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Afghan Refugee Doctor Serves Pakistan’s Poorest
Dr. Saleema Rehman (Roger Arnold/UNHCR)

Afghan Refugee Doctor Serves Pakistan’s Poorest

Gynecologist is the country’s first Turkmen woman to become a doctor

[Islamabad] Dr. Saleema Rehman is the first Afghan refugee woman to ever become a gynecologist in Pakistan. A recent medical school graduate, Rehman, 29, is working round the clock caring for pregnant women and new mothers at Holy Family Hospital in the city of Rawalpindi.

The state-run, 1,000-bed hospital was established in 1948 and is situated in Satellite Town, a neighborhood in Rawalpindi city. Treatment is free of charge for both Pakistanis and Afghan refugees. The hospital receives support from the European Union and the UNHCR refugee agency.

Rehman’s work in the Gynecology Department comes in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. Pakistan is among the worst-hit countries in South Asia, with 5,374 cases identified and 93 deaths recorded thus far.

In an exclusive interview, she told The Media Line: “I graduated from Rawalpindi Medical University thanks to scholarships, so it was my moral duty to help my seniors and colleagues in these days of hardship as they are deployed to the various quarantine centers.”

Rehman said her father fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in 1980. She was born in 1991 in the Sawabi refugee camp in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, known until 2010 as the North-West Frontier Province.

“No medical facilities were available. My mother faced many difficulties during the birth process; no postnatal or tertiary care was available in the refugee camp,” she said. “Seeing my ailing mother, my father vowed that he would educate me to become a gynecologist.

Discussing her childhood as a Turkmen girl, a member of a minority within a minority among the Afghan refugees, Rehman said, “Once my father decided to educate us, we migrated to Attock city [in Pakistan’s Punjab Province]. Against the tribal norm, at the age of just 3, I was enrolled in an Afghan refugee school that was supported by UNHCR.

“From the very beginning, my parents always taught me the importance of education. It was my dream to become a doctor as there was no doctor in our refugee community,” she said.

Rehman further said that when she attended the refugee school, “there were only a few girls there. It was very tough for a refugee girl to pursue her dreams of higher education but my Pakistani teachers helped a lot. I was always encouraged and supported by them.

“Despite all the challenges that I and my family faced, I completed my intermediate education successfully and was admitted to Rawalpindi Medical University in 2009,” she said.

There was only one place reserved for an Afghan refugee at the university. Luckily, after some troubles difficulties, she was admitted.

“It was a great victory for my family. I was the first girl in our refugee community who was going to be a doctor,” Rehman said.

She continued: “During those days, I decided that I had to make a change and set an example for refugees throughout the world, that a refugee could be fruitful not only for his community but also for the host country, and I proved it.

“Despite poverty and limited sources, my parents helped me a lot. I was the one who broke the barrier and overcame all the challenges. I motivated the Turkmen families among the refugees, and today the literacy rate among their young girls is rising day by day.”

She proudly told the Media Line: “I am the first-ever lady doctor among the Turkmen community across the country, having overcome a lifetime of barriers in my quest to get a higher education.”

Rehman further said that by treating Pakistanis she is paying back her host country. “My family shall remain ever thankful to the Pakistani people for their hospitality and generosity.”

When asked about her plans for the future, Rehman said, “If peace prevails in Afghanistan, It will be my honor to serve people in the country.”

Qaiser Khan Afridi, UNHCR spokesperson in Pakistan, told The Media Line: “Rehman is indeed making a difference in the lives of the poorest in Pakistan at this challenging time when the COVID-19 outbreak has confined people to their homes.

“Investing in refugee youth education equals peace and stability. These educated refugee youth will determine the future of their countries, and the future of the world,” he said. “Pakistan hosts 1.4 million Afghan refugees and 74% are the second or the third generation born in Pakistan.

“One of the main objectives of UNHCR is to empower the youth through education, skills training and livelihoods, because investment in refugees, especially in youth, will pave the way for peace and prosperity in Afghanistan,” Afridi said.

“We were not expecting her to survive at birth,” Rehman’s father, Abdul, told The Media Line. “Her mother was in much trouble and I promised myself that, boy or girl, I would [raise the child to be] a doctor. We have been calling her ‘Doctor Saleema’ ever since she was three years old.”

To pay for his daughter’s education, he worked tirelessly for years. By day he worked as a fruit peddler, and at night he designed carpets. “The Pakistani government also offered special scholarships for Saleema’s higher education, which helped her a lot,” Abdul Rehman said.

“Today I am proud of her. Saleema is not only a brilliant example for the Afghan refugee community but also she is an inspiring girl for Pakistani students,” he added.

Prof. Dr. Humaira Bilqis, a senior consultant and Rehman’s supervisor at Holy Family Hospital, told the Media Line: “Dr. Saleema is a dedicated health care professional. … Despite all the adversities faced by her family, Saleema has come up to the highest level of professional training. It is reflective of her passion, dedication and hard work as well as the vision of her father who struggled for the education and betterment of Afghan refugees throughout his life.

“Saleema is working as a senior postgraduate in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department and she is providing selfless services for an ailing humanity. Saving the lives of mothers and newborns is her passion and she is always there to accept challenges to fulfill this passion,” she said.

“Saleema Rehman is always at the forefront at times of need helping poor patients. During the coronavirus outbreak, she has continued working for the pregnant mothers despite the risk to her health,” Bilqis said.

Dr. Saleema Rehman (right), at Holy Family Hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan (Roger Arnold/UNHCR)

Freshta Farhang, a Kabul-based women’s rights activist and analyst, told The Media Line, “As a working woman, I felt inexpressible happiness when I heard about Dr. Saleema Rehman in Pakistan and Dr. Najiba Gholami in Iran: Both Afghan refugee women are assisting local doctors in the fight against COVID-19.

“Even in traditional tribal society, it is quite difficult for girls to break the norms. But Saleema grew up in a refugee community where girls’ education was almost forbidden, and she broke the barriers of tradition and became a doctor,” Farhang said.

Jennifer Young, a Cambridge, England-based Afghan expert, told The Media Line that “Dr. Saleema Rehman deserves wider publicity to inspire others to break down gender and economic barriers that exist in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“I would mention other examples of women who succeeded like [Pakistani Nobel Prize laureate] Malala Yousafzai and Fawzia Koofi, a member of the Afghan parliament,” she said.

The “UNHCR and other international organizations must provide scholarships to help such a brilliant woman to obtain more professional qualifications,” Young said.

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