'So happy and so pleased': School dux for Syrian teen refugee


With an ATAR score of 96.65, a teenage Syrian refugee has the opportunity to achieve his dream of becoming a doctor.

Two years ago Saad Al-Kassab couldn’t speak English, but he had a novel way of teaching himself the new tongue.

“I would watch parliament, and question time,” the 19-year-old told SBS.

"In general, they speak slowly, to get the message across. It was not easy, but I was able to separate the words.”

It was also an opportunity to learn about his safe, new country.

“I find politics fascinating. Especially here, the democratic system,” he said.

“In Syria, all they do in parliament, is clap. So it was really fascinating for me to find out how the democratic system works.”

As thousands of students formally received their ATAR scores today, he was among the top achievers.

With a score of 96.65, Saad was the dux of his school. He has also received a scholarship to Monash University.

“I'm feeling so, overwhelmed. I'm feeling so happy and so pleased.”

“I watched my kids every day. I wonder who’s going to be killed. Or arrested, or kidnapped."

When Catholic Regional College Sydenham in Melbourne's north west gave Saad a job as a gardener, teachers soon discovered he also needed to continue his education.

So he was offered a scholarship, and drove more than an hour every day to complete his VCE.

But Saad’s elation was out of reach for just a few years ago, when he and his family were in the midst of Syria's bloody war.

Residents of the besieged city of Homs, shelling, famine and death became the everyday reality for the Al-Kassab family.

“We were on the front line,” Saad’s father, Abdul Al-Kassab, told SBS.

“We were dead. If you lose your country, your houses, your relatives, you are nothing.”

“I watched my kids every day. I wonder who’s going to be killed. Or arrested, or kidnapped. It was very difficult for us.”

Food was scarce and their school was turned into a refugee camp.

When they should have been at school, Saad and his siblings were instead working within their community, helping to deliver aid to besieged neighborhoods, as part of the humanitarian response.

He set up a makeshift school, at home. His mother, a chemical engineer, became his teacher.

"I bought books, for Year 9 and Year 10, and I started to study at home with my mum."

With little more than the clothes on their back and the dream of a better life, two years ago Australia became their new home.

“You feel you don't belong to a land, or a country. So when a country like Australia gave us refuge, gave us the right to come here and live here, we felt like we came back to life,” said Mr Al-Kassab.

Grateful for the opportunities afforded to him, Saad can't help think of his friends and a generation of Syrians who weren't as lucky.

“That was really heartbreaking for me, that made me determined that I should be that guy, who will help those people."

For Saad, that means hopefully studying medicine and working with Doctors Without Borders one day.

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