The Path to Australia
26 June 2017 at 8:46 am
Omar Al Kassab is a Syrian refugee who escaped with his family to Australia, where he has returned to his studies, become a Scout leader and an inspirational TED speaker. He is this week’s Changemaker.
Al Kassab was a teenager when the Syrian uprising broke out.
He actively participated in demonstrations for peace and democracy in his country and participated in humanitarian work alongside his fellow Scouts.
In April 2013, whilst studying engineering at university, he was arrested and tortured.
His family later decided to flee and after a year in Egypt came to Australia to start a new life.
Since arriving in Australia, Al Kassab has actively reconnected with the Scouts movement and resumed his education, studying a Bachelor of Business.
He was also a participant of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) Advocacy and Power Program which aimed to provide networks, support and training for people with lived experiences of seeking asylum, who want to be refugee rights advocates in the community.
In 2016 Al Kassab gave a powerful, Ted Talk in Canberra alongside his brother Saad, reflecting on their path into Australia as refugees.
The talk, which is told with honesty and humour and includes stories of fear, violence, loss and the significance of a dictionary, highlights the experiences the brothers shared with thousands of others fleeing war torn Syria, and their hopes for the future.
On World Refugee Day Al Kassab, took part in the ASRC telethon, to raise awareness and funds to support and empower thousands of refugees and people seeking asylum. This year’s telethon doubled its target raising more than $660,000.
In this week’s Changemaker, Al Kassab talks about giving back to the country that welcomed him with open arms, the importance for refugees to speak out against fear and why you must never give up on yourself.
How did you and your family come to be refugees in Australia?
In 2011 when the war broke out in Syria, I was young and I participated in the early stages of the protests, in what is called the Arab Spring. Then I was actually shot. Then I participated in humanitarian work, with international committees and humanitarians agencies, distributing food vessels to internal refugees who were living in the schools inside Syria. But then my friend was arrested and tortured to death which made us flee from our area to another relatively safer area. Then I went back to uni where I was arrested this time and then after stuff I was released, and my family decided it was the time to flee. It was over. So we fled to Egypt and we stayed in Egypt for a year. And then I had an uncle here, who has been here more than 30 years, and he sponsored my family to come to Australia. So that’s how we came.
Along with your brother Saad you gave a very powerful Ted Talk about your experience. What do you hope people will take away from your story?
There are lots of things that I wanted people to take from my story. One of the main things was to appreciate what we have here. Because we have got so much that we don’t really appreciate in Australia, we don’t feel, we just take it for granted. Another couple of issues that I wanted to centre was to be always determined, to never give up, and never give up on what you want to do and who you want to be, and always just do the right thing. Let yourself, especially when something happens, do what you are supposed to do. The other thing I wanted to centre was people, like I call myself, I was a refugee, now I am here, I am going to be a citizen all of those things, but these people are just normal people. This is something that I really wanted to show people, that we are not different to the rest of the community.
You spoke on Q&A about how there is a lot of fear of refugees, particularly those from Muslim countries. What can be done to address that fear?
I think, it is due to the media and also some of the stuff that is going on with groups like ISIS and stuff, and that is why people get scared. But, what we need to do is speak up basically and get people who are like me for instance, to speak up in public and in places like on Q&A, and show that the majority of people are good people and this is a tiny minority that is ruining everything. I think why youth should speak up, why it is important that they should speak up is, because when you see someone get involved and they speak up that’s when you start to break the barriers.
You are a participant of the ASRC Advocacy and Power Program, what has that entailed?
That was actually about learning how to advocate and how to campaign for refugees, how to speak well, how to choose my words in order to persuade people, how to write articles and how to read and understand stuff in the media better. And it actually trained me to start to give talks in the community. I was already giving some talks but I started to be more professional. Since then I have been giving lots of talks in the community. It was really great, I also got to know lots of wonderful people, and people who have been campaigning, so it was really great.
You took part in The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) telethon on World Refugee Day, 20 June, how was that?
It was great. I was part of a social media interview and I was running through some calls. It is really great to see everyone there and everyone is happy. And the phones literally didn’t stop ringing the whole time. It was full of energy. And when those on the phones wanted to announced stuff you would see the whole room just celebrating. Also when there was someone who called, a donor and it was their birthday or something, and you would see the whole room was singing for her birthday, it is really nice. You feel, all of that positive energy, you feel alive. It was really great being in that environment.
Why is it important to celebrate the contribution refugees make during Refugee Week?
It is a time when it gives them support to feel like they are part of the community and that their contributions are appreciated. It is an important opportunity to show this. Because you see all this debate on TV and online and in newspapers and you hear all these negatives things and people get really depressed, they feel unsafe. But when you get stuff like Refugee Week and everyone is celebrating them and you feel like really great for them, everyone is supporting them. You can see that in the telethon, when I was there, you hear on the phone people who want to donate, they were supposed to raise $300,000 and they made more than double. You see this and you are like you know, it is great and it can change your mind about so many things. There are lots of great things in the community.
What role has the Scouts played in your life?
I think being in the Scouts in Syria and doing humanitarian work with the Scouts, and then being forced to flee, it made me realise when I came here, that I was meant to join it again and be part of it. I felt like it was a message that I had to keep going with it. So when I came here after two months I joined Scouts with my brother. It was also a really good way of knowing new friends and learning the language quicker and getting to know people and widening my network. It was great. And then I started to also work in the Scouts, because in the Scouts we do meetings and stuff, so I started also to get a bit of an idea of how the meetings go and how you can run stuff in this country, if there was any accounts or a fundraiser or stuff like that, so I learnt a lot about them. After I had been in the scouts for a few years, I went to so many camps, I did lots of service in the community, it was a way to give back to the community here. Now, we’re going to give about 5,000 hours for the community of service, since last year until August, I am not sure how many we have done so far but we’re doing a good service in the community. I’m also a trained Scout leader, I finished my leadership course here four weeks ago. It has been like what I call my Australian family.
What are your plans for the future?
Currently I am finishing my business degree, so I still have one year to go. I am trying to start to focus more on my career path and I am trying to get into an industry. So that is for the early future. For the far future, I really want to do really well in my life and do right in my life and make the most of the opportunities that I can get.
But also, I really want to give back to this country and the community, because when I came here I was in a very bad time and this land opened its arms. I was coming from a different country, different culture, everything was different and I felt like I was welcome here, everyone was welcoming and gave me the opportunity to do what I am doing, so I feel like I should pay that back. I am really looking forward. I have already started, but I really want to donate more, especially in the future. But I have lots of plans.
How do you find time for yourself?
That’s actually a really good question, I don’t know! I really want to be in the Scouts, I can’t not be in the Scouts. I really want to do my studies, I can’t not do my studies but I also really want to do ASRC, because when they need me I wanted to help them and I wanted to volunteer. Because I felt like this was something I really wanted to do. I really want to help, seeing smiles on their face makes me better. But sometimes I can find some time for myself to just enjoy a bit. I am just a bit too [active], I’m always doing something.