July 28, 2017

Annabelle Pendlebury

Omar and Saad Al Kassab were originally profiled on Banyule 100 early in 2016. You can read their story here. So much has happened since that original email so we thought it was time for an update.

Omar and Saad  are brothers from Homs, the third largest city in Syria.

According to Omar, they come from “a family full of intellectuals,” says Omar. “My mum worked as a chemical engineer and my dad has an English literature [background]. We have lots of doctors and engineers in the family!”

This, says Omar, is what makes their family one of “the lucky ones” because they were able to escape when the conflict in Syria became dangerous.

In 2014, they fled the war-torn country with their family and came to Australia.

Both young men are now helping to educate and raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis of Syria’s civil war by sharing their story in schools and other venues around Australia. I was humbled to hear their story when I attended each of their talks.

Omar and I sit in a café to chat before he gives his talk. His story of perseverance and courage is far from ordinary, but Omar blends right in with the other customers as he sips an organic cola drink. I can see how, since coming to Australia, Omar and his brother have not merely slipped into the Australian way of life. They have thrived here. Already, they have accomplished more than some do in a lifetime.

In 2011, when Omar was 17 and preparing for his VCE in Syria, the Arab Spring revolution started. “I participated in the protests,” he tells me. Omar says he was motivated by a desire to see Syria “free from dictatorship… to have democracy, to be a country with dignity.”

Omar risked his life by taking part, as the peaceful protests were broken up with guns.

“I was shot once in my back,” says Omar. “We were shouting and then the security forces came, we started running and they started shooting.”

After surviving this ordeal, Omar and Saad began to do humanitarian work with the Scouts Syria group and the Red Cross.

“We were distributing food parcels to internal refugees who fled from destroyed areas… and were now living in schools. We provided food, sleeping mats, all those kinds of things,” says Omar.

In 2012, during a lecture at university, Omar was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. To this day, he still does not know what offence he was charged with. “It was indiscriminate,” he says.

This was the breaking point that caused Omar and Saad’s family to leave Syria.

During Saad’s powerful presentation, he shares pictures of the city of Homs before and after the civil war. The total destruction is heartbreaking.

“We were lucky to have an uncle in Australia, who has been living here for 30 years. He decided to sponsor us,” says Saad.

“We were lucky to actually escape. But lots of my friends were not so lucky, lots of my neighbours were not so lucky.”

Omar and Saad are playing a key role in bringing this sobering reality to light, by sharing their story with the world. Last year, the two young men gave a moving TEDx Talk in Canberra.

But telling their story is just the beginning of what Omar and Saad have brought to this next stage of their lives. A passion for humanitarian work shines through in everything Omar and Saad do. Once members of Scouts Syria, the boys decided to join Scouts Australia. By joining the Cleve Cole Rover Group in Watsonia, they have been giving back to the community that has welcomed them.

“We had the same values,” Saad says. “I knew that in Syria, as Scouts we are brothers to each other. So I knew that, here, I had brothers and sisters… Through the Scouts, I was able to integrate into the community.”

Meanwhile, Saad is excelling in Australia thanks to his never-ceasing determination. At the end of 2016, he was awarded Dux of his school, Catholic Regional College Sydenham, when he graduated from Year 12 with a score of 96.65.

It is a triumph made even more poignant by the fact that Saad was forced to drop out of school in Syria, when his school was turned into an army base. Even this did not deter Saad from gaining an education.

“I felt that not only was my present being destroyed but my future was being stolen away from me. So I decided that I wanted to actually study,” he says. “Studying gave me a sense of hope, a sense of normality.”

In Year 9 and 10 in Syria, Saad was home-schooled by his mother, amidst constant mortar shelling. As schools were turned into refugee camps or army bases, or were destroyed, he had to sit his Year 9 exams in a shopping centre. A couple of weeks later, that same shopping centre was reduced to rubble.

Saad only arrived in Australia in mid 2014 and “having never spoken English before, [getting dux] was not an easy task!” he says.

Saad says he was rejected by several schools and resorted to studying English at Melbourne Polytechnic. Eventually, Saad was accepted into Lalor North Regional College. He was then offered a scholarship to study Year 12 at Catholic Regional College Sydenham, where he had done some work as a gardener.

“Two weeks into the job, the principal of the school called me and … he wanted to give me a scholarship to study Year 12 in the school. I was so happy.”

After scoring his fabulous ATAR, news publications around the world shared Saad’s tory, including CNN and Daily Mail. Saad was also featured on The Project and ABC News.

Saad is modest about his academic achievements. “Despite me being so happy, I always remember that there were friends in Syria who were just as smart as me and even smarter,” says Saad. “They couldn’t even finish. They couldn’t even go to school anymore.”

“But at the same time, it makes me so grateful that I was actually given a new life, that I had the opportunity to finish my studies and go to uni and just have a normal life. I’m so grateful to the Australian people for giving us the opportunity to come here.”

He has since scored a scholarship to the University of Melbourne and is now studying Biomedicine. “My first step to becoming a doctor!” Saad says.

Omar too is flourishing, now in his third year of a Bachelor of Business at RMIT. He is continuing his work as a humanitarian campaigner and remains humble, despite an impressive track record, including an appearance on The Project and being invited to be a panellist at the very first Victorian Youth Summit in 2017.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull himself acknowledged Omar’s outstanding efforts at the Australian Migration And Settlement Awards in Canberra this year. Omar was a finalist nominee for the Innovative Settlement Award.

Omar also remains captivated by our political system.

“I like Australian politics!” Omar tells me. “It’s democracy, it’s interesting for me. I always read about it, I always speak about it, and even my friends sometimes have to tell me, no more politics!”

“I consider Australian politics to be really important because it is what the country is going to be about. It determines every aspect of your life. Australia is my country now, so … it’s not only about democracy, but it’s about the future of a country I consider my country,” says Omar.

Omar and Saad joined the studio audience of the ABC’s Q&A in February of this year, directly participating in the nation’s political debate. This was a significant moment, especially because Omar and Saad honed their English skills when they came to Australia by watching Question Time in Parliament. Omar had the opportunity to question one of the panellists, Helen Andrews.

Omar’s insightful understanding of politics is apparent in the Q&A episode, as he politely corrects Andrews about the fact that Trump’s ban on Syrian immigrants is indefinite.

“I felt very proud,” he says. “I felt, when I was on Q&A, like I was discussing something that is a part of the future. It [the Q&A question] was about the US, but it also affected Australia as well. I was a part of the discussion and I was a part of the democracy that I wanted to be part of back in Homs. But there were no questions to be answered back in Syria. Here, there is a question and there is an answer.”

Omar and Saad are helping to highlight the shared humanity between two nations.

Omar sums up the similarities between Syrian and Australian people by saying “all aspects of life are the same. There’s some difference in food, but I think both nations love kebabs!”

-Annabelle Pendlebury

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