Janet (L) and Venus at the Eltham Project
‘… there is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of many different realities, with all their joys, hopes and problems.’
~ Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia
Venus Makhoul is a 26-year-old woman who was raised in a small, quiet village in Syria. She lived with her parents and two brothers and worked as a primary school teacher where she was much loved by her students. After the war began, her older brother fled to Lebanon. In time, Venus would also flee the conflict.
Venus met her future husband, Karmo, when they were just children. They became close friends and love eventually blossomed. Two years ago they married among friends and family in Venus’ village before travelling to Iraq where they lived for a year. They applied for Australia’s Humanitarian Program and were approved as part of the special intake of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. They arrived in Australia in June 2017 and immediately moved into the Eltham Project.
‘When I arrived we didn’t have anyone, just two friends but they lived far away,’ says Venus, who was seven months pregnant when they moved into their one-room unit.
One week later, a knock at the door would herald a profound meeting that would change their life.
‘You are my family’
Janet Jindasa is a local Eltham resident who, on hearing that refugees would be moving into the Eltham Aged Care facility, wasted no time in offering her support.
‘I’ve always wanted to volunteer and help refugees,’ says Janet. ‘I worked overseas for quite a long time and I’m used to people from all communities, languages and religions. That was my passion when we came back to Australia; I really wanted to help somebody.’
‘I was thrilled to be matched to a young couple. I have a blended family; we have 13 children and 10 grandchildren and I was amazed Venus was going to have a baby soon and I had so much knowledge about children and having babies. They were just so lovely and I felt really happy that I had so much to give and share with them.’
Venus was also happy with the match and, from the beginning, a strong friendship developed.
‘When I first met Janet, I felt happy because someone came to visit me. I was surprised because someone was coming to help me and Karmo. Since I saw her from the first time, I felt very comfortable. Day after day, Janet became my family here in Australia. I’m so lucky and so happy to have Janet as my volunteer. I tell her, “you are my family here in Australia; my father, my mother and everything else.”’
And baby makes three
One month after the young couple’s arrival in Eltham, Janet and her daughter-in-law were visiting when Venus started going into labour despite not being due for another month. They took her to hospital and stayed with her throughout the birth.
‘At the birth I helped to make sure Venus understood everything,’ said Janet. ‘I explained to her what they were saying and to Karmo what was happening through each step and each stage of the labour. When Veken was born in the morning, Karmo was able to cut the cord.’
Several months later when Venus underwent surgery to remove an inflamed gall bladder, Janet would again accompany her to hospital, staying by her side the whole time.
It is no wonder that Venus has come to trust Janet completely, asking advice on just about everything, but especially on how to raise her young son. Janet says it feels wonderful to be able to help her with Veken: ‘all the things about babies, about food, about walking, and places to take him such as going to the library.’
A future in Australia
With the Eltham Project due to end in October, Venus and Karmo have been busy looking for private rental accommodation. They applied for more than 40 properties but were repeatedly knocked back in favour of tenants who had employment. Eventually, through a friend of a friend in the Syrian community, they were offered a property in Thomastown where they will move in September.
Their departure will be felt by many at the facility; Veken was the first baby born at the Eltham Project and has since won many hearts. Among them are two of the aged care residents living at the Eltham facility who have been visiting weekly. Both women were tearful when they learned that the family will soon be moving.
While Venus is looking forward to having more space for Veken, the move will bring added financial strain when they start paying market rent. Karmo is keen to find work; he has seven years’ experience as an accountant but is looking for any job that will give him local experience. He is also doing an online bookkeeping course and attends English language classes while Venus is volunteering one day a week at the local op shop to gain retail experience.
Venus’ hopes for the future are simple: ‘We feel like we are in our country; we feel very relaxed and comfortable here. Better for us. I hope we will have jobs; my son will grow up here and he will learn to be a peaceful man and a gentle man.’
Venus and Karmo are also hoping that some of Karmo’s family may soon be able to join them in Australia. Karmo’s mother, sister, and her family fled Syria and are living in Iraq. After hearing from Karmo that life in Australia was good, they applied to Australia’s Immigration Department. So far, they’ve made it to the interview stage. For now, Janet is the only ‘family’ they have here.
Both Janet and Venus are determined that the family’s move from Eltham will not affect their friendship.
‘She’s like my daughter now and Veken is like my grandson,’ says Janet. ‘We will be in touch because that bond is there and the love that has grown…’
‘… and everyday we’ll become closer,’ Venus says, finishing her sentence.
Janet agrees. ‘We’ve become very close. She confers with me a lot and it’s enriched my life. Having someone who is so hungry to learn, made me feel so appreciated and made every day seem so wonderful to be able to help.’
‘They’re such a lovely couple, so caring and loving. Being like a mother to them has made me feel so fulfilled and I thank God every day for it.’
For Venus, the support that Janet has provided has been nothing short of a miracle: ‘I believe that God sent Janet to help me.’