Syrian refugee Rola El Mgharbel recalls her journey – from war-torn Damascus to dental nursing in Durham.

As an 18 year old Syrian, Rola El Mgharbel could not have foreseen a future that would see her settled safely and working here in the UK. The 24 year old arrived in the autumn of 2016, having fled the devastated city of Damascus, forced to give up on her studies and leave without any possessions amid a civil war that was ravaging her country.

According to recent statistics from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Rola is just one of around 5.7 million Syrians who have fled their homeland, whilst more than 6.1 million residents remain displaced internally. When Rola eventually arrived here in the UK, speaking only a little English, she had the tenacity and determination to create a new life for herself – far away from her violent and upsetting beginnings.

Rola recalls her story: ‘When the war started in 2012, there were bombs falling around our home. We tried to take shelter underground, but it was too dangerous and, after a week, my father decided the whole family should leave. We did not have time to get any of our belongings and left with nothing. It meant that I had to give up my place at university, too.’

With her parents, sister and young twin brothers, Rola initially moved to Beirut, in Lebanon, where the family were forced to make ends meet working in clothing shops for four years.

She says: ‘Life was very hard, as it was so expensive. Then the UN contacted us and said we had the opportunity to be on the resettlement programme and could go to the UK.’

The family were lucky enough to be part of an initiative to resettle Syrian families in the North-East. Durham County Council – strong supporters of helping refugees – helped the family to settle in the area, whilst volunteers from Durham City of Sanctuary, a charity that works to build opportunities for introductions and friendship between sanctuary seekers and local people, helped the family integrate into the community.

According to figures taken from the BBC, County Durham is home to the third largest refugee population in the North-East. Unsurprisingly, the family hasn’t looked back.

Rola explains: ‘We were a little afraid when we first arrived. But, from the very first day, people were welcoming and friendly and we feel part of the community now. My life has changed for the better since we arrived. I felt at home as soon as I got here.’

‘I initially felt useless, I didn’t know anyone and had no friends but, in time, I met a lot of people who were volunteering to help refugees and I made new friends and felt safe and lucky to be here. It was not easy at the beginning to adapt, especially in the first six months, but then we were enrolled on a conversation group every week, which helped.’

When it came to establishing a new career path, Rola was helped by Durham County Council’s English as an Additional Language (EAL) team and Durham Council Employability to get on the dental nursing course at New College Durham.

She explains: ‘I finished high school in Syria in 2012 and I got a place at Damascus University to start a dental technology course, but I never went to university because of the circumstances, so I am so grateful to the County Durham Community Foundation for helping to fund my course.

‘The biggest challenge was the terminology. Writing essays and course work was difficult as well because, when I started the course, I had only a little knowledge of the English language.

‘I had studied it at school in Syria and did an English course in Lebanon but, when I arrived here, it was difficult to speak the language. I could understand, but the accents were hard. Learning to speak in English was not an easy job – as a language learner you often understand what people are saying, but may find it difficult to speak at the beginning.'

She says: ‘Within six months I got a placement in at Cestria Dental Practice. I am so thankful. It gave me confidence to do things and to go out and improve my English.’

Rola now works as a dental nurse at the practice in Chester-le-Street in County Durham. She persevered, even though she had to endure a three-hour round trip using public transport to get to work and back until she passed her driving test.

But she impressed practice owner, Chris Bennett, with the same determination to overcome this and the language barrier, as she initially demonstrated settling in her adopted country.

He says: ‘I was introduced to Rola when she was trying to find a placement and appreciated she was a remarkable individual and was happy to help.

‘The main issue at that time she wasn’t able to drive, so she was travelling three hours a day on bus to Newton Aycliffe and back, which was quite a commitment. She has been reliable, punctual and immediately demonstrated a real aptitude for the job.

‘Rola is very empathic person. She has grace in everything that she does and is lovely to work with.’

He adds: ‘When she started, she only had limited conversation in English, which you would expect. To go from that 18 months ago, to be able to write academic essays and present course work, including specialist health care vocabulary, is remarkable. We are really proud of her.’

But Rola’s empathy is perhaps not suprising, considering what she has already faced in her life. As she explains: ‘I had rough times during 2011-2012 in Syria like any Syrian. People were helping each other to get over this disaster. After what happened in Syria, I feel more sympathetic to the events taking place around me.’

She adds: ‘I feel so lucky that I got the opportunity to work at Cestria Dental Practice. When I first started my English was not as good as now. My employer, Mr Bennett, and my colleagues were very helpful and friendly with me. I learnt a lot of things from my workplace about the culture and the laws in the UK. My self-confidence has increased and I feel as if I am part of a big family. The team around me has played an essential role in my experience as they gave me peace of mind, and made me feel welcome.'

But Rola is not one to rest on her laurels. Now qualified, she is looking to study further and become a dental hygienist.

‘I am now planning to do an access to higher education health diploma next September, then apply to university the year after to study a degree in dental hygiene.

On the practice’s website, there is an effusive message for its patients that stands testimony to the dental nurse’s achievements. It reads: ‘Arriving from Syria just over two years ago, Rola has been an inspiration to us all – showing commitment to her studies and overcoming every barrier. Her work is of the highest standard and she always has a smile! It has been a privilege to work with her. Congratulations from all of the team.’