Waheed Arian is a British doctor and radiologist, born in Afghanistan, who founded the telemedicine charity Arian Teleheal to enable doctors in conflict zones and low-resource countries to use their smartphones to receive advice from volunteer specialists in the United Kingdom, Canada, the USA, and other countries. Dr Arian has won international awards for his achievements, including the UNESCO Global Hero Award 2017. He regularly speaks as an expert in innovation, technology, and global health. He is the author of In the Wars: A Story of Conflict, Survival and Saving Lives (Bantam Press, 2021). www.arianteleheal.com.
The life of a displaced person is full of pivotal moments. Going from being a child refugee in Afghanistan to an NHS doctor in England, I’ve had many.
I was born into war. Like many refugees, I grew up running from rockets and bombs, in my case during the Afghan Soviet conflict in the late 1980s. I later had to dodge bullets during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s.
I contracted malaria and tuberculosis in a refugee camp in Pakistan when I was five. Temporarily displaced from Afghanistan by conflict, we were a family of ten living in cramped quarters with no clean water and a limited food supply. The local doctor who saved my life gave me a stethoscope and an old medical textbook. Being treated by him ignited my passion for training as a doctor, however distant or impossible this goal seemed at the time.
When it finally became too dangerous for me to stay in Afghanistan, and there was no hope of my having an education there, my father sold everything for my plane ticket to a place of safety. I arrived alone in the United Kingdom as a troubled fifteen-year-old, with many difficult, violent experiences behind me, little formal education, no English, and a mere $100 cash in my pocket.
Instead of being listened to and given support, I was released onto the London streets by the authorities as soon as I turned sixteen. For my safety and survival, I relied on the compassion of strangers. I worked long hours in odd jobs whilst navigating the strangeness of the city and an isolated life. I started living on Portobello Road with another Afghan boy seeking asylum, who I knew from home. My temporary leave to remain had to be renewed every few months until I was finally granted refugee status. This was only after two years, and a lot of uncertainty.
I still had the dream of becoming a doctor, inspired by the man who had saved my life, and the other medics I had seen working in the midst of conflict, and in the refugee camps. I wanted to be one of them.
But beside hopes and dreams, I also carried the scars of years of conflict and displacement. I was dearly missing my family and finding it very difficult to fit in socially. I began to have frightening, overwhelming experiences. When waiting at a Tube station platform, the roar of the train rushing through the tunnel would catapult me back into the civil war. The sounds of the soaring rockets, the sight of our home in Kabul reduced to rubble, the touch of my father’s hand as we fled bullets, stepping over the dead bodies of civilians it all started coming back to me. I had no idea what was happening. Later, I learnt about ‘flashbacks’.
I studied hard, and after earning a place at Cambridge University to study medicine I qualified as a doctor at last, working in the NHS. I was determined to raise awareness of the mental health difficulties faced by people like me. I wanted to give back as a physician and humanitarian both to the country that gave me sanctuary and enabled me to pursue my dreams and to the people of my homeland who were still suffering as I had once suffered.
The pivotal moments of my life as a refugee were not confined to surviving war and finding physical safety. They also involved being given the opportunity to work and give back; to feel part of a community. I was able to achieve my dreams because of the compassion and support I received from the British people and the financial support from the government.
Society’s conversations about people seeing asylum and refugees are often limited to physical requirements: food, clothes, and housing. But this overlooks the silent struggles that people fleeing conflict and war go through. We need to provide psychological support for the displaced people who have fled their homes and are rebuilding their lives. The mental health needs of people seeking asylum are often complex and can be exacerbated in this country, especially by uncertainty, isolation, and deprivation.
Those seeking asylum require a compassionate and comprehensive approach to recovery. Help for displaced people must go beyond food and housing if it is to alleviate suffering and facilitate integration.
This important book resonates with my life on many levels, as I am sure it will for countless other displaced people. It gives useful and important information to those who work with people seeking asylum and who perhaps do not realise the kinds of hardships they face. It emphasises the need for compassion and taking time to listen.
Anyone meeting with people who are seeking asylum will be helped to offer comprehensive support, and to understand what people most need in order to rebuild their lives, integrate, and give back.
Dr Waheed Arian