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Win-win for Syrian doctor and Austrian town

Not long ago Rabee al Refai and his family were dodging bombs in Syria. Now they're hopeful their kids will soon go to school and Dr. al Refai will return to the operating room in Austria, reports Alison Langley.

Last June, Selena al Refai, three years old at the time, was asleep with her cousin when a mortar shell slammed through the wall of their third-floor apartment in Daraa, Syria.

The shell did not explode. Instead, it burst into flames, engulfing the balcony. The two girls survived uninjured, but that was the last straw for Selena's parents.

"I thought, 'I can't stay and see my children die,'" says Dr. Rabee al Refai, 32, relaxing on a sofa in his new home in Langenlebarn, Austria, about an hour from Vienna. His wife, Rawan al Masalmeh, 27, perches on the armrest next him, listening.

He has just returned home from his first day back at a hospital and he says it feels great to return to a bit of normalcy even though he can only volunteer. He must learn German and get his accreditation in Austria before he can practice medicine here.

As he speaks, Selena, now four, and her brother Karim, two, run in and out of the living room, stopping briefly to kick a balloon or play with colorful blocks. Cartoons play silently on the TV.

This is the first time either of the children have lived in a country where they don't have to worry about being shelled in their sleep. They don't have to spend hours sitting out bombing raids. And Selena can go to kindergarten.

Children walk near a damaged building in Abtaa, Deraa province

Al Refai and al Masalmeh saw no future for their family in Syria

Al Refai and al Masalmeh are convinced the conflict in Syria, now in its fifth year, will not end soon. So they are determined to make a new life in Austria.

Not all refugees have such smooth transitions as the al Refai family, who received asylum status the last week of 2015, a mere four months after arriving in Austria. One reason for their success is that al Refai worked hard to make himself stand out among the 95,000 refugees who requested asylum here last year. The other reason is the extraordinary efforts of the community that has adopted the family and tried hard to make them feel at home.

It takes a village

The al Refai family has support. A lot of it.

A group of doctors and nurses from Tulln University Hospital, mostly, but also neighbors and volunteers have been helping the Syrian family transition to Austrian life.

After a few phone calls, they found a home - a furnished duplex owned by a doctor who is currently out of the country. They helped register Selena in a local kindergarten. Another volunteer showed them the best places to shop, where to find the library and how to use public transport.

Bernhard Zeh, a surgeon at the hospital, calls it "luxury care."

It happened, Zeh believes, because the townfolk of Tulln agreed last September they would be pro-active in helping a small number of asylum-seekers.

"There's a big difference between helping an individual and hearing about a collective problem," Zeh says. When there are thousands of people to help "you feel a bit overwhelmed. But if there is one family, you can say, 'Oh, I can do this or that.'"

Late September, volunteers met with town officials to map out how they would help the wave of refugees flooding into the country.

"The mood was very positive," Zeh says. "Everyone was volunteering."

So they began searching for refugees rather than waiting for the government to assign them a group. That's when one of Zeh's colleagues read an article about al Refai.

Doctors and translators get noticed

At the time, the al Refai family were staying in old army barracks in nearby Klosterneuburg after a treacherous journey. They were just four of some 250 people who are housed in the transit quarters at any given time.

"We made many friends there," al Masalmeh says in halting English. She understands English, but prefers to answer in Arabic, which al Refai translates.

There were daily activities: German lessons, a playgroup for children, excursions to Vienna, weekly trips to the Essl museum; even a friendly football game with a local team. Everyone in Klosterneuberg's barracks knew al Refai. He was helpful, friendly and a leader.

Refugees at the border between Germany and Austria

Al Refai returned to Nickelsdorf to help after crossing there himself

Along the trail leading from Syria to Klosterneuburg, al Refai learned that he could make himself useful as a translator. He perfected his English years ago when he had dreams of one day working in England. Although he's never made it to London, his language skills were essential in navigating his family's journey through forests both wooded and bureaucratic.

In Klosterneuburg, he made himself indispensible. He was the translator who linked the Austrians to the asylum seekers.

"He didn't wait around for someone to ask him to help out," says Sabine Gösker, founder of the volunteer group Klosterneuburg Helps. "He jumped at any opportunity to get involved."

So when Gösker asked him if he wanted to help at the Hungarian-Austrian border for a day, al Refai hopped into the car. Though he couldn't prescribe medicine, al Refei could translate and help out in other ways.

A local paper wrote about al Refai's trip back to the Nickelsdorf border, and Dr. Peter Lechner, the head of Tulln University Hospital read the article. Noting that al Refai lived in Klosterneuburg, a stone's throw from Tulln, he called Goesker, who put him in touch with al Refai.

Although Austria has the second highest number of doctors per capital within OECD, behind Greece, the number can be misleading. The Austrian Medical Association warns that about half of the 1,800 doctors in rural areas will retire in the next decade.

Al Refai grew up in the country. He thinks it is a great place for his children. Above all, it is safe. His sister and her children now live about an hour away by train. But Selena cries when she sees her cousin. It reminds her of the mortar shell. She has dark circles under her eyes; she still doesn't sleep well at night.

Cleaning women and gardeners

The first Monday of January, al Refai started volunteering at the hospital. It will take a long time before he will be allowed to practice medicine in Austria. His papers must be notarized; he needs to pass certification exams and his German language skills need to be as perfect as his English.

Right now that doesn't matter. "It's a good feeling to be back in a hospital again," al Refai says. "I'm feeling like I'm not a refugee anymore. I'm a doctor."

When asked what it feels like to be a refugee, al Refai pinches his face for a moment. "Different" and "weak" are words he tries out. Then: "powerless."

Refugees arrive from Hungary at the Nickelsdorf border crossing in Austria

As a refugee Al Refai felt powerless

Zeh, the doctor in Tulln, is confident that al Refai is up to the challenge of getting his certification. "If he invests a bit of effort, much will come back," Zeh says.

He thinks back to a Bosnian family who arrived during the war with Serbia in 1994. In Sarejevo, the father was a teacher and the mother the head librarian; their son was four, Selena's age, when they arrived.

Never able to completely master the language or get re-certified, the father became a gardener and the mother still works as a cleaning woman.

"Not everyone makes it as they plan," Zeh says. "Some do."

The Bosnian son is now working as a doctor with Zeh.

Al Refai has heard stories like this. He knows Syrians who were trained as engineers and now hold menial jobs. "I am super lucky. I have friends and lots of support. But in the end, I have to make the exams and pass the language test," he says.

When he heards about the Bosnian son who is a doctor, al Refai brightens up.

"Maybe my daughter will be a doctor, too. She will make it better than me."

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