One Syrian refugee’s new life in Australia
There is a certain look only found on those who have known the inside of Syria’s notorious Tadmor Prison. It’s a glazed-eyed, hardened-jaw face, older than its years. The lack of teeth is a sure sign of a torture victim.
Abulsalam Orabi, 57, has that look. He spent 10 years in the prison during the crackdown on the Syrian city of Hama in 1982. The former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad razed the city that year, dispatching his elite guard to pound Hama with artillery in response to an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. Nobody knows for certain, but estimates of the number of people killed in the siege range from 2000 to 10,000. Later, thousands of men from the predominantly Sunni Muslim city were locked up and tortured as political prisoners.
Thirty years later, Orabi saw Hafez’s son and successor Bashar al-Assad take his own form of vengeance on the city. Hama was one of the first places to protest against his rule when the Arab Spring swept through Syria, only to be met with brute force. The once peaceful uprising mutated into a complex armed Islamic insurgency that has drawn in every major world power and created a human tidal wave of displaced people, the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. Nine million Syrians have been displaced in total; more than four million have fled the country. Close to half of Syria’s pre-war population has now been killed or displaced.
What started as peaceful calls for democracy has also helped spawn Daesh, the horrifically brutal Islamist radicals now committing acts of terror in the West.
For a time, the fallout led to compassion. European countries opened their borders to Syrian refugees. In September Australia announced it would provide an additional 12,000 places for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, giving priority to women and children and “persecuted minorities”. But news that one of last month’s Paris attackers, who together killed 130 people in five separate but co-ordinated attacks, had used a fake Syrian passport prompted an angry backlash against refugee flows. In the United States, congressional Republicans voted to make it more difficult for Syrians to enter the country, while 31 state governors have said they will no longer allow places for Syrian refugees, arguing they pose too great a risk to national security. In Australia the refugee intake has come under intense scrutiny.
Orabi, who spoke to The Saturday Paper in Istanbul just three days before he boarded a plane to start a new life in Sydney as part of that program, has a message for his new hosts: I am not a terrorist.
“I’m really looking forward to being one of you, to be part of Australian culture,” he told me. “Refugees are not terrorists. They are fleeing the terrorists. We need your help.”
Following the Paris attacks, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said it was important to strike a balance between providing shelter and protecting national security.
“Don’t forget that many of these people, of course, are fleeing the same circumstance that the people in Paris have endured over the last few days, and that is in Syria people from ISIS, who are beheading Christians, people who are attacking Syrians, as well as the Assad regime, attacking their own people,” the minister said.
“We are trying to help people that are fleeing the same sort of terrorist attacks being inflicted on them in their villages as we have seen play out in Paris.
“The trick for us is to make sure that we don’t in any circumstance compromise our national security, but at the same time try to help people who want to flee certain death otherwise. That is the balance that we need to strike.”
Orabi learnt of his place in Australia on September 19, a date he says he now considers his birthday. His real date of birth, he does not know.
By time this paper goes to print he will be settling into his new home in Sydney’s suburbs – something that defies his imagination as we sit in a hotel room in Istanbul, provided by The International Office of Migration.
Orabi has heard of Brighton-Le-Sands beach in the south of Sydney, and of kangaroos. Since the 1970s, he’s been looking at pictures and videos of Australia, he says, and believes it is “the best country in the world”.
“The system functions. There is equality and justice for everyone. Australia is self-sufficient, they have good values. Australia is like a new bride. I will finally find a life. I don’t believe that I have lived before.”
Orabi met the Australian ambassador in Ankara, Turkey, in September, after learning he would be resettled. “It was the first time I have ever felt like someone was talking to me with genuine respect,” he said.
In order to gain his placement, Orabi was subjected to a gruelling interview process, first by UN officials who, once satisfied he had a compelling case and genuine need, referred his file to the Australian authorities. Australian immigration officials then also interviewed him about his experiences and expectations, taking his biometric details and fingerprints.
“They wanted to know my whole story,” Orabi says. “They wanted to know if I was ever part of any armed party in the conflict. It was like a very civilised interrogation.”
Divorced during the war, Orabi fled Syria across the border to Turkey when the uprising became armed. He has been separated from his two sons since. One, aged 17, remains in Hama, where he will soon be wanted for military service. The other, 20, fled his military service, taking the dangerous and difficult passage by boat to Europe, where he has been granted asylum in Germany. Orabi doesn’t know when he will see his sons again.
In Turkey he was registered with the UN as a refugee. A trained baker, he worked 17 hours a day baking bread to sell on the streets before he was called for interviews with the UNHCR to discuss a possible resettlement.
Orabi says he hates Daesh, describing them as “traders in blood that steal our youth and kill in the name of religion”.
A Muslim, Orabi himself is not religious. He doesn’t pray and he smokes during our interview. But he believes in the importance of being free to practise whatever religion one chooses.
“It’s not important for me, but in Australia you can do what you want. I like this.”
After the Paris attacks the Immigration Department issued a statement reassuring Australians of the rigorous security procedures.
“Applicants for resettlement are required to meet health, character and security checks before being granted a visa to enter Australia,” it said.
“A facial image of applicants including minors and 10 fingerprints of those 15 years of age and older are collected. Fingerprint biometrics are being checked with relevant Australian agencies and international partners.”
Orabi’s plans for life in Sydney are modest. He hopes to be housed, initially, close to where he has signed up for 500 hours of English classes. He wants to open a small bakery to introduce Australians to Syrian bread.
“I feel like I owe Australia something. I want to give something back. I consider myself Australian now.”
Of the two million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Abulsalam Orabi is just one of 170 who have been considered for resettlement. A new life for some, but a mere drop in the ocean of suffering.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2015 as "Settler’s rest". Subscribe here.