rocks thrown through windows, eggs thrown at the house, the children being taunted and their mother accosted for wearing a hijab by a group of men.

"We're feeling unsafe," the father, who did not want to be identified, said through a neighbour who acted as a translator.

"I wasn't expecting anything like this to happen as I heard New Zealand was a safe country with lovely people, and I really felt that when I first came."

When the family fled war-torn Syria they hoped to leave a life of living in terror behind.

A Syrian family in Dunedin say rocks have been thrown through the window of their home.

The family say rocks have been thrown through windows. Photo: Supplied

"Since we arrived in New Zealand after leaving a country with war and lots of conflict, we felt safe here. But unfortunately when these things started to happen we started to feel uncomfortable, stressed and then it started to hurt our feelings by bringing up lots of memories from back home," he said.

"It's a bad situation. We don't want to live in a similar situation anymore."

But the recent attacks had shaken the family of seven.

"My wife was in the kitchen and she looked out the window and saw a fire in our shed and she told me. But because of my difficulty in speaking the language I rushed to the next door neighbours and requested them to call the fire engine and the police to come.

"Just a week before that there was a group of teenagers who came into my backyard, they chopped one of my security cameras off and the next day they lit the back fence on fire. If that fence caught on fire then the entire neighbourhood would be on fire too.

"Before Monday night, it was Sunday night I think, there was a person who came to my house and knocked on my door but because of the language barrier, I didn't know what he was after, but from his expression I could tell he was angry, then he raised his middle finger at me and swore at me then left."

A Syrian family in Dunedin says eggs have been thrown at their home.

Eggs have been found thrown at the house. Photo: Supplied

For six years, Dunedin had been their home and they did not want to leave their house in Mosgiel. But they did want to feel safe.

"The top priority for me is I want my kids, my family to live safe. That's the priority for me," the father said.

The neighbour, who also wished to remain anonymous, said the family had made at least a dozen reports to police about various incidents, but the problem continued and seemed to be getting worse.

Dunedin Mayor Jules Radich said he was very saddened to hear of "such completely unacceptable behaviour" in the community.

"The behaviour flies in the face of the values of hospitality, equality and inclusion which our community hold so dear. It simply won't be tolerated," Radich said.

Dunedin Mayor Elect Jules Radich

Dunedin Mayor Jules Radich Photo: RNZ / Tim Brown

"As much as I am appalled by the behaviour, I am proud of the large number of people in the community who have already rallied behind the family and shown their solidarity with them."

On Thursday, community development staff visited the family to offer support to them, as well as to the wider community, Radich said.

"We are working closely alongside relevant agencies to discuss and action what can be done to enhance the safety of the family and the wider neighbourhood," he said.

"We encourage any residents who can to donate to the Givealittle campaign set up by the community to support the family and stamp out racism."

Family friend Nat Sinclair, who used to live nearby, said she believed the family was being targeted before of their race, religion and language barrier.

"It makes me feel disgusted that there are people who would attack people in our community. I've got six kids of my own and I've got step-kids and I've got friends with kids ... and I want them to be able to go to the park safe as well, not hiding in their home like this family."

The family was being let down by authorities and the country after it promised to provide them a safe place to raise their children, Sinclair said.

"They've reached out to lots of different places for support. They've had people come around like police and Housing New Zealand and other agencies involved but it's gone nowhere. There's just been another attack happen, ring them again, another attack and then nothing from that."

Sinclair said it was heartbreaking seeing the family so frightened they were all alert to the security cameras.

"At night time it will beep and all of them, including their 4-year-old, will turn their heads and look at the camera to see if there's someone or something in their yard."

The family were living in terror, she said.

The community was planning an event to show its support for the family on Saturday 15 July.

They would gather in Murray Street, Mosgiel, to share kai and show how many had the family's backs.

Radich said the council was working with the community to see how it could support the event.

Officers investigating an arson at a home on Murray Street in Mosgiel would like to identify the man pictured. The man was seen entering the property two evenings prior to the arson, at around 12.50am on 2 July.

Police released an image of the arson suspect. Photo: SUPPLIED / NZ Police

Police had released an image of a man at the family's home early on Sunday morning.

A spokesperson said they were treating Monday's fire as suspicious and officers were investigating.

"If you can help, please get pn touch via our 105 phone service or online using Update My Report. Please reference file number 230704/6175.

"Alternatively information can be provided anonymously via Crime Stoppers on 0800 555 111."