The horrors of war stole nearly everything from Dr Adnan Almhanna. When he left Syria to move to Australia he had to leave behind his private practice, his family home, and his life as a respected urologist.
But where many would despair, Adnan has found solace in education. In a new country, far from the world and career he knows, this qualified doctor has begun a new life at TAFE Queensland.
According to Adnan, it was almost inevitable that he would one day become a doctor. The 49-year-old was born in the village of Bassir, just 51 kilometres from Syria’s largest city, Damascus. Despite its small population of just 3,000, Bassir is famous for its highly-educated citizens.
"Around ninety per cent have a doctor in the family — Medical or PhD," said Adnan.
It was certainly the case for Adnan's family. He credits his close relationship with his uncle, a qualified urologist, as one of his inspirations to study medicine.
After graduating from high school at the top of his class, Adnan went on to earn his medical qualifications in 1996 and swiftly progressed to a specialist degree in urology.
From there, he was hooked. Over the next five years, Adnan split his time between working at the local hospital and earning his Master of Urology.
For most of us, 23 years of study would justify a well-earned break. But for Adnan, after just two years working in a clinic in the city of Daraa, he was already thinking of his next goal.
"I am always learning," he said with a wry smile. "I always want to improve my skills and be the best that I can be."
It was that perpetual pursuit of knowledge that led him to Paris in 2004. There, at the internationally renowned Pierre and Marie Curie University, Adnan devoted six years of study to his PhD.
"My French was okay — it was our second language at school. For three months, I would spend the mornings working at the hospital, and four hours in the afternoon studying French," he said.
By the age of 40 Adnan was the bearer of three impressive degrees, newly married, and eager to progress his career.
Upon his return to Syria, Adnan was appointed as Head of Urology at the Red Crescent hospital in Damascus, and proudly launched his own private practice within the city. But his dream was short-lived with war enveloping Damascus less than a year later.
"The war destroyed our country, bombs fell everywhere. One fell on a childcare centre — it was my son’s childcare."
Luckily for Adnan his son had been unwell that day and had remained at home. But the reality of the other 22 children who had been caught in the explosion made up his mind to leave.
"I had to leave for my kids. One or two bombs fell near my clinic and the outside of my clinic was destroyed. That's when I escaped to my village," he said.
Adnan and his wife made the difficult decision to flee their home for the sake of their family.
"I stayed for as long as I could. I wanted to help but it became too unsafe — I wanted to provide a future for my family," Adnan said.
In 2015, the family of four fled to Lebanon. As refugees, they approached the French embassy in search of sanctuary, but political conflicts stalled the process.
Panicking, Adnan met with an Australian official who informed the family of the Australian Government’s plan to grant asylum to 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
"He told us we were leaving soon," Adnan said, looking bemused. "I’d never heard of Australia before. I didn’t know what to expect."
Three weeks later, the family arrived in Brisbane. As refugees, they were supported by Multicultural Development Australia (MDA) through the Humanitarian Settlement Program.
Through this program, MDA delivers settlement services to those who, like Adnan, often cannot speak a word of English.
"They set us up in a welcome house in New Farm. They worked with us over six months to set up banking, housing, schools for the children, things like that," he said.
It was through MDA that Adnan and his wife learned of the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP).
The program offers up to 510 hours of free English lessons to new migrants to Australia and is funded by the Australian Government Department of Home Affairs. In Queensland, the AMEP is delivered by TAFE Queensland.
"When we first moved to Australia it was a very difficult time — moving away from our family was hard. But at TAFE, you have somewhere to be every day. You have friends; you go on excursions; you learn new things," Adnan said.
It was a glint of familiarity in an unfamiliar world. Far away from his home, his family, and a familiar language, Adnan found refuge in education. The AMEP offered structure, goals and growth; the very things he had pursued so determinedly in Syria.
Going to classes gave Adnan the confidence to start to rebuilding his life in Australia. He was now able to speak to real estate agents, his children’s teachers, and members of his community.
"When I met my son’s principal, we could only speak in French," he said with a laugh. "But now, we speak in English."
Since completing the AMEP, Adnan has passed the Australian Medical Council (AMC) exam, and remains focused on his goal of returning to medicine. But he still has a number or hurdles to overcome. In order to practice as a Urologist, Adnan must pass the Occupational English Test (OET) before applying to the Medical Board of Australia for registration. Following this, he will be required to complete 12 months of supervised practice before he can openly work in Australia.
Despite the challenges, Adnan remains steadfast.
"Gaining my Australian qualification is very important to me. I love the Australian lifestyle, I love the health system, and I love seeing so many different cultures all living together," he said.
Today, Adnan is undertaking a work placement in the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland’s (ECCQ) Chronic Disease Program. His family is settled into a home on Brisbane’s northside, and in June 2019, they welcomed a new baby boy into the family.
"He’s made in Australia," Adnan said with a chuckle.
At the end of his placement, Adnan is looking forward to doing everything he can to restart his career in Australia.
"We’re still working to build our life and create a bright future," he said with a smile. "I want to improve my English and my medical knowledge.
"With English, you can do anything."
The AMEP is funded by the Australian Government Department of Home Affairs. In Queensland, the AMEP is delivered through TAFE Queensland.