TWO months ago, Queenslander Oliver Bridgeman was jovial, flexing his muscles and joking with the camera in a video posted to Facebook. He was bragging about the school he’d built “with his own hands”.
The 19-year-old was filmed in another video running past an armed guard to spray-paint “#FREESYRIA” on a concrete wall topped with barbed wire. The reward, he said, was worth the risk.
It’s not an activity typically associated with a terrorist, but then Bridgeman says he’s not a terrorist. The Australian Government begs to differ — on Friday the Immigration Department cancelled the Toowoomba-born teen’s passport and ordered he hand it in to the nearest consular post in Turkey.
Trapped in Syria, Bridgeman is back on Facebook, pleading his case and telling the world how he misses home. It could be a while before he sees it again.
‘NOT ALL THOSE WHO WANDER ARE LOST’
On Friday, following the news his passport was cancelled, Bridgeman wrote: “No matter what the Australian Government say or do, they know that I’m here to help humanity and especially the people of Syria.”
Months earlier he wrote: “Not all those who wander are lost.”
They are the same messages he’s been pushing since March last year when he boarded a flight to the Middle East despite telling friends and family he was destined for Indonesia.
His parents, who have not been named, said in a statement in May they had no idea their son was travelling to Syria. They defended him against reports he joined the Al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda.
“We do not believe he is participating in fighting of any kind, nor do we believe he is supporting or participating in terrorist acts.”
Bridgeman’s lawyer, Alex Jones, said the government’s decision to cancel the teen’s passport is “nonsensical”.
“The Australian Government has stranded a Queensland teenager in a foreign country,” Mr Jones said.
“This has happened at a time when Mr Bridgeman was organising to come home and had been communicating and fully co-operating with authorities.”
Behind the scenes, Bridgeman thought everything was lining up for a successful return to home soil. He’s kept quiet, stayed out of the media and was waiting for the green light. It never came. An appeal against the decision will be filed on Monday but the government appears determined to keep him out of Australia.
‘IT PUTS OUR STAFF AT RISK’
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton responded to criticism over the decision by saying the government will take a hands-off approach to helping any Australian in Syria, regardless of why they’re there..
“People who go off into conflict zones — even if they’re well intentioned — ultimately can cause significant grief and stress for their own families,” Mr Dutton said on Saturday.
“This is something people should contemplate before they go — not when they’re in the middle of a conflict zone.”
He said helping Australians get out of Syria “puts our own military staff and personnel at risk”.
The Bridgeman decision comes as the Australian Government reveals at least one person every day is being hauled off a plane from Australia to the Middle East.
Figures obtained by The Daily Telegraph show there have been 652 offloads since counter-terrorism unites were deployed at all Australian airports.
Bridgeman says he’s not one of them. In fact, he’s the opposite of a terrorist — kind hearted, generous, willing to help those in need.
“The sun is shining bright over Aleppo today,” he wrote on Facebook 10 days ago.
“Let’s hope we don’t get more bombs falling like yesterday. When the Russian strikes nearly hit that school my heart sank. I’m so glad that I didn’t have to see any dead children.
“My first time in Aleppo city and I’m still taking it all in. Despite the Russian strikes these people are so resolute.”
‘I LOVE THESE KIDS WITH ALL OF MY HEART’
Between posts showing the destruction of the assault on Syria — wheelbarrows covered in blood, Syrian hospital staff helping the wounded — Bridgeman posts photographs of young children.
“Every time I head out to the refugee camps and see the conditions these people live in definitely makes me thankful for the blessings Allah has given me and every one back home,” he wrote on February 21.
“I love these kids with all my heart.”
On other days he thinks about his own predicament, about life in Darling Downs and the family he left behind.
“I get those days when I really miss home. I always remind myself that I’m here to help rebuild what the Syrians once called home.”
Bridgeman claims he is working with frontline aid organisation Live Updates from Syria. The group wrote a message of support for the Australian following the cancellation of his passport.
“It has become evidently clear that the western governments have one rule for Muslims and another for non Muslims,” the organisation posted.
“Why is there one rule for Australian citizens like Matthew Gardner who fought with the Peshmerga Kurdish militia openly and then returned home without charge?
“Is Oliver Bridgeman’s only crime the fact that he is a Muslim?”
Bridgeman’s lawyer says his only option now is to apply for a temporary travel document but the main goal will be to have his passport reinstated. In the meantime, the Australian remains in Syria, a country declared the fifth most dangerous place in the world for aid workers, behind only Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan.
He’s dodging bombs and sniper attacks and says the streets are deserted.
“People have fled to escape the horrifying possibility of being seiged by the Assad government and it’s Allies,” he wrote from Aleppo on Friday.
“The constant bombing by Russian planes and the possibility of being sniperd by Iranian soldiers, this city has become to dangerous to live in for some. Please keep them in your prayers.”