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Escape from totalitarianism: Sydney ophthalmologist marks World Refugee Day

Coming from a long line of family doctors, one would be forgiven for thinking refugee-turned-Sydney ophthalmologist Dr Alina Zeldovich had an advantage over her peers as she pursued a medical career in Australia.

However, behind the curtain lives a remarkable story of perseverance, seeing her overcome the persecution of her family before escaping from the totalitarian-grip of the Soviet Union more than 40 years ago.

Zeldovich, who now works as an anterior segment ophthalmologist and director at Eye Associates in Macquarie St, Sydney, has spoken about her past to coincide with the recent World Refugee Day on 20 June. She also describes how her experience has motivated her to make a difference in her patients’ lives.

Alina Zeldovich in the Soviet Union in a jumpsuit her mother knitted.

“I really wanted to choose a specialty that could improve people’s quality of life and make a huge impact on how they were able to function, perform in their careers and enjoy life to the fullest. I was also drawn to the miracle of vision, and the delicate surgery and interesting consulting work,” she said.

“In a country like Australia, I always believed that anything was possible, so I studied hard and didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Zeldovich comes from a family of doctors, including three of her four grandparents and both parents. But due to the general lack of opportunities and quotas in the former Soviet Union in the 1970s, it was difficult for them to train in large cities and to gain access to jobs.

Reflecting on that period, she said the government controlled how people lived their lives. They were afraid the KGB military service was following them and listening to their conversations.

“My grandparents spent time in gaol, accused of crimes they didn’t commit, and had their homes raided without provocation. It was a totalitarian state,” Zeldovich recalled.

“In 1976 my parents and I were finally able to leave. We could take very few possession – essentially just a suitcase – and could not have any contact with the rest of our family in case they were persecuted because of our leaving.

Alina Zeldovich with her mother Dr Sophia Zeldovich. Her father and three of her grandparents were also doctors.

“When we left, we went to Italy, who were accepting refugees at the time. We spent 18 months there whilst our papers where being processed and did not know our final destination. The countries that were prepared to take us were Australia, New Zealand or America.”

Greener pastures

The Zeldovich family spoke no English and knew nothing about their eventual destination “as information was censored behind the iron certain” within the Soviet Union.

Her parents decided on Australia based on a positive interaction they had had with an Australian citizen. He also told them doctors were needed there.

“My parents had to retrain in Australia and we spent a lot of time in different parts of rural NSW. I didn’t have any formal education until I was six years old and had to move schools repeatedly as we moved from place to place,” she said.

Wanting to pursue a career that could have a significant impact on people’s lives, Zeldovich chose ophthalmology. Equipped with a determined attitude, she was selected to attend Sydney Girls High School and then studied medicine at UNSW.

It’s led to her work today, including at Eye Associates, a large established group practice, which covers many subspecialties and is actively involved in research and teaching.

Elsewhere, Zeldovich has a smaller office in Bondi, where many Russian migrants still live and feel comfortable seeing her. She is also a co-founder of Beamers, a company that produces maximally protective children’s sunglasses and was established due to concerns about the damage of UV light.

Alina Zeldovich has also established a children’s sunglass company.

She’s also a member of The Australasian Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons (AUSCRS) and The American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (ASCRS).

With respect to RANZCO, she was a co-conveyor for the annual congress in Sydney last year and she is currently the vice chair of NSW RANZCO and a council member.

Her experience as a refugee plays a role in the care of her patients today.

“I treat all people with dignity and compassion. I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt and that you can’t always understand the circumstances in which people live their lives,” Zeldovich said.

“Last week there was a patient on my operating list who insisted on going home alone after surgery. This was against hospital protocol and some of the staff were angry with her for doing this. I knew her circumstances and understood that she was not behaving this way because she was being obstructive or breaking the rules on purpose, but because she is the carer of her husband who has severe dementia and she needed to be at home looking after him that night after her surgery. I really try to go above and beyond for the people I look after.”

Finally, she said it is important for people to know that refugees have had to flee circumstances beyond their control and make a new life for themselves, after leaving behind the reality that they knew and the people they love.

“Most refugees are proud to call Australia home and be given opportunities such as healthcare, education and social services, together with freedom and equality. We are so lucky to live in this incredible country, and I believe it’s important to share the message that refugees give back to the community and become valuable members of our society.”