This year’s theme for South Asian Heritage Month (18 July to 17 August), is ‘stories to tell’. My story is a reminder that more than 100 million people in the world are displaced. With lack of access to basic amenities and healthcare, their memories may be similar to mine as a young boy – filled with conflict and war.
I was born in Afghanistan and as the fighting intensified, my parents made the difficult decision to leave, so we could live in safety. We crossed the border into Pakistan and stayed in an overcrowded refugee camp. Our living conditions were poor, without electricity or running water, I caught life-threatening diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, and even suffered from malnutrition.
But amid the adversity, a volunteer doctor in the camp made me realise my dream, inspiring me to become a doctor. I too, wanted to reach out and help people who needed it most.
In 1999, as the conflict raged on, my parents decided it was safer for me to stay in the UK. I didn’t speak much English and had $100 in my pocket as I travelled alone, to stay with family friends.
Inspiration, hope and drive kept me motivated. I worked three jobs as a cleaner, shop assistant and kitchen porter, while attending evening classes to further my education. I went on to study medicine at Cambridge University and Imperial University with a scholarship for an elective in surgery at Harvard Medical School.
I started my first role as a doctor at Basildon University Hospital and continuing my work with the NHS as an emergency medicine doctor.
Despite trying to lock it all away and start a new life, I, like many refugees, have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety attacks. Nightmares and visions still haunt me from time to time and can be triggered by seeing traumatic images from conflict zones like Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine.
Dealing with trauma and my experiences gave me the determination to do more, so in 2015, I set up an international telemedicine charity. I wanted to help people who had little or no access to healthcare, advice and treatment and decided to start out in my home country of Afghanistan. Arian Teleheal uses everyday technology, to connect local doctors living in low resource countries and conflict zones with UK-based medics.
With more than 100 volunteer doctors, we have saved hundreds of lives, treated thousands with their injuries and helped many who have struggled with their mental health. We have since expanded to support work in Syria, Uganda, South Africa and Yemen. Our volunteers supported the global response to COVID-19, whilst working tirelessly on the frontline for the NHS.
I also set up the Arian Wellbeing social impact initiative in 2023 to provide access to holistic, trauma-informed and culturally sensitive mental health support to everyone including hard to reach populations. The UK government has commissioned our services to support refugees residing in hotels through our expert clinical psychologists, licensed therapists and personal trainers.
We are now extending our innovative work to help our NHS colleagues dealing with stress at work, to those with more complex mental health issues like PTSD and anxiety disorders.
As a former refugee, I have learnt to see everyone as human beings, regardless of race, gender, location. Our humanity shouldn’t be clouded and we should remember we’re all living together in a one-world community and not as individuals.
Conflict and displacement may sadly always be part of our lives. But I hope this year for South Asian Heritage Month, we are reminded that asylum seekers and refugees are an important part of our society; that we strive for equality and serve them with the same care and opportunities as others; and ensure our health services, including those for trauma and mental health, are culturally sensitive, responsive and comprehensive, as well as accessible to all.
Giving back through charity work has helped me to heal my own trauma. Seeing kindness and compassion gives me hope in life and humanity.
So, thank you to friends, colleagues and volunteer medics. We have brought people together to inspire collective compassion and touch people’s lives – whether it’s a single person, our neighbours, or someone across the other side of the world.