Portrait

A coffee with a Congolese doctor from a Sydney hospital. By Sarah Price.

A Congolese doctor in Sydney

We meet for the first time in howling wind at the front doors of a Sydney hospital. He is dressed in pants and a cracked leather jacket with elastic cuffs. It is zipped to the neck. He smiles, says hello and walks silently into the hospital’s main foyer. He has just one hour until his shift.

On the way to the cafeteria, we pass the stairs leading to nuclear medicine. We pass an electronic board that covers an entire wall, listing the names of doctors and their specialities. There are gynaecologists and cardiologists, oncologists, pain medicine physicians, thoracic and sleep specialists, neurologists, plastic surgeons, orthopaedic surgeons, ophthalmologists and anaesthetists. Their names are lit up in alphabetical order. We pass the florist, doctors and nurses in scrubs, sick people in wheelchairs.

We order coffee and find a table. He rests his hands on his lap. We talk about the risk of using his name, and the hospital’s name, in this piece for the paper. We decide the risk is too great. I ask him, “What would you like to be called? A family name, maybe?” After pausing, he says, “Tony. You can call me Tony.” He looks at me intently for the first time. “It is a good thing,” he says, “telling your story. People need to know what is happening … and it might help other people to have a better life.”

Tony tells me his story. He grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he studied medicine. Newly qualified as a doctor, he was sent to east Congo to work. After one year, when the war began, he fled to his family in Kinshasa, in western Congo. Arriving from the eastern side of the country, he was immediately distrusted and accused of spying. He was followed for three days. On the fourth day, he was arrested. In the interview room, he says, there was violence. He was beaten seriously. The officers demanded that he work as a doctor, injecting poison into military leaders captured from the east. Tony refused.

He was saved by a senior colonel in the army. They had known each other as children. The colonel opened a toilet window, gave Tony money for a taxi and told him, “You have to run, man. Just run.” He did. Most of the young people he was held with were dead within two days.

Tony travelled in transport trucks and cars, until he arrived in South Africa. There, “by the grace of God”, he met other Congolese who accommodated him. He taught himself English by reading books and listening to the news. He worked in a flea market and, when he saved enough money, paid for and undertook the medical exam.

For 12 years Tony worked as a doctor in South Africa. He worked in the casualty unit of a trauma ward, and in a teaching hospital, where he eventually specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology. He went on to manage a maternity ward, and says he has lost count of the number of babies he has delivered.

In 2013, “the problems started”. Tony came home to discover that a friend had been murdered in his house. He began receiving death threats. He was physically assaulted. The police said they couldn’t do anything. They told him to put cameras in front of his house. The “real turning point” came when a group of men arrived at his consulting room with guns. He didn’t know who they were, or why he was targeted. “Maybe,” he says, “people don’t like you because you are someone from elsewhere. My wife and I thought if we stayed we would lose our lives. We had small children. We decided to come to Australia.”

Arriving in Sydney, the family had little money and nowhere to live. “I thought we would get more help. I was surprised,” Tony says. “We thought maybe if we didn’t get money, we might at least get a house that was subsidised by the government. There was nothing really to live on. We ended up being assisted by a church to find a house. It is a small African church with only 15 or 20 members. We pay the rent, but the house is in their name.” When his family runs out of food, they go to the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney. At school, his daughter’s teacher gives her food. Early on, someone at a Catholic church gave them money. From the government, they got a Medicare card.

Tony says the most difficult thing has been finding a job. After arriving, he registered through the medical council and paid $2700 to undertake the exam to practise as a doctor in Australia. His exam result, he says, “was nearly laughable”. You need 250 points to pass. He got 248. After that, he sent dozens of emails every day, applying for anything: taxi driver, cleaner, register operator at Woolworths. “Most of the time people tell you, ‘After careful consideration, unfortunately we can’t offer you a job.’ I started asking, ‘Why?’ People want someone with Australian experience. If you don’t have Australian experience, even though you might have other qualifications, it is very difficult to get a job.”

The employment team at the Asylum Seekers Centre hooked Tony up with the hospital. He now works as a patient orderly. “Unfortunately, I am just sitting here, pushing the patients from one side to another,” he says. “What can I do? It is very frustrating.” He gets two to three shifts a week, which pays the family’s rent – just. “I wish the government was assisting new arrival people in order for them to settle down in Australia, but that is not happening. We need to find the way ourselves,” he says. “I wish there was some kind of support, not only for my family, but for people who come after us. For me, I have tried many times.”

Tony’s “biggest wish” is to start working as a doctor again. Being a doctor is not just a profession, he says. He wants to help people in need. “They say once a doctor, always a doctor. I miss it a lot. I feel like I am not doing what I am supposed to do.” To keep his skills up-to-date, Tony watches medical procedures on YouTube. “For me, it is a place of learning,” he says.

Before leaving the cafeteria to begin his shift, Tony tells me he has a plan. To try to get more work, he and his wife have been studying a course in allied health. He is thinking about moving to a country town, a few hours from Sydney, where he will use his new qualification to save money to sit the medical exam again. If the move goes well, his wife and children will follow. “I’m not folding hands, actually,” he says. “I am still trying.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2018 as "All that’s left behind". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.