Maher Radwan grew up in Damascus, Syria, built a successful business, got married and welcomed two daughters. Then in 2012, he made the difficult decision to leave his country in order to keep his family safe. 

"One day I heard on TV there was a bomb at my daughter's school," Maher explains. "We tried to reach the school, which was impossible as roads were blocked by the army, and I was confronted on the streets by an armed soldier who threatened to shoot me. Thankfully, my daughter was safe, but the next day, we left Syria."

Maher gained his civil engineering qualifications in Syria, and was the co-owner of a construction company, which he started on a limited budget and grew into a US$20 million business. 

By 2010, Maher had 250 employees and had led many successful projects. He advised on large infrastructure projects including the six-lane, 98km Latakia-Ariha highway which has since been destroyed by war, and consulted on specifications and technical aspects, training other engineers and experts. 

Maher took pride in developing new engineering solutions and introduced a curing compound in concrete that resulted in an update to his country's engineering standards. 

The family's first stop after fleeing Syria was Lebanon where they lived in a hotel. Over the next three years Maher travelled to Iraq for work, where he started again as co-owner of another construction company, sending money back to his family and visiting when able. When ISIS came to Iraq in 2014, he was once again forced to decide to move his family to preserve their safety. 

It was my dream to come to Australia and we had tried before but it was very hard to get a visa. I knew it would be a safe place for my family. So, we left Lebanon.

"We lost everything," he said. "My house, warehouses, my business, cars, everything except our good memories we kept with us."

Arriving in Australia

In December 2017, Maher arrived in Darwin, Australia with his wife and two daughters, his mother, sister and two brothers.  

"I wanted to stay working in construction, but circumstances forced me to take a different path," said Maher.  "I found there were limited opportunities in a smaller city like Darwin, so I started a successful restaurant business with my family who still run it today. I also worked as an Arabic interpreter for the Northern Territory government while studying."

During his time in the NT, Maher completed a Certificate IV and Diploma of Work, Health and Safety, a Certificate IV in Small Business and a Graduate Certificate in Project Management.  

Maher moved to Melbourne in 2020 and now lives in the north-western suburb of Keilor Downs with his wife and two daughters who are now 19 and 8 years old. He initially tried to start a small concrete repair and waterproofing business, but found it too hard to compete, so he needed a new plan.

Finding the support of CareerSeekers

"I found out about the CareerSeekers program from a friend who is also Syrian," Maher said. "CareerSeekers recognised that I had over 22 years construction and engineering experience and helped me learn how to communicate my experience during an interview."

"When they put me in touch with Ventia, I was not sure I would be successful. I did not sleep well the night before the interview, but afterwards I felt positive about it."

CareerSeekers helps new arrivals like Maher successfully transition into the workforce, providing mid-career professionals and students with work experience in their chosen field to help them enter the Australian jobs market. 

Ventia has partnered with the not-for-profit social enterprise since 2019 to provide opportunities to refugees and asylum seekers and further our goal to create a diverse workforce that is representative of our communities.

"It was difficult to start my career again in Australia. It is not just about a language barrier, there is also a cultural barrier - it's not easy for me to just tell you what I'm thinking. I have to take the information and process it in my mind and then reach you with it," Maher explains. "It takes time and sometimes it's not easy to connect in the right way."

Starting a new career

In early 2022, Maher began a 12-week paid internship in Victoria as a Safety, Health, Environment and Quality (SHEQ) Administrator, working across a range of activities including managing high-risk activities, using the risk register, completing inspections and investigations and attending workshops, meetings and toolbox talks. The internship went well and the role was extended by three months. 

"My goal during this time was to improve my knowledge of the culture and practices of Australian workplaces and the core skills essential to performing well," said Maher. 

In July, Maher accepted a full-time position as a Ventia Contract Officer in the Transport Procurement team supporting Ventia's role on the Western Roads Upgrade (WRU) project to improve and maintain more than 260km of road from Footscray to Werribee in Melbourne's west. 

The atmosphere here at Ventia is great and I'm very happy, people really listen to me now.

"What has surprised me is how approachable managers are - you can sit and have a chat and it's so informal compared with working in the Middle East. Quality standards are high and Ventia cares about their workers and whether they are safe at work." 

"What was a problem for me at first, is better now because people know me and what I can do, because I've had the chance to show them. My challenge was to be patient while I demonstrated my knowledge and built trust and credibility with my colleagues."

"There are lots of opportunities and I look forward to doing something bigger here for my company and buying a house for my family."