Dana Al Samaan was born and raised in Damascus, Syria. She describes her childhood as “happy and normal” but in 2008 her father got sick and passed away at which point the then-20-year-old took on greater responsibilities.
She was still studying at university but didn’t want to be dependent on her mother. “I started working and my first job was actually with an NGO supporting Iraqi refugees in Syria,” Al Samaan says.
At the time she sympathised with them deeply but in time she came to discover their pain very intimately.
In 2009 she graduated from Damascus University with an economics degree and enrolled in a master’s degree in auditing. Combining full-time work with the academic load was extremely challenging but she persevered.
After the war broke out in Syria life became more difficult. Aside from the instability the economic impact of the conflict made financial security impossible: the currency lost value and inflation meant her wages were no longer sufficient to cover the cost of living.
Dana left her family, her friends and her home to find work in Northern Iraq in Erbil.
“Northern Iraq was the only place which opened the door for Syrians to find work,” she says.
Al Samaan landed an auditing job with Deloitte in Erbil in early 2014 which was terrific but the situation was far from idyllic.
A single woman living alone was not exactly culturally accepted and in mid 2014 when ISIS invaded Mosul, very close to Erbil, the situation worsened.
“I did not feel safe at all as a single girl living among terrorists who were targeting individuals like myself,” she says. “I realised that as a female I could no longer stay living either in Iraq or in Syria if I wanted to feel one of the most essential human needs: safety.”
Many Syrian friends who had been living in Iraq had applied to live in Australia so Al Samaan did the same.
“I didn’t believe I could continue my life in Iraq because of the instability,” she says. “I had never been to Australia but because I knew a lot of Syrians had been placed here – I knew there would be opportunity to begin my life again.”
After three years of living in Erbil, Dana’s visa application for Australia was approved and she left Iraq in July last year.
She arrived in Sydney on 27 July 2017 with no family and no friends but was not daunted.
“I was just excited to take on a new safe life,” she says. “Because I had lived in an insecure area – I knew Australia would be a better place.”
She said knowing someone was going to meet her at the airport and help settle her into Sydney meant she was unafraid. Dana was greeted by Settlement Services International, an NGO, which had arranged a month’s accommodation and, amazingly, helped her secure full-time employment within a month of arriving.
As part of its commitment to supporting diversity Allianz Australia has partnered with SSI with a program dedicated to helping place skilled refugees into meaningful permanent employment.
“The recruitment process was like any other,” Al Samaan says. “There were assessments, I met with HR and then with business managers.”
She was offered a full time job in the finance arm of Allianz Australia which she describes as a “blessing.”
“It helped me to feel independent and start my life again,” she says.
Her experience in Iraq has helped her adjust easily to life in Australia.
“Living in Iraq as a single woman with not much understanding has helped,” she says. “People in Australia don’t judge a single woman living alone.”
The support she’s received from Allianz, SSI and the Australian government has made settling into her new life a job.
On World Refugee Day Dana has one wish: to change perceptions of refugees and people from refugee backgrounds.
“I don’t blame anyone for their perceptions because I put myself in their shoes andtry to imagine what they’re thinking. But I am trying to change the perception of my community,” she says. “Refugees are here to give not to take. Sometimes we add quality and qualities not just quantity.”