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‘Today I am a doctor, but first I am a fighter’

Interview with Samah Abu Khury by Ahmad Alzoubi

August 11, 2021 at 10:31 am

Palestinian doctor Samah Ghassan Abu Khury

Cuba was one of the only Latin American countries to vote against the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine. The island was later put under pressure by the US to defend the Israeli occupation after the establishment of the Zionist state, but this did not last long. After Fidel Castro took over in 1959, support for Palestine returned. In fact, Cuba became a powerful supporter of the Palestinian people and their leadership.

In 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was invited for the first time to participate in the commemoration of the Cuban revolution. Demonstrations of Cuban support for Palestine continued and became clear after the establishment of the permanent PLO office in Havana, in 1974, since when the Cuban government has secured scholarships for Palestinian students in engineering and medicine.

Samah Ghassan Abu Khury has just graduated with honours in medicine from Havana University of Medical Sciences, where she was awarded a Gold Medal. This is an honour given to students who excel throughout their studies at the university.

She grew up in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. Born in the camp in 1996, her family had lived there ever since her grandfather ended up in Yarmouk after leaving the Nazareth area in occupied Palestine. Her mother was raised in Ain Al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon.

Samah’s story is one of difficulties, struggle and determination. “Today I am a doctor,” she told me, “but first I am a fighter, because I overcame a lot of suffering after my family were forced to move, first from Palestine to Syria, and then from Syria to Lebanon. And then I went to Cuba.”

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The civil war in Syria started in 2011. The conflict reached Yarmouk camp in 2012, at which point Samah’s father took his family to Lebanon. “When we left the camp, it was just like when my family left Palestine. We were told that we would be back in a few days, but the situation got much worse.”

Much worse, in fact. Once in Lebanon, there was no hope of returning to Syria.

“We started looking for solutions for our family, since there was no future in Lebanon either. My father decided to go to Sweden, but with a family of seven we could not cover the expenses of the journey.”

That’s when Samah got a scholarship from Cuba to study medicine in Havana. How had she managed to keep her studies going with all of the disruption to her family life?

“When we left Yarmouk camp I did not take my books with me, because we were told that we would be back in two days. I left them in my house, which was later destroyed. We left Syria in December 2012. I knew that I had to take the final High School exam in the following April, so I decided to study on my own, remotely.”

She didn’t waste any time. “I contacted one of my teachers, and he kindly sent me books from Syria.” A study schedule was planned, despite the difficult conditions. “In Lebanon we lived in a house with three other large families. Sometimes we had electricity, but most of the time we didn’t, so I would use the street lights and candles at night, and sometimes the torch on my mobile phone when available.”

A week before the exam date Samah went back to Syria to a relative’s house at one of the most difficult periods for the country. “My surprise was that, despite the circumstances, I did very well in the exam, which was fortunate given that my ambition was to become a doctor. It was really a miracle that I could not have imagined.”

What was it like to move to Cuba? “It was very difficult at the beginning. A huge culture shock. The customs and culture are very different from our Arab society. Moreover, the country was under a decades-old economic and political blockade, which made life even more difficult.”

Despite having no knowledge of Spanish, Samah had to study in the language. “And the curriculum of the medical course is complex. It was extremely difficult to translate into Arabic and then into Spanish and vice versa, not least because the first year of the course, the preparatory year, is one of the most difficult years in medicine.”

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The Cuban dialect didn’t make things any easier because the language on the streets was very different from what was taught in the university language centre. “Once, in my first year, I tried to ask about a medical term, but I translated it incorrectly from Arabic to Spanish. Instead of using the appropriate word I asked for silence. The teacher was silent and told the students that there was too much noise, and for them to listen. I kept repeating and repeating what I was trying to say, and everyone just stayed silent. Eventually I realised that something was wrong, that I had mistranslated, so I apologised to everyone.”

The Gold Medal in medicine is a great honour. Was Samah surprised to receive it? “I was one of the top five highest-scoring in the medical school and in Spanish language class. The Gold Medal is a high-level government award for medical students who have excelled in their studies and obtained high grades, with an overall score of 95 per cent or higher. To get it, the student needs to have publications in medical scientific journals and experience assisting in some discipline. I was a general surgery assistant, so I participated in operations with professors from my second year onwards.”

She also took part in the Student Association of the Escuela Latinoamericana de medicina (Latin American School of Medicine — ELAM). “All of this helped me to get the Gold Medal, but the basis to get it is still the overall average. From my first year in Havana, I focused on the medal as a goal, because I went through very difficult circumstances; I wanted to overcome the difficulties of life and migration through my studies.”

I asked Samah if the differences in culture, language and customs affected her personality. Did this make her stand out?

“For sure, especially after I left Syria at the age of 17. I also changed a lot after my experience in Cuba. Now I wish to complete a specialisation in general surgery in Europe.”

Her family has suffered from forced displacement and refuge since 1948, she explained. She is the third generation forced to experience life as a refugee, following her parents and grandparents. “This has pushed me to be a strong woman in the face of challenges. Perhaps it was these harsh conditions that helped me to overcome difficulties and become stronger. Even with all the geographical changes and moves, though, my principles always remained the same.”

She is grateful to the Almighty for what she has been able to achieve. “I dedicate my achievement to the Lord of the Worlds first and foremost and then to my family, especially my mother and father. And to Palestine and Syria, in the hope that we will see better conditions there. And to Cuba, which is now my third country.”

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In conclusion, she told me that she hopes that those who find themselves in conditions of despair and frustration can find some inspiration in what she has done. “Look for strength around you. There is always hope so you must persist if you are to achieve what you want. The important thing is not to stop chasing your dreams.”