My name is George, but everybody calls me Ginger George! I was born in Syria and my background is Armenian, but in both communities ginger hair is extremely rare. Even in my entire family, there is no one who has ginger hair and sometimes I ask my mum, ‘Are you sure nothing naughty happened?’ But she always says, ‘Don’t worry. You are my son!’
When I was 17, I lost my father to a heart attack and from then on I was responsible for our family. The following year, I enrolled in a Robotic Engineering degree but unfortunately 2 years later, the war started so I wasn’t able to finish. Living in that time was extremely difficult. There was no electricity for months, and after they bombed the water pipes, there was also no water. People actually had to dig wells to find water, and then in every street we were lined up in the hundreds waiting to get it. There was also hardly anything to eat on the market shelves, and what food was there became very expensive. For example, a kilo of tomatoes went from 15 to 500 Syrian pounds. As a result, we all started to lose weight.
I was going to university one day when snipers started shooting at our bus, which was really scary. Another day a grenade was thrown on my campus, and I lost some of my friends. Next, a few of our family members were kidnapped. We still don’t know if they are alive or not. This was our life.
One day, on instinct, my mother kept my sisters home from school, and that day their school was bombed and many students died. After that, she made the decision to move to Lebanon. It was a long journey, with many roadblocks. On the way, terrorists actually tried to kidnap my brother, but luckily the assistant driver was able to negotiate with them and they let him go.
My uncle had emigrated to Sydney 20 years before, and he had tried to sponsor us even before the war, but our application had been rejected. As soon as we arrived in Lebanon, we re-applied, but we were rejected again. At that time, we really started losing hope. But a year later, Australia announced an additional refugee intake, and we said, ‘This is our last chance. Let’s try and see what happens.’ Every day, I called the embassy asking how it was going and every day I was disappointed. But finally, after another year, we were told we had been granted visas to go to Australia. When I heard the news, I started crying. The girl on the line told me to take my time.
I had promised myself I would go to church on the first day I arrived. I remember I went through Circular Quay on the way and when I saw the Opera House, I asked the lady next to me where the Harbour Bridge was. She laughed, and said, ‘You are on it!’ It was an amazing day. The next day I went to see the Opera House and I actually felt I had to touch the wall to see if it was real or not. At that moment, I started to cry with happiness.
I had got into jewellery designing as a hobby in Syria, and so I started working with my uncle in his family jewellery business here. Recently, I launched my own jewellery collection. I actually donated my first piece to my church for a fundraiser and it raised $2000 in 10 minutes. I was so proud to be able to give something back to my church and community.
When I arrived, I was invited to a lot of refugee events, and after a while I started to speak at these events about my experience. Next, I started getting invitations to do speeches in schools. I like to encourage students to welcome refugees.
I do a lot of work in the community. I volunteer with many organisations, including the Red Cross, Settlement Services International, and the Multicultural Youth Affairs Network. I was also recently elected as Co-Chair of the Youth Advisory Committee of NSW. Recently, I represented Syria as a part of an Australian delegation at the United Nations Headquarters in Thailand. And last week, I did a TED talk!
But the most amazing moment for me was when I was asked to be a delegate to Armenia representing the Australian Armenian Church. That was the best two weeks in my life, as I met the Armenian Prime Minister and we even went on TV together. On the way home, we were stopped by security at the airport because my girlfriend had an unusual electrical adaptor. There were about 10 officers around us asking us questions and we were feeling really worried. But then one of them said, ‘Hey, aren’t you that guy who I saw on TV with our prime minister?’ After that, they let us through!
Through all these experiences, I have started to realise just what a refugee can do. We have resilience and we have strength, and I want to encourage other Australians to welcome us, because what we really need are friends.
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