Previously: My students inspire me to begin collecting stories about refugee resettlement. I arrange these stories according to date of arrival in Australia, stories that start in Vietnam, Romania, China, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Iran. The is the last chapter, Australia, which begins with the story of Dr A.
In November 2016, I meet Dr A at Flinders University where he studies. Stepping in from the morning sunlight, I scan the food hall and see him standing, waving at me from the far side of the room. He is wearing jeans and a puffer vest over his shirt. All I know about Dr A is that he is a dentist who is seeking asylum and is willing to tell his story.
He is in his fifties, a heavyset man with large eyes and greying stubble. I apologise for my lateness, noticing his laptop that lies open on the coffee table. He graciously dismisses my apology. I tell him about my book and he tells me about himself.
‘I came by boat,’ he says. ‘It is hard. I haven’t seen my children for four years and three months.’ His eyes redden. He asks me about my family and then says he hopes our families can meet one day. He came with no English, Level Zero, he says, but now he is Level Five at the Intensive English Language Institute (IELI), where he is studying, and he gestures vaguely to an adjacent building adjacent.
Our conversation moves Syria. When he doesn’t understand the word ‘secular’, which I use, he whips out his smartphone and repeats the word. The voice recognition software doesn’t recognize his pronunciation of the word. He asks me to repeat the word into his phone. I do so. The phone transcribes the word, and I think supplies the definition. I probably look impressed because he says, as an offhanded explanation, ‘I have many dictionaries.’
I ask him about his family and he tells me that his wife is also a dentist. They have one daughter and four sons. Their daughter has a Master in Science while their eldest son is a doctor. Their second son is studying engineering and the younger two are still in school.
‘First,’ he says, having finished introductions, ‘what do you want to drink?’
‘No,’ he says, firmly.
Finding my request acceptable, he goes off and returns with two coffees in disposable cups, large for him, standard for me. As is my usual practice, I pass him the Consent to Publish form. He asks me to explain the form to him.
‘I will keep this,’ he says. ‘Because I am political. I will think about it. I have a big story.’ Then he asks me why I think the volcano in the Middle East keeps erupting. I fumble through an explanation of the Arab Spring (a term he doesn’t recognize initially) and rebel groups against Assad. I am floundering but he gestures for me to talk on, as if he is a lecturer grading an ill-prepared student.
Finally, when he has heard enough, he holds up two fingers
and says, ‘Two things. Politics and economics,’– he points to one finger, then
he points to the other –‘and religion.’
In February 2017, I meet Dr A again at the same place. He has decided to tell me his story.
Dr A was born in Damascus City, the capital of Syria, in the mid-1960s. His father was a mechanical engineer and his mother was a mid-wife. Often, she rendered her services at no charge because she is a very spiritual woman, a Druze. Dr A explains that Druze believe that God is in everybody. They are extremely generous people, he says.
Dr A graduated in the late 1980s with a Bachelor of Medicine and Dental Surgery. Subsequently, he completed post-graduate studies, lectured at Damascus University, and worked in Saudi Arabia for eleven years as the Head of Oral Medicine and Dental Surgery at a large hospital. In 2005, he returned to Syria to set up his own dental surgical practice.
On his smartphone, Dr A navigates to a webpage with details of his clinic, which he shows me saying, ‘This is all my education, if you want it, in Arabic. You can translate it.’ He scrolls through a photo gallery on the webpage, providing a running commentary, ‘This is my clinic inside. This is me. I was very fat.’
We both laugh. In the photograph, he is sitting beside his dental chair. He is not fat, but there is a certain self-assuredness, a confidence, that enlarges his presence. Even though he obviously no longer provides dental care in Syria, the webpage still advertises his services – dental implants, orthodontics, crowns and beauty bridges (this is Google Translate), laser whitening, paediatric dental treatment, periodontal disease, treatment of roots (which I assume is root canal).
‘Why did you have to leave your country?’ I ask.
‘My country Syria was the very best country in the Arab world. You know that? Education was free, healthcare was free, a lot of things free. But corruption was everywhere. Everywhere. When people protest, police catch some people and kill him or put in prison, no one knows where. Police killed people. This made people angry.’
