Years of living with danger fails to crush passion
FOR 20 years, Vivianne Dawalibi supported the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and solved problems with refugee settlement and integration in the Middle East.
While delivering food to Armenian refugees, she was flanked by masked men wielding guns, and was constantly questioned for wanting to help orphans, elderly and mentally ill people in Armenia.
But Vivianne was just doing her job.
Born and raised in Sudan, Vivianne discovered her passion for helping people early on, while working as a special education teacher for children with mental health challenges.
When an American consultant working on the project recognised Vivianne's nurturing nature, she offered her sponsorship and a ticket to USA to better her life and career development.
"I was brought up in a very respectful family and my Dad did not allow me to go and I knew that, so I declined the offer," she said.
In January 1980, Vivianne joined the United Nations as a bookkeeper and was in charge of looking after the financial data entry and sending reports to the UN head office.
"Sudan was a big operation. We were hosting 2.5 million refugees," she said.
As the operation grew, Vivianne moved from finance to administration. But her calling was on the ground.
"We had the big emergency operation at the time and the office was looking for people to go down into the field," she said.
"I was lucky, my husband allowed me, and I went to the field and I loved it."
In the middle of the desert, Vivianne worked with the refugee families and their children, identifying their needs, working with international aid and health agencies, and negotiating with the government for better access and support for aid workers.
"I was just doing my job," she said.
But delegates from the headquarters in Switzerland, monitoring the implementation of the emergency operation, saw it as much more.
And in 1981, the organisation and Vivianne received a Nobel Peace Prize Award in recognition of their devoted service.
Vivianne quickly rose the ranks and was sent on emergency missions with the UN.
"My husband understood my passion and always supported me and allowed me to go, which was so different from my Dad," she said.
"My first mission outside Sudan was in Nairobi, Kenya. I was in charge of the Somalia/Kenya cross-border operation and that was an emergency situation because of the civil war in Somalia."
Vivianne was in charge of establishing an emergency camp for the refugees between the borders and facilitating 73 US Peace Corp volunteers.
"From there I was sent on a mission into Armenia, another emergency situation after the civil war in Azerbaijan," she said.
"It was a little bit different because we were serving Armenian refugees who fled and became refugees in their own homeland. Because they crossed the international border, they became refugees."
In 1993, Sudan experienced a change in government and Vivianne's husband, Nubar Bozadjian, was arrested, by supposed military personnel.
"No questions, nothing, he was just arrested. It was hard, exactly like what's happening in Syria right now, was happening in Sudan at the time," she said.
Fortunately, Vivianne's position with the UN was favoured and her husband was released after three days.
At the end of that year, Vivianne and Nubar were granted refugee status in Australia, and in February 1994, they relocated.
"My husband was really keen to settle in Australia, but for me, my heart was still in my operation," she said.
"But we decided to resign from my role and settle in Australia."
Upon their arrival in Australia, Vivianne was nominated for a position in Armenia.
"My husband was kind enough to allow me, after all these years of dreaming of coming to Australia," she said.
"He said 'It's only one year, this is your dream, fulfil it'."
Months later, Nubar and their son, Homer-George joined Vivianne in Armenia, where she stayed for four years.
Vivianne played a big role in changing reforms including social security, refugee status and health reforms. But her biggest challenge lay in delivering food parcels to the refugees.
Because of the international blockade, the food was delivered through a UN sister agency (World Food Program) from Turkey to Georgia by trucks, then transferred onto railway wagons and brought into Armenia.
"Not speaking the language, not knowing anything about the region, I went because I was asked to do it. It was a very risky operation," she said.
There was a civil war in Georgia, streets were filled with armed bandits and Vivianne and her driver were "with food when people were hungry".
"On the way back we were pulled over many times by so-called police," she said.
"And when we came across to the border of Armenia and Georgia, we were attacked." .
Vivianne's desperate prayers were answered and for no apparent reason, the men waved them through.
She and her driver risked their lives for a useless food delivery. It was snowing, there was no electricity and they had delivered rice and pasta - unable to be cooked.
Vivianne's report prompted the UN to change the scope of the program, from emergency to settlement and integration, allowing better care for the refugees.
Vivianne knew her goodwill could reach further and she started working with orphanages, aged care facilities, hostels housing prostitutes and mental health institutions.
She was awarded a United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization peace prize for her dedication and hard work with the 54 orphanages in Armenia.
"My main concerns were women, children and the elderly," she said.
"Armenia is a family-orientated culture, but because of the economic circumstances, many men left for Russia for a better life or were killed in the war, leaving behind single mums, children and the elderly." She said.
From June 1999, Vivianne's life turned upside down and she was forced to return home for personal reasons.
Her mum died, and then in September, Nubar, who was volunteering with the UN at the time, became gravely ill.
Overwhelmed, Vivianne resigned from the UN.
In 2000, Nubar's health slightly improved and they opened a small office from their Sydney home.
Having worked in such turbulent and gratifying circumstances, Vivianne itched to do well and took a job at her local church, Melkite Catholic Church, where she launched a community development project and established the Melkite Welfare Association.
Within a couple of years, Nubar's health fluctuated and he died. Vivianne left Sydney and moved to the Gold Coast.
Then in July 2004, she bought the Caloundra Bulk Billing Surgery.
Soon after, she found herself involved with a big project. She took over the whole floor after the closure of the former Caloundra Beach Pharmacy and developed it into a modern practice.
"My vision is to turn my practice into a mini hospital."