From Housing Commission to Housing Champions: The Douna Brothers' Amazing Journey Born to Lebanese immigrants Adib and Liane, Elie Douna and Charbel Douna spent the first 15 years of their lives in housing commission homes
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In the heart of Wollongong, Australia, where the housing crisis has reached a critical point, two twin brothers, Elie and Charbel Douna, are pioneering a new era of affordable housing solutions. As I sat down with them in their modest, suburban office adorned with architectural blueprints and scale models of their upcoming projects, I couldn't help but marvel at their journey—a quintessential rags-to-riches tale that is both inspiring and instructive.
Born to Lebanese immigrants Adib and Liane, Elie Douna and Charbel Douna spent the first 15 years of their lives in housing commission homes. Financial stability was a luxury they couldn't afford. "We knew what it was like to go to bed hungry," Charbel told me, his eyes reflecting the hardships of a childhood in financial uncertainty. "That's why we're so passionate about what we do. We've been there. We know what it's like."
Elie said, "We grew up in a household where Arabic was the primary language. Entering the Australian educational system was like stepping into an entirely different world. I was bullied for my accent, my name, my heritage. It was tough." Charbel nodded in agreement, adding that they faced linguistic challenges and cultural discrimination that made their early years particularly challenging.
Despite these obstacles, both brothers persevered. Charbel graduated from Edmund Rice College and completed a four-year electrical apprenticeship at the Technical and Further Education (TAFE) Institute in Sydney. Elie also completed an electrical apprenticeship in Sydney. "I remember the three-hour commutes by train," Elie said, "It was exhausting, but it was also a time for reflection. I knew I wanted more for myself and my family."
After years of apprenticeships and hard work, the Douna brothers took their first significant step into the world of property development in 2012. They partnered with a seasoned developer, diving headfirst into their inaugural project. "We were hands-on from day one," Elie recalled. "From architectural plans, fitting out the building to sweeping the floors and landscaping, we were involved in every aspect. We wanted to understand the business from the ground up." Charbel added, "Those early days were gruelling but invaluable. We learned the nuts and bolts of construction and property development, and we weren't afraid to get our hands dirty."
Their dedication and hard work didn't go unnoticed. After the successful completion of their first project, their then-partner sat them down for a heart-to-heart. "He told us, 'You guys have what it takes to go it alone. Why not buy your own site and take the lead?'" Charbel remembered. Taking this advice to heart, they pooled their savings and purchased their first site. "We put everything we had into that project," Elie said. "And it paid off. We built it rapidly, and it sold like hotcakes. That was the real beginning for us."
Regarding spotting opportunities in the property market, the Douna brothers have developed a keen eye. "You have to look beyond the obvious," Charbel advised. "We study market trends, community needs, and even local politics. But most importantly, we listen to the people." Elie said, "It's not just about finding a piece of land; it's about finding the right piece of land. One that will serve the community and yield a good return on investment."
Understanding consumer needs is another area where the Douna brothers excel. "We aim to build quality homes that are affordable," Elie explained. "We often look for sites that are slightly off the beaten path—areas that our competitors might overlook but offer excellent community, lifestyle and commuting options." Charbel added, "It's a win-win. We can offer lower prices because the land is less expensive, and the residents benefit from easier commutes and a growing community."
As for general business and property development advice, both brothers were eager to share their insights. "Never underestimate the value of hard work and due diligence," Charbel emphasised. "And always keep learning. The industry is always evolving, and you must evolve with it." Elie concluded, "Trust your instincts but back them up with research and facts. And never forget why you started in the first place."
Family is the cornerstone of the Douna brothers' lives. Charbel met his spouse, Sara, in high school, and they have been inseparable ever since. They are parents to four children: Charbel, Mila, Giselle, and Sofia. Elie is married to Emily, and they have four children: Roman, Chloe, Elias, and newborn Vincent. "Our families are our rock," Charbel emphasised, "They are the reason we strive for success. We want to give them the life we never had growing up."
Their commitment to family extends beyond their immediate circle. Both brothers have financially supported their parents for over a decade, a gesture that speaks volumes about their character. "It's the least we can do," Elie said, "They sacrificed so much for us. It's our turn to give back."
Faith plays a significant role in their lives. Charbel is a lifelong member of St. Elias Church in Wollongong and has recently increased his participation in church-related activities. Both brothers attend church services every Sunday with their families and seek daily spiritual guidance. "Our faith keeps us grounded," Elie noted, "It reminds us of our purpose and instils in us a sense of responsibility towards our community."
That sense of community responsibility is evident in their philanthropic endeavours. The twin brothers have been actively involved with the SWAG Family charity organisation and have even initiated a branch in Wollongong. Elie began his philanthropic journey in 2017, serving meals to the homeless and others in need in the Wollongong area. "We've been blessed with success," Elie said, "and it's our duty to give back."
Their professional journey is nothing short of remarkable. From their humble beginnings, they have built a property construction and development empire worth over $100 million.
They are now formalising their endeavours and expanding under a new firm, the Douna Group. The new firm will continue to focus on low and medium-density housing, especially in areas that are poorly served - but the brothers are looking to expand into other investment opportunities that involve inner-city development and investment, along with their philanthropic endeavours.
"We're not just building houses; we're building communities," Charbel explained. "Our developments are designed with people in mind. We aim to create housing options that are both affordable and desirable."
Elie added, "It's about more than bricks and mortar. It's about creating spaces where people can thrive and communities grow. We're excited to be at the forefront of this movement, and we're just getting started."
Their commitment to a balanced life is evident in their daily routines. Charbel engages in a daily six-kilometre run along Wollongong Beach, which he says keeps him mentally and physically fit. Elie is equally committed to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, emphasising the importance of regular exercise and a balanced diet. "Physical fitness is not just about looking good; it's about feeling good," Elie said, "When you're fit, you're more focused, more disciplined, and that translates into better decision-making in business and life."
As I wrapped up my time with Elie and Charbel, I was struck by their humility and unwavering commitment to their community. From their modest upbringing to multi-million dollar business ventures, their story is a testament to the power of resilience, family, and a strong sense of purpose. "Our work is far from done," Elie said, looking towards the future with a sense of determination that can only come from someone who has turned life's challenges into stepping stones for success. "We see the potential in Wollongong and Illawarra, and we're committed to unlocking it."
Charbel concluded, "This is more than a business for us; it's a calling. We're honoured to be part of this community, and we look forward to continuing to serve it in the future."
As I left their office, I couldn't help but feel that I had just met two individuals who are not only shaping the skyline of this city but also the lives of its residents. They are a living example that with hard work, dedication, and a little faith, it's possible to turn even the most challenging circumstances into a life of purpose and impact.