Since I meeting Dr A, I have read Janine Di Giovanni’s new book, The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. A veteran war journalist, she describes how fifteen schoolboys were arrested for anti-government graffiti in 2011. For weeks, no one knew their whereabouts. Distraught mums and dads, relatives, friends, townspeople demanded their release. The government refused. Protests spread.
By the time the government relented and released the boys, many of them bearing horrific scars, protests against government overreaction had grown into a cry for change. It was as if the people’s pent-up anger had damaged a pressure cooker valve and now the whole pot was shaking, threatening to explode. The more government forces tried to stamp out protests, the more fervent the protests grew. Violence begat violence and that is where, I suppose, Dr A stepped into the picture, in the first months of 2011.
‘When I was living there,’ Dr A continues, ‘I helped a lot of people, anyone who needed help, for health, emergency, you know? Not in Damascus City but in the countryside because I lived there.’
‘You did surgery also?’ I ask.
‘Surgery at that time because no one else could help. No hospital.’
‘You did stitching? You cleaned wounds?’
‘Yes. In my surgery I have this to help. Not just surgery. Supply medicine, gauze, cotton, alcohol, injection for tetanus, sometimes food, bread. Everything. That’s what I help. That’s my fault. Understand?’
‘I order my friend to come and help because no hospital. No anything.’
‘Your friend is a doctor?’
‘Yeah. A lot of friends come. Doctors. This is what doctors have to do: help people. I lost my surgery, my house. Call it ISIS if you want to. On the other hand, the government, or the secret police, put my name on the list of people who help the people. I do not help ISIS, but I help the people, which is not good for the government.’
‘So who destroyed your house? Government or ISIS?’ I ask to clarify.
‘Both. Look at this.’ He shows me a photo recently sent to him by a friend. He points to a three-storey building in the middle and says, ‘This is my house. This is my surgery.’
His surgery was on the ground floor. His family lived on the first and second floors. A portion of the roof on the third floor has collapsed. Light fittings on the first floor balcony have been removed. A curtain hangs through a glassless window on the first floor onto the outside ledge. Over the black gaping hole that is the front door, a large sign has been ripped off so that only florescent tubes in a rectangular box remain. The street in front is littered with rubble and broken stone.
‘Now, nobody lives there. OK? Everything taken when army came.’
Dr A likens the Syrian conflict to a fire that started small and grew bigger and bigger. Fuel for the fire was in constant supply – armed fighters from Chechnya, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Tunis, Egypt.
‘Muslim brotherhood?’ I ask.
‘Call it Nusra or Jihad,’ he says.
Dr A explains that although there are many types of Muslims in Syria – Druze, Shia, Alawi, Ismaili, Jafaari – most people would just identify themselves as Muslim. In Saudi Arabia, Dr A didn’t even tell his colleagues that he was Druze because he didn’t want to lose his job. In Syria, he kept his faith a secret for fear of being killed by Sunni Islamists.
‘The people here, you hear them,’ he nods his head towards a group of noisy young men behind us.
‘I can’t understand,’ I say, referring to their language.
‘They are from Saudi Arabia, because I hear them speak. If they knew I am Druze, they don’t see me’– I take his meaning to be that they will ostracize him or ignore him. He tries to explain his faith to me, ‘I just believe God inside everybody. I believe anyone who believes in humanity.’
Dr A is on a bridging visa and has applied for a 5-year Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV). Both bridging visas and SHEVs will be cancelled if the holder travels out of Australia, which means he will not be able to see his wife and four children in the foreseeable future, because they cannot get visas to come to Australia.
He is, however, grateful for the roof over his head, for generous Australian people like Bonnie, who runs IELI and who has granted him a scholarship to study English. He tells me that she is a very kind lady and that he respects her. Without the scholarship, he would not have the funds to engage in language study.
‘Thank you for your time, doctor,’ I say at the end of the interview.
‘Don’t call me doctor,’ he says. ‘I am not a doctor here. I am …’
I couldn’t hear that last word.
To be continued next Friday 24 January 2020 in Refuge #47 Asylum Seeker Dental Care. This is part of the serial online release of the book Refuge. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.