Zena Safa was 16 years old and in her final year of high school in Libya when her life changed forever. The peaceful life her family had made there since fleeing Iraq in 1994 was shattered by civil war.
Simmering anger about the Gaddafi regime had burst into mass protests in February 2011 and the country disintegrated into violence. Zena’s father held her back from school on the first day of protests. It probably saved her life.
The violence intensified and no one was safe as the sky rained bombs and gunshots rang out in the streets. Zena said, “You would hear the whistle, and then the explosion and the ground would shake. It was non-stop.”
The Al-Falahi family endured years of turmoil. They fled through Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey, Syria and Malaysia, never sure of their destination or what life had in store for them.
There is a happy ending, though.
Today, Zena is halfway through a Bachelor of Oral Health in Dental Science at Griffith University on the Gold Coast and is a member of Griffith Honours College, a school for high-achieving students, and her parents are safe in Sydney.
Zena is aware that many other refugees have not been as lucky as she has been. She made it to Australia without severe physical or psychological injuries, and without suffering human rights abuses.
“I consider it a miracle that I’m here,” she said.
“My parents risked everything they had, including their lives, so that I could get an education,” she said. “Five years ago, all I wanted was to stay alive. After that, my biggest goal was to get a really good education.”
Syria was a turning point for the family. Zena and her mother Inamm secured visas and travelled to Malaysia, while Zena’s father Safa returned to Libya to work and support them so Zena could study.
School gave her hope in a new country where she and her mother had no support network, and not much of anything. Compounding matters was Inamm’s failing health. “For me, it was hospital, study, hospital, study,” Zena said.
She achieved outstanding results regardless and received a full scholarship to university in Malaysia. But things took a turn for the worse: Safa suffered a stroke in Libya as Inamm’s health continued to deteriorate.
Safa flew to Malaysia on a tourist visa. “If he was going to die, he was better off dying with his family,” said Zena. When he arrived, she didn’t recognise him. He had been on his death bed in Libya and was a different man.
Zena’s 18th birthday compounded the hardship. Inamm was on a guardian visa, so she was no longer able to stay in Malaysia. Safa, meanwhile, was on a one-month tourist visa. “We had no idea where to go or who to talk to,” Zena said.
Their fortune’s quickly changed, though. Zena’s brother was in Australia and secured his permanent residency and a job at the right moment. The family was able to reunite in Australia, where they claimed asylum.
“When that happened, it was life changing,” Zena said. “It was a light at the end of the tunnel. A period of hopelessness was coming to an end. We were very happy to be together.”
They were on tourist visas, though, and until their asylum claims were processed they couldn’t work or study. Zena also had to forsake her scholarship in Malaysia.
When the permanent residency came through, Zena had purpose once again. She knew she wanted to work in health and found a job as a dental assistant. After all the struggles and health issues faced by her parents, she saw it as a way to make a difference.
She remembers receiving the offer from Griffith as “probably the happiest day of my life”, and two years in, she says: “It’s amazing, Griffith has everything a dental student could need or want”.
Zena feels a strong ethical responsibility to give back. There are lots of people just like her, who may have been more talented and who were pursuing bigger dreams, but who couldn’t make it.
“I know a lot of people with refugee backgrounds have not been able to have the experiences and opportunities that I have had. I feel overwhelmed sometimes; there is a sense of guilt that comes with that.”
Zena wants to use the skills and experience that she has to help other people and raise awareness about the plight of refugees.
“I know a lot of people with refugee backgrounds have not been able to have the experiences and opportunities that I have had.”
She also wants to help provide dentistry to remote, Indigenous and disadvantaged people. Right now, she is mentoring other students to help them reach their potential, something she is also on a journey to do for herself.
Put simply, she’s a dreamer, and she wants to encourage other people to dream as well. “Once I was at uni, I started dreaming more and more. I wanted to do something that would serve me and help others. I want to help other people dream bigger.”