As It Happens

After 10 years and 4 countries, Syrian refugee finally achieves dream of becoming a doctor

Tirej Brimo was forced to flee Syria when he was just a year away from becoming a doctor. Now he's a doctor in England.
Ten years after he started medical school in his home country of Syria, Tirej Brimo finally graduated with a medical degree from St George's, University of London last week. (St George's, University of London Press)

Story transcript

After 10 years, four countries and 21 houses, Tirej Brimo has finally realized his dream of becoming a doctor.

Brimo was in his last year of medical school when the war in Syria became unbearable. He left the country — and left behind an unfinished degree.

He became a refugee. He fled from Syria to Lebanon, from Lebanon to Egypt, and finally, from Egypt to England. And last week — a decade after he started studying medicine — Tirej Brimo graduated with a medical degree from St. George's, University of London. 
Tirej Brimo at his graduation. (St George's, University of London Press)

Brimo is now a junior doctor with the National Health Service in Stafford. As It Happens guest host Rosemary Barton spoke with Tirej Brimo about what it means for him to finally graduate.

Tirej Brimo, tell me about the moment when you realized you were going to have to leave medical school and leave your home country of Syria.

That was in 2012. It was the most difficult thing in my life, ever. No one chooses to leave everything at once. The streets where you grew up, the coffee shop where you have your coffee, the bakery where you get your bread from, the smiles you see around every morning, the friends you love to hang out with, your family, the house you wanted to buy, the job you wanted to apply to — everything in your life, you lose at once. It wasn't a decision, it was a reality that we had to accept, as Syrians, with broken hearts. 

So you left and you went first to Lebanon and then on to Egypt. Did you, at any point, say to yourself, "I won't be able to be a doctor. This isn't going to happen?"

I've always believed that one day I would get there. I always believed that through hard work and believing in yourself, you will get to your dreams, regardless of how difficult they are.

And when you got to the U.K., how long did it take before, knowing that you'd been accepted, to study medicine there?

It took me a year. Throughout that year I applied to all the medical schools. I worked really hard on improving my English until I got accepted by St. George's, University of London.

 'I didn't want to give up on who I am. I didn't want to give up on my dreams. Wars are very difficult but I've always said to myself that one day I would get there.'- Tirej Brimo

And before you got to the United Kingdom, did you try in Lebanon or Egypt to get into medical school?

Yes, I applied to 11 medical schools in Egypt and I temporarily registered myself with two of them. Unfortunately, the circumstances in Egypt weren't stable at the time so I had to leave there and come to the United Kingdom.

And throughout all that you still felt that this is what you wanted to do. What was driving it?

It was simply a rejection of the unfairness of life. I didn't want to give up on who I am. I didn't want to give up on my dreams. Wars are very difficult but I've always said to myself that one day I would get there. 

When you were finally accepted to St. George's, University of London, what was that like?

It was amazing. I always describe it as the world was smiling at me again and a flower of hope grew back into my life. I still remember how euphoric I used to get every time I received admissions. I used to call it "an email from heaven."

And when you started you were obviously different from the other students because of what you had been through — the war, and then as a refugee. How did that inform your training or how will it make you a different kind of doctor?

Our experiences shape who we are. For me now, whenever I see a patient, I see him as a dad. I see him as a brother, as a son, as a daughter, as the mother of someone. I don't see them as just a patient. I see them as someone who has a life outside the hospital. Someone I need to be there for, so that I can help them get back to their life. 
After he found out he was accepted by St. George's, University of London, Tirej Brimo said "the world was smiling at me again and a flower of hope grew back into my life." (Tirej Brimo/Facebook)

What kind of medicine do you want to practice Dr. Brimo?

Emergency medicine or trauma surgery is what I want to do. But at the moment, I can't wait to start contributing to the community, the British community. In the U.K. I was loved, I was believed in, and I was welcomed so I cannot wait to start contributing to the community. But one day, I think I will go back to the frontline and wherever pain is, I'll be there. And because I understand how difficult it is to lose everything at once, and how important it is to have someone compassionate to you, one day I'll get back to the frontline.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Tirej Brimo.

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