A childhood spent in Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein, eight years of study at Vatican City, an experience as a Catholic priest, a journey of hope to Australia, and waiting to marry the love of his life. These are the ingredients of Amer Youkhanna’s life, a story where love, faith, and resilience won over the hardships.
Amer Youkhanna, 36, speaks five languages, which include Arabic, English, and Italian. He works as a Multicultural Aide (Interpreter) in a Catholic college in Melbourne, Australia. Born in Baghdad, in grade 4, he and his family moved to Mosul, a smaller town in Iraq, where they lived until Amer was in Year 11.
About that period, he remembers that people in Mosul were less open and friendly than those in cosmopolitan Baghdad, but even though dictator Saddam Hussein ruled the country, in both places he was able to live peacefully, practice his Catholic belief, and study theology. His vocation made him study with passion, and he was granted a scholarship to continue at Vatican City and become a priest.
In Rome, he met many different people and made good friends, some of whom he is still in touch with. Amer has great memories of the time he spent in Italy, and recollects that the locals were very hospitable and kind to him.
Unfortunately, after that happy period, he had to face a hard decision: going back to Iraq or leaving the Church and joining his family, which in the meantime had moved to Australia.
In his home country, life for the Christian minority had become extremely dangerous, and even Amer’s best friend, a priest like himself, who had returned to Mosul, advised him to stay away. Soon after trying to persuade his good mate not to go back, he was pulled out of his car and shot dead.
Bishop Paul Faraj Rahho, another close friend, was also killed in Iraq after been kidnapped and tortured. These tragic events and losses convinced Amer to leave the Church and move to Australia, but his Catholic principles and faith continued to guide him.
When asked about faith, he said:
“It has a strong role in my life. […] My faith in God was my only reason to choose to be a priest; that same faith showed me the way to get to Australia and get somewhere safe.”
In 2009, Amer applied for refugee status and was able to join his family in Australia — his mum, one sister, a brother, and some other relatives. Australia gave him a new home, a job, and new hope for the future. In 2014, Amer became a citizen, and his colleagues, friends, and family all rejoiced and celebrated the happy event with him.
For the last six years, Amer has been working at a Catholic college in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, where many students come from areas of the Middle East struck by war and violence, and whose families were forced to flee their hometowns to save their lives.
There, he has an important role in communicating between educators, students, and their families. His life experience, culture, and education, as well as his faith and compassion, are used to help others.
In Amer’s life, there is more: a special person, someone who has always been a good friend and became much closer in the last four years. Lamis is a young woman from Baghdad who moved to the Netherlands with her mother and father.
Amer and Lamis met during their childhood in Iraq, as their families used to attend the same church. They have kept in touch and comforted each other during the difficult times.
Four years ago, Amer asked Lamis to marry him, and since then the couple has been in a long distance relationship, waiting for the paperwork to be ready and the immigration offices in Australia and the Netherlands to give them the green light to start their family. The good news finally arrived last month.
Amer will fly to Amsterdam in July to pick up his bride-to-be and take her to Melbourne, where they will fulfill their dream and say their vows in September. Amer looks forward to being “a husband, possibly a father, and continue to be a friend to his wife.” He also wishes to continue his theological studies to become a lecturer.
Amer’s story is one of resilience and faith in God. It shows how we can all improve through, and learn from, pain and hardships. When asked to provide some advice to young people who are facing a hard time like he did, Amer said:
“Have faith in yourselves, and never give up on your dreams […] Hardships […] will always be in our lives, and every difficulty makes the person change.”
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