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‘They beat me with sticks at just 7’: Rohingya refugee opens up about long journey to Australia

Rohingya refugee Salemul Kalam is speaking at the People Just Like Us event in Potts Point later this month.

By Sean Thompson
September 25, 2015

WHEN he was just seven years old, Salemul Kalam was ripped from his parent’s arms and publicly beaten by the Myanmar army for information that never existed.

This is one of the many shocking stories Mr Kalam hopes will change people’s attitudes to ‘boat people’ when he talks at a public forum on refugees at Potts Point next week.

“They (army) took me into a hall and used a long stick to hit me in front of an open window where people could see me,” he said.

“Nobody could help because it was a military house. After beating me, they threatened me with five years jail for answers to questions that didn’t exist.”

The 24-year-old is part of the People Just Like Us group, which hosts regular talks by refugees in western Sydney but is now moving to the east.

Mr Kalam is a Rohingya, the Muslim minority in Myanmar (formerly Burma) which has been persecuted by the Buddhist majority for decades.

He and his family fled Myanmar in 1997 and crossed through Bangladesh and Thailand before landing in Malaysia.

Children inside of the IDP camps in Sittwe/Myanmar earlier this year. Picture: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images

They were part of a mass exodus of Rhohingya from Burma, with 100,000 fleeing and another 100,000 being placed into a United Nations IDP camp.

His people have been denied citizenship in their homeland since 1982 and will most likely never be allowed back.

Mr Kalam said his family attempted to come to Australia in 2010, however their first brush with a people smuggler, or ‘travel agent’ as they are called overseas, was a failure.

“My parents and four brothers booked with a travel agent to take us away, but they cheated us, took our money and ran away,” he said.

In 2012 the Malaysian government denied Mr Kalam’s youngest brother an education because of his refugee status, which is when his parents decided to send them to Australia on their own.

“It was just me and my brother, who was seven at the time,” Mr Kalam said.

“The first boat we got in was small and we were hidden under the cover, like where they would put the fish.

“After leaving Malaysia we were at sea for almost a fortnight and we had to transfer between boats a few times. Some of the boats were so leaky, the passengers would have to work together to remove the water with buckets.”

A group of children in Kutupalong, an unofficial camp near South east Bangladesh's boarder with Myanmar where some 50000 undocumented Rohingya refugees live.

Mr Kalam had to lie to his brother about their journey, so he wouldn’t be upset and raise suspicion.

“I wanted him to be proud of what we were doing and make him feel safe,” he said.

“I told my brother we were on an adventure tour, so he could feel proud about the trip.”

When they finally arrived in Australian waters near Darwin, the boat was picked up by the Navy, who Mr Kalam said were respectful and caring.

“They asked us where we were going and if we needed any water or food,” Mr Kalam said.

Once on the mainland Mr Kalam and his brother were placed in a detention centre at Darwin, where they spent nine months. In that time his younger brother was given an education.

Since April 2015 Mr Kalam has lived in western Sydney on a bridging visa, and is putting himself through TAFE studying a Certificate 3 in engineering. He also looks after his younger brother full time.

When Mr Kalam speaks about Australia, his eyes light up and he talks passionately about his new home and the opportunities it has given him.

“Australians are the best people in the world, and because I have good ambitions to do good things I am rewarded in this country,” he said.

“I want to prove that I love Australia.”

Mr Kalam said his parents had made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure his younger brother received an education.

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