BANYULE 100 – OMAR AND SAAD

February 20, 2016

BANYULE100, Guest contributions

Omar and Saad are not just Syrian Refugees. They are also not just numbers, statistics or policy dilemmas.

Saad is quick to laugh with an infectious cheeky grin. He is warm, polite and wickedly intelligent. When Omar is speaking, he becomes animated with enthusiasm and eagerly asks for my opinions. When I ask both a question, they effortlessly bounce the response between each other – a trait of their closeness as brothers. Omar, Saad and I are sharing a meal together. I am about to hear their story. ‘I am completely open, feel free to ask me anything you want’ Omar tells me.

Three hours pass and I find myself in awe of their zest for life in the face of all of the violence and trauma they have endured. Omar and Saad have lost loved ones, friends, pets and seen their community decimated. They show me photos of their community as it stands now. What remains is a blanket of rubble and jagged building edges and outlines. Saad points out where theirs and their grandmother’s houses once stood.

Omar 3

Omar

For a moment I am building it all up again in my mind as Omar and Saad reminisce over how vibrant their town was. They tell me of their involvement with Scouts Syria, which was once the lifeblood of their community and their second family. Before the war, Omar and Saad participated in Scouts “Clean Up” days, tree planting around the city and events raising awareness about the dangers of smoking. Omar pulls out his phone and shows me photos of old Scouting friends and leaders. Everyone in the photos are laughing, smiling or doing something with their Scouts group. Most of the friends in these photos have now been killed. Their Scout Hall has been targeted and burnt.

This is not a story of sadness and heartbreak though. It is the first chapter in a chronicle of powerful acts of commitment to community. When protests broke out in Syria, Omar and Saad rallied in the streets with fellow community members calling for a better life. They continued this for as long as possible until Omar was shot five days before his year 12 exams. Incredibly, he persevered studying through his recovery and passed despite heavily losing marks. The brothers also pursued other avenues for assisting those affected by the conflict. Through Scouts Syria they prepared food parcels and supplies for internally displaced people moving through Syria and living in the local school. This was despite the rapidly increasing hostility of the situation and the constant threat to their own lives. Omar also returned to University for a short time after his activism and the threat of arrest prevented him from attending. He was eventually captured, tortured and forced to listen to his friends endure the same treatment, ‘I never knew that humans could deal with such intense pain and suffering’. He was one of the only survivors.

Omar and Saad’s family escaped Syria by travelling through Lebanon, Egypt and then on to Melbourne. Omar describes the journey as ‘long and scary, we were almost caught more times than I can count.’ When they arrived safely in Egypt, Omar and Saad received a call from their Scout leader who ‘thanked God’ they were safe and left them with a final instruction. Omar recalls this in a video documenting their experience by Scouts Victoria,

‘He charged me with a simple request that I would never forget. He told me to study hard, to do my best in everything I do, to do good everywhere I go, and to one day return home so we could meet all together in the Scout Hall again. Unfortunately I cannot keep my promise. He was killed by a bomb a few months later. This made me more determined than ever that I would join Scouting again’.

Omar and Saad continue to honour this request by carrying on a legacy of community leadership. After settling into school and work in Melbourne, Omar and Saad began serving the community through the Cleve Cole Rover Group in Watsonia at their earliest opportunity. ‘Scouting is the number one way we could give back to the community’ Saad tells me.

Saad 2

Saad

This was despite very limited knowledge of English language or Australian culture. They were more familiar with Australian history learned at school in Syria. Omar pauses while telling me this as his mouth curves into the same cheeky grin as Saad’s, ‘We knew you had a really big rabbit problem though’. Bellows of laughter engulf the room.

It has been just over a year since Omar and Saad have been in Melbourne and they now speak fluent English. They engage me in fascinating discussions about Australian politics and community life while we eat our dinner. The reason they are able to do so with such fluency is because they have been watching Parliament Question Time since arriving to improve their English skills and learn about Australian politics. I stare incredulously at both of them.

Omar and Saad have since participated in a number of community projects with Scouts Victoria. This is driven by an unwavering belief beautifully articulated by Omar, ‘If there is no community, there is no life’. Saad adds to this, ‘The community raised you and made you who you are… they’ve had a really important role in your character and in your life’.

The latest Scout event was the Australia Day celebrations. Saad beams, ‘We did an Australia day celebration last month – I was holding the flags! Have you seen the photo?!’.

They were eager to work and study after arriving in Melbourne. Omar tells me he applied for two hundred and twenty jobs when he first arrived and is now finally working two jobs alongside studying for his Bachelor of Business. He is also preparing to embark on a speaking program where he will share his story with schools and community groups as part of the Banyule Youth Services School Speakers Program. Saad is completing his final VCE year and hopes to study Biomedicine in the future.

Omar and Saad’s story has spread far and wide after they shared it at a recent Scouts Victoria conference. They have been acknowledged in Parliament by Greens member Adam Bandt and have received a call from the Prime Minister’s office wishing them well. They have also been featured on The Project, John Faine’s ABC radio Conversation Hour and in the Herald Sun.

I ask them if it’s difficult to continue re-telling their story to multiple audiences and media outlets. They agree it is. But they are resolute in their commitment to the power of awareness. ‘If you raise awareness in your community…you educate… you raise the human capital of your community. When you raise human capital… you raise everything’. Critical to this awareness is an understanding that refugees are not all the same – they are just like you and me. Not just numbers. People, with an incredible story to tell.

‘We are not terrorists. We are doctors, we are lawyers, we are teachers, we are engineers, we are businessmen. We are Scouts.’

This article was originally published on Banyule100.

– Stephanie Livingstone

– Photos Sean Porter

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