Photo: Medicine student, Catherine Makdsi, enjoys new life in Australia (source: Caitlin Burns)
Written by Caitlin Burns
At a time when life in Syria is at its most hostile, it’s hard to imagine a stable life for an average teenager before conflict, chemical warfare and mass killings.
As I was welcomed into the home of Catherine Makdsi, a twenty-four-year-old medicine student, I was instantly comforted by an aroma of freshly baked maamoul cookies, a Middle Eastern treat. Together, we sat on the terrace beside a fishpond as she reflected on her childhood in Syria, family and her love for learning.
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 still 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 5 am 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 schoolyard, this was not the case. People would often ask Catherine why she bothered learning if it was her destiny to become a housewife. But she 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 Catherine 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.
It was then when Catherine began volunteering for the Red Cross. Makeshift hospitals were set up in local churches, providing a safe haven for people to receive 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, Catherine 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,’ says Catherine.
Time as a volunteer showed her how important education was in order to save a life. From that moment on, Catherine wanted to learn how to do CPR and give proper aid to help 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 the world that was crumbling 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 the Makdsi family were no longer safe in Syria. Catherine’s 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 travel to the airport.
‘ISIS were killing people in the streets. I saw and heard things no person should ever have to witness,’ says Catherine. She remembers her five-year-old sister, Celine, hiding underneath the table for hours during the ordeal. ‘No one knew where she was … everyone was just in complete shock, trying to keep quiet, praying for our lives.’
Within a couple of hours, the Syrian army had cleared the streets, finally allowing the Makdsi family to flee by car to the airport. The Toyota sedan flew along the highway at what felt like 200 kmph but the family feared that their vehicle might be pulled over by rebels posing as border security. Their surname, Makdsi, 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.
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,’ says Catherine. Her family lay in between, middle class. And refugees were stereotyped as ‘uneducated, who’d come to leech.’
Despite their physically draining 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 of high school education. 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, shocked and speechless, Catherine remembers not knowing much about Australia, only what she had seen in films.
After arriving in Australia, life took some getting used to. 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 2021, seven 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 another textbook. This time around she’s a postgraduate student studying a Bachelor of Medical Science and a Doctor of Medicine—to be completed in 2023.
Her boyfriend, Matt Butler, is constantly inspired by her ambition to fulfil her life-long dream of becoming a doctor. ‘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. Her ultimate goal is to work with Médecins Sans Frontières, otherwise known as Doctors 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.’
Caitlin is currently undertaking her Masters in Writing and Literature. Her fiction and travel stories have featured in The Blue Nib Literary Magazine, Style Magazine Australia, Intrepid Times, among others. She also posts regularly to her personal blog, An Aussie Broad.