July 13, 2016

Joely Mitchell

Omar StH 1

There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Seriously – not one.

The Banyule Council was lucky enough to host a talk by Omar Al-Kassab, a young Syrian refugee who now lives in Melbourne. Omar has become an advocate for refugees and, in collaboration with the Banyule Youth Services, has been visiting schools to share his story.

It’s a story worth hearing.

In 2011, war broke out in many countries in the Middle East. Citizens of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen each started revolutions against their dictatorship governments, in what has been called the Arab Spring.

Before the war, Omar said that Syria was a good country. “Education was free, health care was free, and we had Medicare. But what we didn’t have was freedom, democracy and dignity. If you criticised one thing, you’d get arrested. You couldn’t even criticise the road,” he said.

By March 2011, the revolution reached Syria.

“No one thought [the revolution] was going to come to Syria, because we [had one of the strongest dictatorship governments] in the Middle East. I never thought it was going to happen.”

To fight back against the rebels, the government would arrest, torture, and often, kill, anyone who was a part of the revolution.

Despite this risk (and his mother’s disapproval), Omar said he was a big part of the revolution.

“I was so involved. I went to demonstrations every day. In one day I was in eight demonstrations,” he said.

But the dangers involved in demonstrating became all too real for Omar just a few days before his year 12 exam.

“I was shot in the back [at a demonstration], and two of my friends were killed.”

Omar said the experience made him hesitant to continue protesting.

“I didn’t want to fight, I didn’t want to kill anyone, and I didn’t want to be killed, so I shifted my activism to humanitarian effort,” he said.

He joined his Scout group distributing food and resources to people in the area. This was until the Scout hall was targeted.

“The government came to the Scout hall, they arrested my friend, the Cub leader, and he was tortured to death.”

After this, Omar decided to re-direct his energy into his studies. This was until one day at university when him and his friends were arrested.

“It was the hardest experience I have ever been through. Inside the prison, it’s another life, away from any feelings. I was tortured very hard, and the hardest thing ever was hearing people, your loved ones, being tortured, and you don’t know if they can handle the pain or not. You don’t know if you are next or not, and you feel that you can’t do anything,” he said.

“When I was released, I stayed home for 35 days, not going out, not speaking to anyone.”

Omar put an image on the screen of him and three of his friends from university. One is dead, one is missing, one is internally displaced, and one was himself, a refugee. He said that this image was an accurate representation of the current situation in Syria – most people fall into one of those four categories.

Omar and his family were lucky. They managed to leave Syria and make their way to Australia.

“When I left Syria, we went on a very dangerous journey. It was 130 kilometres and took us about 14 hours.”

He said that at one check point, they were stopped by the army and taken off their bus. He and one other boy were questioned and tortured “quickly”, it was like “drive-thru torture”, Omar said.

“The man started to interrogate me, he said: ‘don’t you want to serve your president and your country? Come, you have to join the army.’ If I said no, I would be killed. I was sick, I had a prescription in my pocket that was in English. I showed it to him and said ‘look, I’m going to Lebanon, I have a very dangerous illness’, he didn’t know English, and was reading it upside down, and I told him that if I went to the army, I’d make everyone sick. He was standing right next to me, and he just ran to the other side of the room and said ‘GO!’”

In Australia, Omar and his brother joined a local Scout group. They went to TAFE to learn English, and interestingly, watched Question Time in Parliament to further understand the language.

“In my country, in Parliament [all the politicians do] is clap. Politicians in Australia use very persuasive language, they use the most influential English language because they want people to vote for them,” he said.

While Omar says he’s against people coming by boats, he says that refugees have no other way.

“Why do these people come by boat? Because no one will accept them legally.”

At the end of the day, any significant change that will help combat the refugee crisis has to come from our policy makers. But what can we do, on a local level, to help refugees?

Omar has some suggestions…

  • Be supportive of Syrian people
  • Watch the video below to better understand his story
  • Share the video to your friends and family
  • Welcome refugees – there are about 12,000 hopefully coming soon
  • Write to politicians or the newspaper asking the government to allow more refugees to settle in Australia
  • Volunteer to teach English to refugees

If you are interested in having Omar present at your school, club or community group, please contact Naomi Simmonds on (03) 9457 9902 or

Joely Mitchell

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