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Syrian refugee family who were followed by death find happiness in Brisbane

Al Mhanna family

Happy life: Bahiya and Adnan Al Mhanna and their sons Eilia and Emil are living in Brisbane after being forced to flee their home city Damascus, in Syria. Photo: Emilie Ng

SYRIAN refugee couple Bahiya and Adnan Al Mhanna lost all their money and nearly their lives in Damascus, but for the first time in years they have something to smile about.

The Melkite Catholic married couple along with their two sons are now celebrating their first offer of employment in Australia.

The Al Mhanna family were among the 12,000 displaced Syrian and Iraqi refugees welcomed into Australia under the Federal Government’s 2015 resettlement agreement.

They narrowly escaped several bombings in their home city before finding refuge in Australia in late 2016.

Late last year Mrs Al Mhanna, who received a degree in Modern History in Syria, began volunteering for Our Lady Help of Christians School, Hendra, where her two children Emil, 8, and Eilia, 5, attend.

Within months principal Margaret Tomov, who has been a pillar of strength for the Syrian family, offered the young mum paid work at the school.

“I worked here as a volunteer first, and they gave me the first chance to work here in Australia in the tuckshop,” Mrs Al Mhanna said.

It’s an enormous breakthrough for the Syrian family who are trying to forget the horrific life they left behind.

Mrs Al Mhanna said the war zone in Damascus, the capital of Syria, left her “nervous and scared” and fearing for her children’s life.

“Death followed us everywhere,” Mrs Al Mhanna said.

To this day Mrs Al Mhanna thanks God for protecting her family from deadly bombings and invasions.

She is particularly thankful that her eldest son escaped being killed in a horrific bombing at his day care.

“One day Emil was very sick and I didn’t send him to his child care,” Mrs Al Mhanna said.

“Thank God many times because on this day his child care had a bomb inside and many students passed away.”

Her husband, a trained urologist, has also stared death in the face.

Mr Al Mhanna was working a shift at the military hospital when a rebel group surrounded the facility, holding the workers and soldiers hostage for 43 days.

“(There was) no connection between us, no food, nothing for him,” Mrs Al Mhanna said.

Mr Al Mhanna ate only what was inside the hospital – “some potatoes, something like that” – until the army intervened one-and-a-half months later.

The situation worsened for the family when in 2015 their entire life’s savings and valuables were stolen.

“In 2015 on March 23, when I finished working at my private clinic, then I decided to go out to buy something for my son, for about thirty minutes,” Mr Al Mhanna said.

“When we came back, someone stole from my house, completely, all my money.

“I put all the money in one bag because I was preparing to go anywhere, the situation was that bad.”

The following Monday, Mr Al Mhanna’s car was stolen.

“And we cannot stay home after that,” Mrs Al Mhanna said.

She fled with her children to live in her family home in Bassir, a Melkite Catholic village 45 minutes south of Damascus that is under military protection.

Mr Al Mhanna remained in Damascus to complete work at the Red Cross Hospital and his own private clinic, which had been destroyed by two bombs.

After two months the family reunited and eventually moved to Lebanon, where they heard about the Australian Government’s plans to accept 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

They arrived not knowing any English or Australian culture, but can now hold a steady conversation in their new language, the second for Mrs Al Mhanna and the third for Mr Al Mhanna.

“We didn’t know anything about Australia, about the people, about anything,” Mrs Al Mhanna said. 

“When we came to here, my husband Adnan couldn’t speak a word of English, zero.

“Myself, I was understanding a little bit, that’s it.”

Syrian refugee Al Mhanna family

Escaping danger: “Death followed us everywhere.” Photo: Emilie Ng.

Queensland-based organisation Multicultural Development Association, who will work with the family for the first five years of their resettlement in Australia, settled the family in Clayfield where “everything changed”.

Emil was enrolled at Our Lady Help of Christians, along with another Syrian refugee family.

Young Eilia is now attending the school as a Prep student.

The young boys see their mum during her Wednesday shift at the school tuckshop.

“We really love this school because we saw them like our family,” Mrs Al Mhanna said.

For their father, the children’s happiness is all that matters.

“I’m here to serve my kids and to protect my kids,” he said. “They are very happy in this school.”

Mrs Tomov is excited to see what the future holds for the Al Mhanna family and will continue to support their life in Australia.

“We are just delighted to be in a position to give a refugee family a head start,” she said.

“We are so proud of the way our community has embraced the refugees who came to us.”

As well as having work at Our Lady Help of Christians, the MDA offered Mrs Al Mhanna four days’ work in Catholic schools in Clayfield.

She will work in the administration office at St Rita’s College, Clayfield, and St Agatha’s School, Clayfield, through the MDA’s refugee job placement program, Work and Welcome.

Mrs Al Mhanna enrolled in the program until May, but is hopeful about finding more work.

Her husband is also awaiting confirmation to return to work in the medical industry, but will not be able to practise as a doctor until his qualifications are recognised in Australia.

The family has no plans to return to Syria.

“We are very happy,” Mr Al Mhanna said.

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