My name is Miream Salameh. I’m a Syrian refugee artist who came to Australia three years ago.
I am from a Christian family. I never needed to say that here or in my country because Muslims and Christians always live together in harmony and peace, but I say this today because I need to explain that my family and I escaped from the Syrian regime violence before ISIS even existed in my country.
The Assad regime claims that it protects minorities like us from extremist groups. That is not true. The regime protects itself by using minorities as a playing card to tell Western societies that it is the only source of protection for us.
In early 2011, a peaceful revolution for freedom and democracy started. Syrian people took to the streets to get rid of the dictatorial regime. But from the very beginning, the regime responded by arresting and killing anyone who opposed it.
During the revolution, I was an activist. I recorded videos to document Assad’s abuses, and my friend and I established a magazine. We had to stop publishing it after only six months because the regime twice attacked the place we were meeting in and committed horrific massacres there. In one instance, this included killing 20 young men and arresting 150 people, among them women who were stripped naked in public.
Later, I started to receive many arrest, rape and death threats from Syrian security. I was forced to leave my home, my memories and all my life to go to Lebanon. I had no choice but to flee.
At this time my art teacher and the closest person to my heart, Wael Kasstoun, was arrested by Syrian intelligence and tortured to death. His only crime was refusing to draw a painting that supported the regime. His body was found by accident in a military hospital among 200 bodies. Syrian security was preparing to bury them in a mass grave without letting their families know where they were or what happened to them.
The Syrian people carry on living while death is only seconds away. There is no choice but to flee to bordering countries, to live in camps which lack the basic necessities of life, and where there is no future, no protection and no prospect. This is especially true for children, who are being forced to work in appalling conditions to help their families – a whole generation that has lost its childhood and its most basic rights.
When I was in Lebanon, I met many Syrian families and witnessed their suffering. Many were living on the streets or under a bridge. Watching these people, I felt such rage, sadness and helplessness. I knew that the UN was not going to provide these people with any adequate assistance. My family and I stayed in Lebanon for one year, but only after 11 months did the UN call us to collect aid vouchers. They also did nothing when my friends and I had been attacked, and were nearly kidnapped by Hezbollah. The way the UN treated us and other Syrians in front of the UN building was humiliating and inhumane.
This is not to mention the plight of the majority of Syrian refugees who are stuck in the camps and cannot obtain a humanitarian visa, because they need a relative to sponsor their application. A refugee visa should be given based on the dire situation that refugees live in – on the risks that threatened their life. It should not depend on whether they have relatives that can support their application.
I can’t understand how the Australian government provides the refugees who came by humanitarian visa with all the rights here, but forbids these same rights for refugees who come by boats, and put them in detentions centres for years despite their dreadful suffering.
As refugees, we have all fled from the same horrific situation. I feel very sad when I hear that Christians are prioritised. As a refugee, I call on the Australian government to bring in people according to their horrific situation, according to the risks that threaten their life and their children’s lives, and not distinguish between us. This is the only way to protect justice and fairness for all.
I feel very lucky that this beautiful country has welcomed me and my family and has treated us in the best way I ever imagined, and gave us all the opportunity to rebuild ourselves and start a new safe life.
But my heart is always with our people who every day face death by all kinds of weapons. The Assad regime and its allies committed and are still committing massacres against the Syrian people. They are bombing schools, bakeries, markets, hospitals and civilian neighbourhoods using internationally banned weapons.
They use sieges and starvation as a weapon to give the people in the besieged areas two options – leave their land or die in it. The Syrian people just want to live in safety, in freedom and in dignity. They just want to hear their children laughing, not screaming and crying. To hear them talking about their dreams, not about death and destruction.
Is that too much to ask?
After nearly six years of suffering, the number of refugees has now reached 8 million. We have more than 300,000 detainees and over 500,000 martyrs. Six years on, the international community has not taken a single serious step to stop these war crimes against a people who just ask to live a free and dignified life in a civil democratic state. Six years on and the world is watching us in complete silence.
But we will continue our revolution and we believe that the Assad regime, and its right arm ISIS, fear our revolution, because they know when we will win there will not be any existence for them.
If we really want to stop the refugee crisis, we have to get to its roots. Turning back the boats is cruel, and is not the solution. Putting asylum seekers indefinitely in detention centres in very bad conditions, destroying years of their lives for no reason, is not the solution. Taking only people who have sponsors in Australia and ignoring those who have been stuck in refugee camps for years is not the solution. Deporting asylum seekers is not the solution. Closing borders and preventing refugees from entering Europe is not the solution. These strategies are all complicit in the crimes being committed against people who only want to live a safe life.
Part of the solution is to secure a safe passage to refugees and open borders and close the detention centres. But this alone is not enough. The only real solution is to stop the war crimes of all dictatorships and the self-serving policies of the great powers. This is the root of the Syrian refugee crisis and the refugee crisis around the world. This will be its end.
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