A ‘refugee’ beams life into cancer research

When Sora Fallaha completed her medical analysis bachelor’s degree in Jordan, a postgraduate degree in medical science loomed as the obvious next step for the gifted young student. However, that next step wasn’t an easy step.

To understand why is to understand her heritage. Her father had moved from Syria to Jordan at the age of 18 to pursue a successful career in computers and information technology. There he met his beloved wife and they raised four children in a nurturing environment in Jordan. Civil war in Syria would later tear the family apart.

Sora was born, grew up, studied and lived in Jordan, but Sora — true to her ancestry – carried a Syrian passport. This proved a major hurdle when she approached teaching hospitals to gain the experience that was required in order for her to study a Master’s degree abroad.

“I even paid to work so I could get the required experience. However, still for many hospitals, this was not accepted,” she says.

An alternative avenue of opportunity opened up for Sora when she spoke with Griffith representatives at an international universities expo in Jordan, and by July 2012 she was enrolled to study a Master of Medical Research (Biomedical Science) on Griffith‘s Gold Coast campus.

“Griffith gave me a new life. It made me feel alive,” she says.

By the end of 2012, however, conflict in Syria had escalated and her father’s ability to provide financial support for her studies in Australia had been diverted in part to support his family in Syria. Sora sought out and secured a scholarship from Griffith to cover the second semester of her Master’s degree and her strong performance and high GPA was recognised with the Academic Excellence Award of 2012-2013 by Vice Chancellor, Professor Ian O’Connor. She also supported herself by working as a research assistant at the School of Medical Science.

When she completed a Master of Medical Research in mid-2013, her academic attentions turned to a PhD at Griffith.

“My parents have never stopped motivating me to persevere and follow my dreams, yet financially their main priority at this time was helping family members flee crisis-ridden Syria.” Self-sufficient Sora applied successfully for a PhD scholarship to further her education and ingrained herself in the Griffith Science community through the support of many scientists like Professor Mark Forwood and Professor Nigel McMillan.

“Griffith has been a haven during times of hell, a home in a foreign place, a place that warms my heart and looks after me,” Sora (27) says.

However, while her life and ambitions were progressing, life was increasingly a struggle for her parents and siblings back in Jordan to where more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees had fled.

“The climate had changed and incidents of racism were getting worse. Whenever I went back I felt like I was being treated unfairly and unwanted as the country had more refugees than they could take. Even though I am not a refugee I am always treated as one.”

Curiosity had been replaced by caution. While her two brothers would ultimately feel the need to leave Jordan’s suffocating environment for Europe, eventually seeking asylum in Sweden, Sora resolutely chose not to apply for refugee status in Australia as that could have altered her family’s visitation rights temporarily. For her, this was simply not an option.

“Refugees are beautiful people who have been through a tough time and are seeking a better life. But refugees are treated differently. If I applied for refugee status, my family would not be able to visit (while the application is being processed). My father has been here three times to see me and I didn’t want to lose that.

“During the last two years (in Australia), I’ve noticed a serious change here. The compliments have dried up towards covered women and people coming from crises countries such as Syria. And that has raised a concern about my future in this country. However, at Griffith I feel safe from discrimination and anti-racial behaviour.”

Despite everything, Sora has flourished in the university environment. In June, she submitted her PhD after a three-and-a-half-year research project aimed at replacing chemotherapy with targeted therapeutic treatments that improve the quality of life for cervical cancer patients.

“Cancer research is a very challenging area but I have worked with some of the leading cancer researchers in Queensland, contributing to high impact research,” says Sora whose research has been recognised and published in a high-impact Journal in her field.

She is currently working on publishing more peer-reviewed articles. “My ultimate goal on the academic level is to develop therapeutic approaches to help cancer patients across the world”.

Sora’s ambitions and future directions do not stop here. “I am looking into mentoring others in similar circumstances including refugees, locals, Indigenous Australians and international students alike. I am a big believer in paying it forward.”