Afghan Surgeon Defies the Odds, Forges New Career in U.S.

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Meet Sohaila, a surgeon and Upwardly Global Alum from Afghanistan.

There are 125 students in my medical class. 124 boys and me, one girl.

Usually, the patient come to the hospital after they just deliver baby at home. Once, we told the family the best option is to do hysterectomy. But they said no because they want kids from her. They took the woman to another hospital. They also told hysterectomy was best, but surgeon was a man. The husband did not allow a man to do it, so they brought her back to our hospital because I was there.

Sometimes, I do more than 10 hysterectomy in a month.

I can help my countrymen.

My father left Afghanistan when Russia ruled during the 1980s. So I was born in Pakistan. Our family from Afghanistan used to visit for a night or two. They used to come to Pakistan for medical reasons. I would see my countrymen were in struggle because no good doctors for them at home. So I was thinking, Why not go into healthcare? At least, I can help my countrymen in this way.

When I was 17, my father decide we should return to Afghanistan. My father was so happy to return home after so long away.

My first and last surgery.

My father gave two options: go to higher education or bring a boy home to marry. All us sisters chose education. My first choice was medical.

There are 125 students in my class. 124 boys and me, one girl.

In our surgery department, we had two sections, one for men and one for women. But leadership was only men, even for our women side. My department asked me to be there for nights because woman side doesn’t have any woman doctor. I asked my father, but he was not allowing me. My father was not okay there is no women and only men. I told him, “I’m brave enough to protect myself. No one can actually say anything, do anything to me because I’m not going to allow it.” But still, my father was not allowing it. We had a family meeting. One of my brothers said, “If you are wanting to go, I will take you and stay with you the whole night.” He was 18 years old. He used to come with me to the hospital if I’m there late night.

I would talk with the students and new graduates to inspire the women to join our department. I met one woman who was still in medical school. I persuade the university to give her a job in our hospital because she is a merit student and interested in surgery. And she joined. I was really proud of that.

I was not supposed to do my last surgery. I was not on the schedule. But they told me that the surgeon is not here. They asked me for help. So I did it. I did not know it would be my last. And I was not even supposed to do it.

We are the breadwinners.

On August 15, Taliban took over. We stayed awake all night outside the airport. Everyone wanted to leave the country. You feel suffocated. So many people pressing into you, you could not even move your chest to breathe. Everyone was so scared. The area was flooded with water from draining system from bathroom of Kabul. There was feces there, urine, everything. We suffered a lot. 

We wanted to leave Afghanistan because we are family of women. 7 sisters. All educated. The Taliban would never support girls education. They never allow us to work. And we are the breadwinners for our family. So how would we survive? 

We have always been refugees. My father, us, now my nephew. Third generation of refugees. Being a refugee is a big burden on humans. Always starting from zero.

This is where I want to be.

At Fort Dix military camp in New Jersey, I found a meeting for job seekers run by Upwardly Global. They talk about the importance of research for healthcare system. If you are doctor, another option for you is research because qualifying as a doctor takes years and not everyone can take that path. Upwardly Global helped me get interviews for open jobs at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Now I am doing research at the hospital. I know I will do my best because it is where I want to be. I cannot go with practicals as a doctor right now because my university does not transfer over internationally, so this is the second thing I want to be. And I will have contact with many doctors and other healthcare professionals who can guide my career.

If I have opportunity to do my license evaluation, I will do. I would love to do surgery again. When I received my first credential upon my graduation, I was so happy. It is the biggest achievement I can have—to be a surgeon.

Read and listen to more of Sohaila’s and other Afghan stories here.

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