Feature Article by Caitlin Burns
At a time when life in Syria is at its most hostile it’s hard to imagine the stable life for an average teenager before conflict, chemical warfare and mass killings.
24-year-old medicine student, Catherine Makssy welcomed me into her parents’ Carrum Downs home. The comforting aroma of freshly baked maamoul cookies, a middle eastern treat, wafted through the house. Catherine spoke eloquently; it’s hard to fathom that English was actually her third language, after Arabic and French. We sat on the terrace beside a fishpond as she reflected on her childhood in Syria, family, and her love for learning.
Photo: Medicine student, Catherine Makssy now enjoys her new life in Australia (Source: Caitlin Burns).
Growing up as a Catholic minority, church had always been an important part of life. Catherine attended mass every Sunday and wore her uniform with pride at the local Catholic school. Her years spent at high school are among some of her favourite memories: laughing with friends, enjoying field trips to the ancient Citadel, street shopping and participating in dance competitions. To Catherine, homework was no chore, instead a prize well worth the 5am wake up call.
Attending a private school meant the environment was controlled and discrimination towards women was not tolerated. However, outside the confines of the school yard society opposed women, and people would often ask Catherine why bother learning if her destiny was to be a housewife. But Catherine was inspired by her mother, a lawyer; and one determined to fight female injustice, to pursue a career of her choice.
Unfortunately, the classroom could not shield her from the echoes of upheaval taking place in the streets. In 2010 what started as peaceful protests towards President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, escalated into the second deadliest war of the 21st Century. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the civil war has led to the death and disappearance of more than 500,000 people.
Catherine began volunteering for the Red Cross within hospitals that had been setup in churches. These makeshift hospitals were a safe haven where people received the aid they needed. Resonating off the golden-stoned walls were cries to Allah from men and women whose bodies were riddled with bullets and limbs blown off by bombs. At just fifteen she now witnessed first-hand the barbarity of warfare.
“The worst part was going out onto the streets and witnessing the people who couldn’t be helped. I kept thinking to myself that I needed to help these people,” said Catherine.
Time as a volunteer showed her how important education was in order to save a life. From that moment on she wanted to learn how to do CPR, to give proper aid, and do the basics to save others. “I never want to see myself in a situation like that again. Completely helpless.”
During this period many students stopped going to school altogether, but Catherine refused to give up her studies. Studying was a way to escape from everything that was happening around her. A slice of tranquillity in a world of disarray.
Minority groups such as Christians have continuously been persecuted by ISIS militants. If captured, Christians are subjected to kidnapping, torture, rape, and execution. It was clear Catherine’s family were no longer safe in Syria. Her father, Wassim, an engineer and interior designer, had initially organised a plane to get them across the border to neighbouring country, Jordan. However, on the day that they were to leave, his contact informed him it was no longer safe to board the plane.
“ISIS were killing people in the streets. I saw and heard things I don’t think I was meant to see and hear,” said Catherine. She remembers her younger sister, Celine, five at the time, hid underneath the table for a few hours during the ordeal, “no one knew where she was… everyone was just in complete shock.”
Within a couple of hours the Syrian Army had cleared the streets, allowing the Makssy family to flee by car. The Toyota sedan flew along the highway at what felt like 200km per hour. “The car was flying I couldn’t even feel the wheels.” But her family feared that their vehicle might be pulled over by rebels posing as border security. Their surname, Makssy, was similar to that of a government politician, and militants could have seen this as supporting the regime that they were trying to overthrow.
“We had unlimited trust in God and were praying along the entire way, whatever God had installed for us we’d just have to go with it.”
Call it luck or divine intervention, the sedan was not pulled over and the family reached the airport within twenty minutes instead of the usual hour and a half.
Photo: Catherine (second from left) with friends in Aleppo prior to the Syrian Civil War (Supplied).
Things settled in Jordan, but life was far different to the one they knew. Unlike Syria, Jordan was a dependent nation that consisted of “two classes - the very rich and the very poor,” said Catherine. Her family sat in between, middle class. And refugees were stereotyped as “uneducated – who came to leech.”
Despite their exhausting journey, life continued. Within ten days her parents had returned to work and seamlessly the two sisters returned to school. Catherine was sixteen now and undertaking her final years at high school. She was glad to be back, planning scholarship applications to study at universities abroad, and forming close knit friendships.
During those eighteen months in Jordan, Wassim quietly went about organising a sponsor visa to live and work in Australia. Thankfully they had relatives already based in Melbourne, and their visa status was approved. Surprised and speechless Catherine remembers, “I didn’t know much about Australia and had no understanding of the culture there, only what I had seen in movies.”
In Australia, life took some getting used to, but this seemed to be the norm now, adjusting and readjusting to life’s unexpected flows. Catherine was overjoyed to start university and began a Bachelor of Biomedicine and Science.
Now in 2020, six years since stepping foot on Australian soil, Catherine wakes to the sound of kookaburras tussling with magpies. She springs out of bed to do some light yoga before heading to Monash University, eager to get stuck into yet another textbook. This time round she’s a post graduate student studying a Bachelor of Medical Science and a Doctor of Medicine, to be completed in 2023.
Her boyfriend, Matt is constantly inspired by her ambition to fulfil her life-long dream of becoming a doctor, “she’s one of the hardest working people I know,” he said. “I’m amazed at her optimistic approach to life. Whenever there is a challenge, she doesn’t let it overpower her, she rises above it.”
Studying was an outlet that enabled Catherine to propel through one of the most traumatic periods of her life. The ultimate goal is to work with Médecins Sans Frontières, otherwise known as ‘Doctor’s Without Borders’ – the international humanitarian organisation that provides medical and emergency aid to those in disaster and conflict zones.
“How powerful it is to save someone’s life. I hope to travel to disadvantaged areas and work with people who are not privileged or do not have access to healthcare.”
As a high school student in Syria, Catherine applied to the program on a whim but was rejected for not being qualified. To which she responded with, “fine, I’ll see you in ten years.”