Elshadaie (Elsh) Tafesse – 3rd year DDS student

Twenty years ago, Elsh was living in Dadaab, Kenya, one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Today, he has successfully completed his second year of the Doctor of Dental Surgery at Melbourne Dental School. Not only is he the first member of this family to attend university, he is also well on his way to being the first to put Dr before his name.

Needless to say, Elsh’s journey to Melbourne hasn’t been easy, nor conventional. Raised by two strong and loving parents, Elsh is determined to achieve his goals and make his family and people of Ethiopia proud.

“As an international student from Canada, raised in Kenya and originally from Ethiopia, I have travelled a lot to get where I am today! “My mother and father did their very best for me despite the harsh conditions we lived in. My mother used to cut her dresses down to make clothes for me. My father didn’t wear shoes, but he would work hard to buy shoes for me.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I believe my childhood exemplified this notion. I grew up in a refugee camp that was marked by ethnic and religious differences, however, an entire community had a hand in raising me, and as a result, I was able to speak three different languages by the time I was four years old. My first language was Amharic, which is the official language of Ethiopia, and I am proud to say I still speak my language fluently.”

While undertaking the DDS and moving to Melbourne hasn’t come without its challenges, Elsh is finding it to be the experience of a lifetime.

“My DDS experience has been absolutely amazing, I wake up every day excited to learn something new. The DDS program at the University of Melbourne is challenging, however, the teaching style and instructors are excellent and provide us with the means to overcome every hurdle. The student body is extremely supportive, and the upper year level students have been an invaluable resource for mentorship and advice; it feels like a big family where classmates and instructors want to see you reach your full potential.

“Living in Melbourne has also been a great experience. I love the diversity found in the city and the multi-culturalism reminds me of Canada where people from all over the world contribute their unique heritage. I was happy to find an Ethiopian community here and I was able to treat my classmates to authentic Ethiopian food.”

There have been many highs and lows along the way – one moment that stands out is meeting an Ethiopian patient at the Melbourne Dental Hospital.

“I wear a little green, yellow and red badge on the collar of my white coat when I’m in the clinic. One day as I was going up the elevator at the dental hospital, an Ethiopian woman came on the elevator and she asked me ‘are you Ethiopian?’ I responded to her in Amharic and she said ‘how could I not recognise one of my own sons. I’m proud to see one of us here.’

“This was a special moment for me because I’ve always dreamed about making my country and people proud.

It just goes to show you that representation matters and it’s inspiring to see someone who looks like you as a professional.”

Elsh cannot wait to become a qualified dentist, give back to his community and inspire the next generation to chase their dreams.

“One day I hope to go back to the refugee camp that I was born and raised in and provide free oral care and oral health literacy to those who are still living in the circumstances that I had the good fortune to escape. I want to be able to speak to the people of Dadaab and let them know that I was in the same exact situation they are in now.

“My family and I had to sleep in a tent just like them, we had to live off two kilos of food every month, we experienced hunger and poverty just like them, but there’s hope for all of us, all we need is faith, a positive attitude, a kind heart to help others, and a desire to wake up every morning ready to give your best. I think seeing someone that was just like them come back better than he left would be a source of inspiration and hope.”