The refugee side

on World Refugee Day

Mahmoud Salameh, Sydney

My parents left Palestine in 1948 and they went to Syria. I was born and grew up in Yarmouk camp. It was built in 1952 because there were a lot of Palestinians going to Syria, it took four years to establish.

Everyone has to leave Syria though, not just me. It was a bad situation there, but it has become worse. 

I am a cartoonist. And I was in trouble in 2003 because I held an exhibition. The cartoons portrayed some ideas in a subtle way. They knew about my cartoons, I was talking about the situation in Syria. They investigated me and the meaning of my cartoons, and I spent some time in prison. Eventually I promised not to draw anything like that any more. But I did, in 2009. I participated in a private exhibition, but they knew about it, and they arrested some people, and I fled Syria.

I went by airplane to Indonesia then by boat to Christmas Island (in order to seek asylum in Australia). It was very difficult, you can't imagine. First, when I saw the boat, it was ridiculous. I was very scared. I couldn’t imagine it getting across the ocean. It was very small. That's normal though. The smuggler uses old boats, its just for one way. They buy the boat for a very cheap price - when fishers stop using the boat, the smuggler buys it. We were lucky there were just ten refugees on the boat. Usually there are more, up to 150. I was scared, but there was no choice. 

We started our journey and there was a storm, and the boat almost capsized, but we were lucky. We spent four days at sea to get to Christmas island. When we were close, a big migration ship took us there, conducted checks, and put us in detention. After two weeks they began their review. They interviewed us three times, with six weeks between each one. And after six months they accepted me. But I stayed in detention for 17 months, I don’t know why - 11 months on Christmas Island, and then they transferred me to another detention center in Melbourne for 6 months. I wish I knew why.

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The detention center on Christmas Island is very big, there are eight buildings with around 250 people in each of them. It was normal there, we did some activities, we learned English, played games and sports. The guards treated us OK. They are from Cerco company, it has experience building detention centers and they also do prisons for criminals. The Melbourne detention center was smaller, there were fewer people.

I saw some people try to kill themselves. They had depression, and they didn’t expect the detention. Most of the people in the detention centers come from hard situations, they have family they have left behind, the war, you know. They would be locked up there for a long time. It was actually better then than now. Seventeen months used to be a long time, some only had to wait a year. Now they stay three or four years, its terrible. The government when I came was different. It was Julia Gillard as prime minister. There were some children locked up on Christmas Island, but in different buildings. One of the buildings for example, was for families.

Sometimes I don’t understand why the governments around the world treat refugees like this, especially when its obvious why they come, they are looking for protection, they are escaping war and trouble.

I think the Australian government should accept refugees, make it easier for them, not treat them like this. Sometime you realize they refuse refugees for political reasons, and you know, all the refugees are victims, when they flee their country, they are expecting to find a good place. No one can imagine war, but in reality, the government doesn’t care. They always say they don’t know if you deserve to be under protection or not. Sometimes people come without documents, and I agree that there needs to be a process, some research, but they shouldn’t take so long.

Some people come because there is no freedom in their country and some people come from war. People come from Afghanistan and Iraq and there is war there, a terrible situation and I was shocked when I saw them reject them.

I think Australia wants to choose refugees or immigrants. Its very easy for people coming from the U.K. But the refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, they are Muslim, and I think that’s one reason they aren’t accepted. The world is very Islamophobic. I think its political. There is a lot of racism here, you can’t hide your identity, I tell people I came here by boat, and many people get upset.

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I think with the refugees fleeing to Europe, including from Syria, some of my close friends -the hardest thing is crossing the sea. A lot of people die there, and I think with all this technology, they know who is there, they have a chance to save them, but a lot of people die.

I just wish all the refugees in Australia could be free, not in detention. Many have left families and have no support. The government needs to think about that. The greatest countries show another face, mercy, they need to care about refugees, not treat them badly.

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Mahdi Hammad, Egypt

My village in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan was attacked by the Sudanese Armed Forces in 1988, because they thought we supported the Sudan People's Liberation Army. At the time, the Sudanese forces were killing many villagers, including my dad. Other villagers ran away and I ran too, as my dad had ordered me to do. 

After many days on the run I found myself as a displaced child in another village. I was ten. I worked, and some people helped me to get to the capital, Khartoum, and eventually I joined my elder sister in Dongla, in northern Sudan. 

For a while I joined the Sudanese Church of Christ, and worked hard for it. One day, seven of us, youth, were at Dongla market selling Christian books. Security men surrounded us and started to beat us up, they said were were unbelievers and people in the market shouted "God is great" — a Muslim chant. Then the security people beat us up more, all over our bodies, and took us to the security station. We were separated there and they beat me more, and said a lot of racist things, then released me after seven days. I went back to Khartoum and joined the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the political wing of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which was underground.

After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the National Congress Party and the SPLM in 2015, we worked hard to make our vision of a new Sudan become a reality. But the National Congress Party didn't want that to happen, and after South Sudan separated, they changed their mind about the agreement. (President) El-Bashir wanted Sudan to become completely Arab and Muslim, and they tried to force the SPLA out of the mountains and to give up their weapons. Of course, they refused, and the second war started in June 2011, and two days later I was arrested.

You can't imagine how badly they treated me. I was released after 21 days, after agreeing that I would never join the SPLM again, and would bring them the names of my colleagues and leaders in Khartoum. But I fled to Soba Aradi (a refugee camp in Khartoum ), and they found me a year later and arrested me again. Things become worse. Two weeks later I promised them that I would guide them to my town, Kauda. They trusted me, and I ran away again. I hid until I could flee to Egypt.

So I went there to save my life. I want to give you an idea of what happened to me when I was in jail in Sudan. I was arrested at 4 o'clock in the afternoon in Khartoum when I was on my way to attend a meeting. Four people attacked me and put guns to my head, telling me not to move. They threw me into the truck, lay me on the ground and put their feet on me and kept accusing me of being a spy for South Sudan. They told me they would kill me. At their destination, I was tied up, so they just put me on the floor, then sat me down and asked me a lot of questions. When I didn't reply how they wanted me to, they slapped me badly. They tied me up and hung me up on a big stick and beat me until I was bleeding all over. That lasted for many days. They did all this because I was in the SPLM and we were fighting for our rights, for freedom and equality.

In Egypt things were worse. Egyptians don't accept African people. We are attacked daily in the streets, especially those of us from Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia. And Egypt's economy is very weak, so refugees find it hard to survive, especially when you know that the shortest period you have to spend (as a refugee waiting for recognition and to have your asylum application accepted by another country) is five to 8 years. There are many refugees who have stayed here in Egypt for more than 15 years, without any benefits or services. There are a few organizations which try to help the UNHCR, but their service is very week and also unfair.

So now I have been in Egypt for three years. My family and I face so many problems from Egyptians in the street. The big problem is if you go to the police station, they won't do anything for you. Egypt isn't qualified to receive refugees, especially African ones. They provide better services to Syrians, Iraqis and Libyan refugees than to people from Africa. When we complain, they say they don't have the budget for us.

Globally, the issue isn't policy, its that countries don't want to apply the international treaties that they have signed.