Salima Rehman for being the first female refugee doctor from Afghanistan

© UNHCR / Kaiser Khan Afridi

Like millions of others around the world, I am an Afghan citizen who has never been to my homeland. In 1917, my great-grandfather fled Turkmenistan during the Russian Revolution in northern Afghanistan. After finding safety there, he settled and had a family, including my son and grandfather. Although he died young, he also had a son, my father. When the war in Afghanistan broke out in 1979, my father, only 13 years old, was forced to leave everything behind to seek safety in Pakistan. He found him in a refugee camp in Swabia, a town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

I was born here in 1991. At that time, there was limited medical care in the refugee camp. My mother had severe complications before I was born, and my father did not expect me to survive. He promised that if I lived, he would ensure that the baby, regardless of gender, would become a doctor to serve the community.

When I was born healthy, my father stayed true to that promise. He called me “Dr. Salima ”from the first day when I entered the kindergarten and supported me throughout my education. After attending a primary school for Afghan refugee children, I attended a Pakistani high school. After graduating from high school, I qualified for admission to a medical college.

When I secured the only place reserved annually for a refugee at a medical college in the province of Punjab, it was a turning point in my life.

I always dream of becoming a doctor. At first I believed that there was no such opportunity for refugees as I was. However, with the support of the Commissioner for Afghan Refugees in Lahore, I applied for medical school in Rawalpindi. When I secured the only place reserved annually for a refugee at a medical college in the Punjab province, it was a turning point in my life. I will always be grateful to the Commissioner and to the friends and teachers who helped me believe that I could do this.

After several years of medical research, I completed my bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery and, after graduation, became the first female Turkmen doctor in Pakistan. I specialize in gynecology – helping women with complications like my own mother’s – and started working at a public hospital in Rawalpindi. This coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the height of the pandemic in Pakistan, health systems here, as elsewhere, faced unprecedented tensions. And yet, despite the trauma of seeing the lives of so many people taken away from the virus and without personal protective equipment, I was determined not to give up. It was my opportunity to return to Pakistan and show the positive impact that refugees have on their communities. I now study regularly before my last practical exam this month. After passing, I will become a certified gynecologist and obstetrician. In June this year, I opened my private practice to offer health care to my Turkmen community.

When I started my education, many in our community thought that it was not right for a woman to be so highly educated. Today, these same people recognize my efforts as a doctor and how I can serve both Afghan refugees and Pakistanis. Following in my father’s footsteps, I also help persuade members of my community to change their views on girls’ education and send their daughters to school.

Saleema Rehman

Dr. Salima Rehman during her visit to Barakat Elementary School, talking to students and showing them her childhood photo album.

© UNHCR / Kaiser Khan Afridi

Throughout the generations of conflict and exile, Afghan women face many challenges and obstacles. A woman’s education is not given the same importance as a man’s education, if it is allowed at all. When women do not have the opportunity to study or work, they inevitably rely on men without controlling their own lives.

According to UNHCR, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, currently has more than three million people displaced in Afghanistan, and a staggering 80 percent are women and children. No one knows what the future holds for women in Afghanistan. After the fall of Kabul by the Taliban on August 15, the world held its breath and watched with uncertainty. But as an Afghan woman, I know that no one has watched more closely than the Afghan women and girls themselves.

Speaking as the first female Afghan refugee doctor in Pakistan, I long for all Afghan women to receive the same basic services as everyone else – including health and education. Although I do not live there, I am still an Afghan. Unintentionally, I became a role model for many young Afghan refugee girls in our hometown. Whatever happens in Afghanistan in the future, we must do more to promote opportunities and success like mine. The future of half of our population depends on this.

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