Living each day like it may be her last may break a young girl, but Gold Coaster Zena Al-Falahi’s traumatic childhood has inspired her to do more than just exist, writes Rosie Ball
Over the past decade, when Australian- born students were complaining about school, Zena and thousands of Middle Eastern students have been denied an education and spent years fleeing terror.
Despite an uneasy arrival to Australian shores in 2014, the Gold Coast Griffith University dentistry student has worn her refugee status as a badge of honour, strength and victory.With a glowing smile Zena says the only reason she wants to tell her story is to encourage others to“change their mindset and to do more than just exist”.
In 2019, Zena looks like the average university student studying furiously for exams, hanging out with friends, and passionately volunteering on the Gold Coast. However, behind the cheery countenance and the scrubs lies a deeply disturbing past where she and her parents were fighting for survival and searching for a better life.
After the death of Zena’s two brothers in Iraq in 1992, her mother Inamm and father Safa, fled to Libya with just their wedding rings and the dream of a safe haven.
Two years later Zena was born and for 16 years the Al-Falahi family lived in harmony. Her father was an academic at the local university, her mother worked as an engineer, and Zena enjoyed the frivolities of childhood without a care.
“Life was perfect,” Zena says.
Zena, at that point in her life, did not have to think about reality of being stalked by war. The Al-Falahi family did not have to second guess driving their car, drinking clean water, eating dinner, and using electricity. It never entered 16-year-old Zena’s mind that she could be stripped of her education in a heartbeat, and the journey to university was going to be an exhausting process.
However, on 17 February 2011, life changed forever with the escalation of a peaceful anti-government demonstration in Libya.
Zena describes that if her 16-year-old-self ventured to school that day, it may have been her last. After the initial death of 200 civilians in Tripoli, the sinister nature of the Libyan Civil War was in full force. Zena and her family lived amongst a constant earthquake of gunshots and the blood-curdling screams of their neighbours dying.
A city was in ruins without access to electricity, water, petrol, food, and education. The fear that rose in the initial stages of civil war was palpable.
“We kept living each day like it was our last,” Zena says.
As prime targets due to Safa’s profession as an academic the family experienced a cycle of trauma for months on end. Watching bloodshed out their front window or fleeing in the dark of night became normality.
“As you could imagine, life became unbearable,” Zena says.
“On one hand we had no life, and on the other hand all I remember was my parents worrying about my education and my future.”
The young family were running from war for months on end, only to have it chase them every step of the way. They escaped, travelling through Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey and Syria just to stay alive. Robbery, confrontations in airports, and fleeing through ghost-like streets filled with gunshots, blood and glass was a common occurrence.
“We migrated just to stay alive and we barely did,” Zena admits.
“I find it hard to find the right words to draw the image for someone who is in Australia of our experience, particularly in Syria,” she says.
“The sky rained bombs each day, you did not know where it was going to hit – you did not know if it was going to be you.”
Months later, with finances running dry, Inamm and Zena farewelled Safa as he faced the possibility of death and travelled back to war-torn Libya to return to work. His girls and their survival were his priority.
“I felt like I was saying goodbye to my father for the last time and I would never see him again,” she said.
Each day the mother and daughter dreamed of an escape from their conscious nightmare – anything to take them back to a life they once knew. Their wish was shortly a reality when their official passports where re-granted at a Syrian embassy. Soon after, Zena and Inamm fled to Malaysia for a better life.
Warfare denied Zena from completing high school until she arrived in Malaysia. As a young girl she was not passionate about education; however, the moment it was stripped away she was determined to catch up on lost time and dreamed of a bright future.
“You do not know how much you appreciate something, until it is taken away from you,” Zena says.
Despite a new appreciation for learning and a roof above her head, Zena faced a minefield of challenges when completing secondary school. A confronting Western environment, limited English and finances, and her mother’s failing health did not stop Zena from chasing her dreams. Instead it fuelled ambition, success and a passion to become a health professional and provide her family with comfort and support.
Whilst studying for her final exams, Zena sat by her mother’s hospital bedside as a translator and support. The teenager studied day and night to ensure she could gain a scholarship to college.
Upon graduation in 2013, Zena received top grades in nine subjects, four of those self-taught. She also received a full scholarship to university. The celebrations were not long lived as Inamm’s health suddenly deteriorated – the Al-Falahi family were devastated. Zena’s father Safa was worried sick, and consequently suffered a stroke back in Libya. Under unfortunate circumstances Zena and her two sick parents reunited in Malaysia and made the journey to their new haven: Australia.
You cannot lose hope and dare to dream, because anything is possible.
With a glimmer in her eye, Zena says it was the peak of her life when she walked onto the tarmac at Sydney Airport.
“I felt so lucky, I could easily have ended up in a refugee camp, or severely psychologically traumatised to the point where I am disabled,” Zena says.
“I don’t know how to thank my parents – I owe it all to them. Without them I would not be where I am today.”
Despite calling the blue oceans, safe streets, and clean air home, the Al-Falahi family were denied basic needs upon arrival. Most significantly, Zena could not go to university.
I want all refugee students to know that despite your situation you can achieve anything
“There was no war and it was a dream come true, but all of a sudden my hopes and dreams fell apart and I did not know what my future was going to look like,”Zena says. However, she pushed through the red tape and completed a foundation year of Bachelor of Medical Science at Western Sydney University, and now is in her third year of a Bachelor of Dentistry at Griffith University and volunteering on the Gold Coast.
Zena says refugees face hardship upon arrival because they are ‘different’ to their peers; however, they need to have a goal, give back, and embrace all the opportunities Australia has to offer.
Calling the Gold Coast home, Zena has an overwhelming sense of purpose to give back to those who have given so much to her.
“Due to the opportunities Australia has given me, I have an ethical responsibility to give back, particularly in the field of dentistry,” she said.
“I know what it is like to not be able to afford dental treatment.
“My dream is to provide free and mobile dental services to people who cannot afford private care or who cannot access a clinic. For example, refugees, rural residents, the disabled, and the elderly at home.
“Throughout my life my family have sacrificed everything to give me a better life. My future goal is to ensure my family is comfortable.”
Zena said her desire to learn and give back is the same as so many girls and boys in refugee camps.
“I want all refugee students to know that despite your situation you can achieve anything,” she said.
“You cannot lose hope and dare to dream, because anything is possible.”
Behind every smile, there is a story of personal struggle. In the words of Zena Al- Falahi,‘live today with purpose, kindness and courage because today could be your last.’