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When you are living a nightmare

When Shireen married Farhud she thought she had found a kind and loving man, but life for her and her two children quickly spiralled into a nightmare.

"I couldn't trust anybody. But here, Red Cross was for me like a United Nations: it was a place I could feel safe," Shireen says.

Farhud told Shireen she was the second half of his heart: the words of a poet perhaps. She thought she had found a good, kind and loving man.

"He was charming. We were a single mother and a single father - with kids. Many things were common between us; I got married to him because he showed his very good person."

But it turned out Farhud was a different kind of man: one with a fondness not for sweet words but for abuse and violence.

"One month after marriage he start. I was waiting every single day, every single moment for something to happen. (He said) 'You're very lucky you are here. If we were back in our homeland I knew what we should do: I was just going to cut your throat'.

"He is the type of man that nobody knows what's inside him," says Shireen. Her children, and even Farhud's own children, were not safe from his anger or his fists. "He said 'You raise your kids like a chicken, they should be raised like a man'."

Life spiralled into a nightmare that she will never forget.

Nor will she forget the hope, support and means to escape that Red Cross gave her.

Alone with nowhere to turn

After fleeing unrest in the Middle East, Shireen immigrated to North America and had been living there for almost a decade. Farhud, who was also born in the Middle East, strode into Shireen's life at a social gathering while she was visiting family in Australia.

"I was on bridging visa; he took advantage of this - as a weapon against me. I wasn't a wife, I wasn't a woman, I wasn't a mother anymore. I was just a full-time waitress for him, like a slave."

Shireen, whose first husband had died shortly after they fled the Middle East, thought no one could help her because of her visa status. Nor could she turn to the family she had come so far to visit: a rift had severed those ties. She was alone and didn't know where to turn. "Police is for emergency, and this was a family matter: it happens behind the door, at home. I couldn't recognise this was crime at the beginning."

But after less than 12 harrowing months of marriage, when Farhud kicked Shireen and her sons out of home once again, she decided she couldn't take it any longer. "He kicked us out in early morning. My children were asleep that time: I woke them up and helped them to put on their clothes, with their bags, and we just left - with nothing."

She was the only hope her children had, and she had to try to make things right. "I remember it was heavy raining that day and we came to the police station. I was scared to tell the name or the things, or the address or anything. I just said 'I came for some support, help'."

Finding shelter and support

For Shireen, that visit lit up the dark tunnel her life had become and she found support she didn't know existed: counsellors, legal aid, government agencies and Red Cross. "I started to go to the psychologist, my kids too. The psychologist said, 'You are depressed and anxiety is killing you. You can not survive in this environment'."

When Shireen finally escaped from Farhud, through Red Cross she was able to access a very small income, along with support and advice. "I had a shelter, a place to live in the refuge. I had some income from Red Cross, my kids could go to school and I had my medical care. It was fantastic for me, getting independence from him."

Shireen knew she could have left Australia to go back to North America where she is a citizen: "But I thought that this was not fair. I have to face the situation and solve it. If I always escape, my kids will learn escape."

Shireen is one of thousands of people who have so far been helped by Red Cross' emergency relief program. It provides one-off financial or material assistance to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants who are suffering financial hardship and are not eligible for any other support.

Funded by public donations and private grants-and partly by the Department of Social Services-the program has been running for 13 years. It works in collaboration with other community services, including government-funded programs, supporting people at risk of poverty, malnutrition and social isolation.

Forgetting the past

By the time Shireen escaped from Farhud, her trust in the world was in tiny pieces. "I couldn't trust anybody. But here, Red Cross was for me like a United Nations: it was a place I could feel safe.

I could say whatever I think, and I am not going to be in any danger."

Life now is a vastly different entity for Shireen and her sons. "It takes time for us to get better. I have to forget about the past. If I compare to the past, lots of peace (now). Not everything is on the road yet, but I feel I am safe. I have a stable life in Australia."

She hopes her story will show others that there is help, even in the darkest of times. "Anybody coming to this country should know, even if they don't speak the language, they have rights and can get help. I hope that what happened to me never happens to anybody (else)."

Shireen will always be grateful for Red Cross' support. "I will never forget the help from Red Cross because it is part of my life. I can't explain the way I think about Red Cross, it is just like falling in love with someone."

A good, and safe, kind of love.

Donate to help refugees, people seeking asylum and their families suffering hardship and isolation, struggling without life's essentials in Australia. Your donation will help provide urgently needed housing, food and social support and build a more compassionate society through community education programs.

Photo: Australian Red Cross/Dilini Perera