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‘Kindness can change lives’: Afghan refugee gives back as successful UK doctor

September 4, 2023 at 6:40 pm

Afghan refugees, who fled their countries due to clashes and violence for the past 40 years, stage a silent demonstration as they camp outside of the National Press Club demanding treatment in hospitals, education and accommodation rights in Islamabad, Pakistan on July 11, 2022 [Muhammed Semih Uğurlu – Anadolu Agency]

Waheed Arian’s life has been shaped by the kindness and compassion of strangers.

Now a successful doctor, he arrived in the UK as a 15-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, thousands of miles away from home, in an unfamiliar land.

When he needed a roof over his head, a refugee let Arian sleep on his sofa.

When he needed money, a shopkeeper let him work without a permit.

When his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affected his studies, his college tutors were the ones who helped him go on.

“I know that compassion and kindness can change lives … Despite my own determination, it was actually the kindness and compassion of strangers that really allowed me to realise my dream,” he told Anadolu.

Arian left his home in Kabul in the mid-1990s with just $100 to escape a life marred by violence and conflict.

READ: Afghans brought to the UK asked to evict temporary accommodations

Decades on, he is an eminent emergency doctor in the UK’s National Health Service, doing his bit to help anyone and everyone he can.

At a time when the UK’s controversial policies on asylum seekers, including the recent decision to house hundreds of men on a floating barge that critics say is dangerous and unsafe, Arian’s story shows how refugees play a positive role, if given the opportunity.

Arian’s life experiences are helping him aid other refugees in overcoming the trauma that once haunted him – the ordeal of being forced to leave one’s family and homeland.

“Without all that support, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I’m trying to replicate that kindness … It helps heal my own traumas as well and, in doing so, I help other people,” he said.

Psychological support initiative

In June, he launched a psychological counselling program, “Arian Wellbeing”.

The program, according to its description, aims to extend specialist support to “traumatised and vulnerable populations, such as refugees, asylum seekers and the homeless.”

The idea came from his own struggles with PTSD after a childhood of conflict and displacement, something he only managed to navigate with professional help.

“That was my motivation and I then built up this organisation slowly, with the help of psychologists and therapists,” Arian told Anadolu in a video interview from his residence in Chester, north-western England.

The program includes services by clinical psychologists, therapists and personal trainers, offering a mix of tools to help individuals improve their mental health.

To work with refugees and the homeless, Arian’s team partners with local authorities and is currently providing mental health support to over 100 refugees.

Refugees who come from conflict zones face numerous traumas, be it violence or death or the uncertainty of life, Arian explained.

They leave everything behind to move to a new country, where the culture, language and entire way of life is completely different, he said.

READ: We must not lose our own humanity in addressing the plight of refugees

To then be confined to a hotel room for months or years is “hugely traumatic”, he said, adding that it is critical to address these issues that become “unaddressed traumas” and impact people’s integration in society.

From Kabul to London, a childhood lost

Born in the mid-1980s in Kabul, Arian is one of 11 siblings.

“I didn’t know any other reality except living under bombs, hiding in cellars from daily rockets, shelling,” he said.

Going to the park with his mother and having ice cream is one of the very few happy memories he has from a scarred childhood.

His family spent most of their time hiding and searching for safety.

They were eventually forced to move to a refugee camp in Peshawar in north-western Pakistan.

They were there for over two years, during which Arian first contracted malaria and then tuberculosis.

The latter was a brush with death for him, but also the source of inspiration for what he has done in life.

The doctor who treated him gifted Arian a stethoscope and a black and white textbook, before leaving him with words that he remembers to this day: “One day I believe you will become a doctor and you’ll need that.”

The family moved back to Afghanistan, which was still in the grip of war, and Arian was in the country for a decade.

His father would tell him stories of the legendary boxer, Muhammad Ali’s exploits in the ring, giving him lessons about resilience and never giving up.

In the mid-90s, the family sold everything and handed the money to an agent to send Arian to the UK.

He had almost no money and little command of the language, but managed to find odd jobs, like a cleaner or a kitchen porter.

He studied in any free time he had and worked hard to complete his A Levels, getting top grades and securing a place at the prestigious Cambridge University.

His PTSD and social isolation took a toll on him, but he pushed through, graduating from Cambridge and then going to Imperial College, London.

READ: UK apologies for asking Afghan asylum seekers to get documents stamped by Taliban

He became a doctor in 2010, a journey that he said was not smooth at all.

As Arian talks about his childhood, his eyes slightly well up.

“I still grieve about the lost childhood, about the time that I didn’t get to stay with my parents, as a young adult for me to be close to them,” he said.

When he returned to Afghanistan years later to meet his family, the trip was very emotional.

“My mother had her arm around me and I felt like the little boy who had lost his parents and he wanted to back and be close to them,” he said.

Mental health in the UK

As an NHS doctor, Arian has witnessed first-hand the prevalence of mental health issues in the UK.

That made him realise the need for an overhaul of mental health services in the country to avoid what he feels is a preventable crisis.

READ: Barge housing for asylum-seekers ‘not a death trap’, asserts UK official

“Sadly, in the UK, we see that the waiting list to see somebody, somebody who can assess people for mental health could take anywhere up to two years,” he said.

Those suffering from severe depression, trauma and anxiety cannot wait for that long, he added.

“I’m really driven … to make a difference to reduce the healthcare inequality, and give access to health care and equality to everyone, including the hard-to-reach populations,” added Arian.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.