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An Afghan refugee girl grew up to be a prize-winning doc — with a little help from dad

Dr. Saleema Rehman stands outside Holy Family Hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. The Afghan refugee of Turkmen origin has won UNHCR's Nansen Award for her work helping refugee moms and babies in Pakistan.
Dr. Saleema Rehman stands outside Holy Family Hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. The Afghan refugee of Turkmen origin has won UNHCR's Nansen Award for her work helping refugee moms and babies in Pakistan.

When Saleema Rehman was a kid growing up in refugee camps in Pakistan, her nickname was "Doctor Saleema."

Her mom faced severe complications while delivering her – and Rehman's dad, Abdul, promised that if the baby lived, he would make sure the child became a doctor.

Today, Rehman, 29, is a gynecologist serving displaced Afghan women in the city of Attock, Pakistan. According to the U.N., she is the first female refugee doctor from Afghanistan's Turkmen ethnic group. And last week, she won UNHCR's regional Nansen Refugee Award, an annual prize given to individuals doing outstanding work for displaced people.

"She's a trailblazer. She's beaten the odds by becoming the first female doctor in her community. By achieving her dream of offering health care to the most vulnerable – refugees and Pakistanis alike – Saleema is a living testament to how women can contribute to the socioeconomic development of their communities," said Noriko Yoshida, UNHCR's representative in Pakistan, in a statement.

Rehman, 29, was determined to go to medical school. The support of her family — especially her dad — helped her succeed. In June, she was granted a license to set up her own medical practice.
/ Betsy Joles for NPR
Rehman, 29, was determined to go to medical school. The support of her family — especially her dad — helped her succeed. In June, she was granted a license to set up her own medical practice.

Rehman says her mom's harrowing birth story had a profound impact on her work. "My mother needed an urgent surgery to deliver me, but there were no facilities or resources to go to," she says. "The traditional midwife didn't know if I would survive."

While her mother pulled through the traumatic ordeal, it prompted her father to pledge his support to educate his daughter – and encourage her to become a doctor.

Despite that he was a daily wage laborer, Rehman says her dad had an ambitious vision for her future. "He believed in the importance of education and supported me despite criticisms from conservative community members."

Traditionally, women in Rehman's community are trained to be carpet weavers at home and married off early. "People would come to him and tell him to not send me to school because it might have a negative influence on the other girls. They were afraid the other girls would also be inspired to study further," Rehman says.

"But my father listened to no one," she adds. "He would sell fruits during the day and make carpet designs until late in the night to provide for" the family and pay for her education.

Even with her parents' encouragement, growing up as a refugee with big ambitions was not always easy. Rehman's family escaped the Soviet War in Afghanistan in 1979 to the refugee camps in Swabi in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where Rehman was born and raised.

"I wasn't aware of my refugee status until I applied for secondary school [outside the camps]. Before that, I was among refugee children and went to a refugee school, but when I wanted to study further, I realized how I was different," she says.

Because of her status, she faced bureaucratic challenges and fewer opportunities, says Rehman. And she realized "there was no one to guide me because there were not many Afghan refugee women who had done this before."

Still, she remained determined to seek higher education. The admission process to get into medical school was complicated, says Rehman, and required her to travel to different cities for the necessary paperwork and entrance exams. Her dad accompanied her on each trip.

Her motivation, she says, gave her the strength to pull through. "It was what I wanted to do."

Rehman's hard work was rewarded when she was selected in 2009 for the only seat reserved for Afghan refugees at Rawalpindi Medical University in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. But getting in was just the first step. It was the first time she lived without her family, unusual for women to do so in her culture. And she needed to pay her own tuition, which she did by applying for scholarships.

Rehman graduated from the five-year course and started her residency at Holy Family Hospital in Rawalpindi in 2015, where for the first time, she had the opportunity to serve her community. "It is a large public sector hospital and I treated patients, both Afghan refugees and locals," she says.

It was here, while interacting with other refugee women, that Rehman decided to specialize in gynecology. "I was reminded of what my mother had to go through during childbirth and wanted to help women," she says.

Just as she did in medical school, Rehman managed to secure the only seat available for Afghan refugees in specialization studies at Holy Family in 2017. "I was living my dream working with pregnant women, delivering babies," she says.

But she wanted more. She wanted a license to set up her own medical practice.

That's a difficult thing for refugees to do in Pakistan. Displaced people have limited rights to work or operate their own business in the country.

Still, she applied and applied — and in June, after many rejections, Rehman was granted her license. "I was able to start my clinic in Attock, where there are many Afghan refugees but not enough facilities to help the women," she says. Her family gave her funding and support to start the clinic.

Rehman is setting an example for a whole generation of Afghan women. She speaks at schools for refugees and provides advice to girls when she can. "I tell them: nothing replaces hard work and determination," she says.

Rehman sits for an interview with Power99, a radio station in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Oct. 5.
/ Betsy Joles for NPR
Rehman sits for an interview with Power99, a radio station in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Oct. 5.

"When I started secondary school, I was the only girl in a room full of boys, but now classrooms are filled with young girls with dreams," she adds. "I was so happy when another Turkmen refugee girl who is studying medicine reached out to me, saying I inspired her. There were two more girls from Afghanistan who contacted me [about studying medicine]."

But even as Rehman advocates for the education of Afghan women, across the border, her homeland plunges into turmoil. The Taliban, known for restricting freedoms for women and girls, took over Afghanistan in August. She is concerned about the country's uncertain future, particularly the new wave of refugees escaping Taliban atrocities.

She intends to support the recently displaced Afghans in Pakistan by "delivering babies and saving mothers."

"I wish and pray for peace for my people every day," she adds. "Truth is, nobody can understand the significance of peace until they have walked in the shoes of a refugee."

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports from India and Afghanistan on conflict, politics, development and culture stories. She tweets at @RuchiKumar

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.