The life of a resettled Syrian refugee
Around the corner from Lakemba Mosque, with its Refugees Welcome Here banner, in a modest two-bedroom, sparsely furnished red-brick apartment, one new arrival from Syria is feeling lucky. Abdulsalam Orabi, 58, is one of 4000 granted a humanitarian visa as part of the government's resettlement program.
But as it emerges that only a handful of refugees has arrived under another special intake program, and a cabinet document leaked to the ABC reveals that “additional screening criteria” may be applied to prospective Syrian refugees, Orabi is perhaps even luckier than he thinks.
Orabi is happy and talkative as he sits over an early dinner of hummus and kibbeh. The former political prisoner and torture victim appears markedly healthier and more relaxed than when I met him for the first time for a story in The Saturday Paper, in the lobby of a budget hotel in Istanbul, Turkey, in November, two weeks before he was due to arrive in Sydney. His face has filled and darkened from the sun and appears less lined. He’s dressed in a neat pair of navy shorts and a collared polo shirt.
Orabi survived 10 years in Syria’s Tadmor Prison after former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s crackdown on an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982. Decades later, Hama suffered another crackdown when it defied Bashar al-Assad’s rule during the Arab Spring. The complex fronts of war and humanitarian disaster Syria now suffers – and because of which millions have been displaced – spiralled from these events.
We are joined in Lakemba by Orabi’s two younger sisters, Radieh and Safaa, along with Safaa’s three-year-old daughter, Lulu. The two women have been in Australia for more than 15 years. Radieh is married to a refugee who fled Lebanon in 1979 during that country’s brutal civil war. The family has made a life here. Radieh is studying community services at the Western Sydney University. Safaa is a school-bus driver. They both say they are “proud to be Australian” and are excited to welcome the latest member of their family to the place they call home.
Orabi has new false teeth, replacing those lost in prison, and smiles animatedly as he plays with Lulu on his lap. The mood is spirited and celebratory as he describes his journey to Sydney.
He didn’t sleep a wink on the plane, he says; he was too excited. And from the moment he arrived at the airport and customs officials warmly greeted him into the country, he felt welcomed. He says he was met by his tearful family and escorted by an officer from Settlement Services International to his well-appointed new home in Granville, complete with television and groceries, supplied rent-free for four weeks until he found his feet.
“Everything was ready for me, even the food,” he says, with his sisters translating.
The first weeks were a flurry of administrative and medical appointments, family reunions and sightseeing tours to central Sydney. He’s seen the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, and taken a swim at Bondi Beach.
“The waves were very big, it was a little scary,” he says.
“I met a man and his little girl on Bondi Beach and the little girl ran right up to me. The man was very friendly. I hope all Australians are like him.”
Now eight weeks have passed and Orabi is settling into a routine. His new apartment (for which his sisters are between them covering the rent of $330 a week) is constantly full of family. When he’s alone, he says, he likes to take long walks around the neighbourhood.
Orabi navigates his way on public transport to daily English classes in nearby Campsie, a part of the resettlement program. He hopes to have enough of the language to secure some kind of employment when his Centrelink payments are cut off after 12 weeks of the classes.
It’s not easy, but it’s a lot better than what he left behind. Orabi says he’s done with Syria and won’t look back.
“It’s going to be hard to find a job, but I would do anything,” he says.
A vocal opponent of the embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Orabi is spirited in his discussion of Syrian politics and damning of the dictator’s sectarian agenda, which he says “turned people against each other, so they started killing each other for no reason”.
“They made a business out of religion.”
He doesn’t believe sect or religion should have any role in political life. He doesn’t go to the mosque (“They are always talking about religion – they are liars”) and thinks that what you believe in doesn’t matter as long as “everybody gets along”.
Without English, Orabi can’t follow the news on television or in the papers. He remains blissfully unaware of the debate surrounding the arrival of others like him to Australia. While he didn’t have the funds or the inclination to risk his life to try to make it to Australia and his family by boat, he hasn’t heard of Nauru or Christmas and Manus islands, nor the debate over detention centres.
As we chat, #letthemstay activists are arranging a protest on Bondi Beach for the following day, against the High Court decision that the planned return to detention camps of 267 asylum seekers, including 37 children born in Australia, was legal.
Orabi has never heard of Reclaim Australia, and in the confines of south-western Sydney he is uncomprehending when I ask if he’s encountered any hostility based on his Arab heritage or Muslim faith.
“I’m not sure if Australians accept Muslims. It seems like they accept everyone, but I don’t know.”
He’s grateful for gaining a visa in the country he says that “could one day rule the world”.
The Australian government committed in September last year to a special initiative to take in 12,00 Syrian refugees. At the time, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said it was expected the new intake would be in Australia by the end of the financial year, in June 2016. That number was supposed to be in addition to the regular yearly intake of about 4000 Syrian refugees under the regular humanitarian resettlement program.
But as revealed during a senate estimates committee hearing last week, of those 12,000, “more than 200” have been cleared and granted visas to Australia, and just 26 have been resettled here to date.
When asked during the hearing when the rest were expected to be resettled in Australia, the deputy secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s Client Services Decision Support Review, Peter Vardos, told the committee: “It is not possible to predict how long that will take” to resettle the remaining quota of 11,974.
It could be years.
Abdulsalam Orabi is also unaware of a cabinet document leaked to the ABC earlier this month, outlining Dutton’s proposed changes to the government’s humanitarian resettlement program, to make it harder to be granted permanent residency, and recommending increased monitoring of refugees on the basis that they might present a security threat.
“It is expected some refugees from [the Syria] conflict will bring issues, beliefs or associations that lead them to advocate or engage in politically motivated or communal violence,” the document, to be submitted to the national security committee, read.
Orabi hasn’t heard of Peter Dutton and, while he will soon have the right to vote, he has yet to form a clear opinion of Malcolm Turnbull. But from what he’s seen of Australia, he says, he thinks the prime minister is doing a good job.
“I will support whoever supports the people here,” he says, referring to this year’s federal election.
“Whoever builds this country and helps the people, to make it a great country, I will vote for them.”
This story was modified on February 22, 2016, to make clear that Abdulsalam Orabi was granted a visa under the existing 2015/16 Humanitarian Programme and not as part of the government's special intake.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2016 as "New life". Subscribe here.