I’m the First Female Afghan Refugee Doctor in My Community. I Hope More Women Can Follow in My Footsteps.

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doctor saleema rehman visits the school that she attended as a child in attock pakistan during these visits, she helps to raise awareness of the importance of education

©UNHCR/Qaiser Khan Afridi

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

This is where I was born in 1991. At the time, there was limited medical care available in the refugee camp. My mother faced severe complications before my birth, and my father did not expect that I would survive. He pledged that if I lived, he would ensure that the baby, regardless of the 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. Saleema” from the first day that I entered kindergarten and supported me throughout my education. After attending a primary school for Afghan refugee children, I studied in a Pakistani secondary school. Upon completing my secondary education, I qualified for admission at a medical college.

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

My dream was always to become a doctor. At first, I believed that there was no such opportunity for refugees like me. However, through the support of the Commissioner for Afghan Refugees in Lahore, I applied for medical school in Rawalpindi. When I secured the only seat reserved annually for a refugee in 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 I could do this.

After several years of medical studies, I completed my bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery, and, upon graduation, became the first ever female Turkmen doctor in Pakistan. I am specializing in gynecology—to help women with complications like my own mother’s—and began working at a public hospital in Rawalpindi. This coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the peak of the pandemic in Pakistan, health systems here, like everywhere, faced an unprecedented strain. Yet, despite the trauma of seeing so many people’s lives taken by the virus and without personal protective equipment, I was determined not to give up. This was my opportunity to give back to Pakistan and showcase the positive impact that refugees have on their communities. I am now studying full-time ahead of my final practical examination this month. Once I pass, 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 began my studies, many in our community felt it was not right for a woman to be so highly educated. Today, those same people recognize my efforts as a medical doctor and how I can serve Afghan refugees and Pakistanis alike. Following in my father’s footsteps, I am also helping to persuade members of my community to change their views of girls’s education and send their daughters to school.

saleema rehman

Dr. Saleema Rehman during her visit to Barakat Elementary School, interacting with students and showing them her childhood photo album.

© UNHCR/Qaiser Khan Afridi

Throughout generations of conflict and exile, Afghan women faced multiple challenges and obstacles. Educating a woman isn’t given the same importance as educating a man, if permitted at all. When women do not have a chance to study or work, they are unavoidably reliant on men, without control over their own lives.

According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, there are currently over three million people displaced in Afghanistan, and a staggering 80 percent are women and children. Nobody knows what the future holds for women in Afghanistan. Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on Aug. 15, the world has held its breath and watched with uncertainty. But as an Afghan woman, I know that none have been watching 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 care and education. Though I do not live there, I am still an Afghan. Without intending to, I’ve become a role model for many young Afghan refugee girls in our hometown. Whatever happens in Afghanistan next, we must do more to foster opportunities and successes like mine. The future of half our population depends on it.

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