‘That new life that I couldn’t see, because I was born into war and hadn’t known any other reality: I knew that it existed. And hanging onto that hope each day was a method for me to survive.’Dr Waheed Arian, speaking on the Visualising War and Peace podcast
In his autobiography In the Wars, Dr Waheed Arian describes how he lost his childhood to war in Afghanistan and became a refugee multiple times. He shared his story with us in this podcast interview, where he also reflects on the challenges that millions of refugees continue to face today and the solutions which we as individuals and communities can implement to support them.
Dr Arian was born in Kabul in 1983 and his childhood was dominated by the Soviet-Afghan war. His family spent years fleeing the fighting, especially after his father was conscripted into the army; and (like many others around them) they took the difficult decision in 1988 to escape to Pakistan, which involved a hazardous mountain journey, dodging terrifying air strikes. Their cramped, difficult living conditions in a refugee camp in Pakistan resulted in Dr Arian becoming seriously ill, with a combination of malnutrition, malaria and tuberculosis. That experience – and the medical care he received – inspired him to start dreaming of becoming a doctor.
‘We should see refugees as people who have got dreams, who have got hopes for safety, who have got aspirations… and one day they become contributors, they become innovators…’Dr Waheed Arian, speaking on the Visualising War and Peace podcast
Dr Arian and his family returned to Kabul when Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan; but civil war rapidly broke out, and as the Taliban’s grip on power increased, his parents became increasingly concerned that he would be recruited to fight, so they arranged for him to travel to the UK. He was fifteen years old, and on arrival as a refugee he was immediately imprisoned and sent to the Feltham Young Offender Institute. Against all the odds, Dr Arian learnt English, took on multiple jobs in shops and restaurants, and studied in the evenings, gaining the A-levels required to read Medicine at the University of Cambridge. From there, he became a doctor, specialising in radiology, and he now works on the front line in A&E in the NHS.
Dr Arian’s autobiography documents what it was like to lose his childhood to war, to live in constant fear of bombardment, to be separated from family members, to navigate terrifying forced migrations at a very young age, and to have to take on responsibilities for his younger siblings. As well as recounting what these experiences did to him physically, Dr Arian discusses the impacts on his mental health of constant fear, disruption, and upheaval; and he reflects on the self-help mechanisms which he developed to protect his mental wellbeing, cling onto hope, and build towards a better future. In particular, he details his determination to study, despite all the barriers to education which he experienced.
In the Wars also narrates Dr Arian’s long journey to settle and belong once he arrived in the UK – from his legal fight to be recognised as a legitimate asylum-seeker to his gradual evolution into a successful student and doctor, now working for the NHS. He touches on his sense of isolation and vulnerability to exploitation, and also on the extraordinary hard work that an outsider has to undertake to fight their way into an unfamiliar education system and make progress. His ongoing struggles with PTSD remind us of the lack of support that remains a challenge for many forced migrants, and the need for more holistic care in future.
‘Each refugee has an individual story and an individual set of experiences. And they need a holistic approach, that addresses physical health, mental health and social wellbeing. Although there are pockets of healthcare everywhere, how do we bring all of it together to make sure that it forms a system which every asylum seeker and refugee can access?’Dr Waheed Arian, speaking on the Visualising War and Peace podcast
Over time, Dr Arian found that helping others became a way to help himself. Aware of the ongoing need for more medical support and training in Afghanistan, he set up a charity called Arian Teleheal, which enables volunteer medics based in the UK to advise medical colleagues in Afghanistan and elsewhere, using smart phones, social media and other every-day technologies. Motivated by his personal experiences of trauma and PTSD, he has also developed Arian Wellbeing, a telemedicine project focused on providing culturally-sensitive and trauma-informed care for patients who struggle to access mental health services, particularly refugees. Dr Arian has become a powerful advocate for refugees in the UK, and he has been recognised for his charity work by multiple organisations, including a UN Global Hero Award in 2017, a Rotary International Peace Award in 2018, and the UK Prime Minister’s Points of Light Award in 2018.
In the podcast, we discuss Dr Arian’s journey towards self-healing, via the work that he does helping others. He outlines the vital need for more holistic care to support refugees’ physical, mental and social needs. We discuss the power of care and compassion; the day-to-day contributions made by refugees in their new communities; and the right that everyone has to safety, to a normal, settled life, and to hopes and dreams. Like his book In the Wars, Dr Arian’s conversation offers moving insights into refugee experiences, critical analysis of current support systems, and powerful truths about refugee rights.
‘There is a lot of kindness and help in the community, and that really inspires me. Although we are surrounded by quite a lot of negative news, kindness doesn’t make headlines – so I think we have to look into that.Dr Waheed Arian, speaking on the Visualising War and Peace podcast