Breaking barriers, a young refugee woman fulfils her medical career dream

Taking risks to pursue her dream, Marzila, a 21-year-old Afghan refugee and medical worker in Pakistan, has convinced her family and community to accept the diverse roles that women play in society.

Marzila, a 21-year-old Afghan refugee and medical worker, at her clinic in Quetta, Pakistan.
© UNHCR/Humera Karim

In a small medical clinic in Quetta, Pakistan, a young woman clad in a turquoise medical gown and surgical mask works briskly. Patients file into the cramped clinic, seeking help and medical care for different ailments. The clinic, located in a slum area with many refugee families, serves both refugees and the local community.

Marzila, a 21-year-old Afghan refugee and medical student, is responsible for treating the many female patients who come to the clinic. She carries out preliminary checks on their condition and provides basic care and assistance before referring more complex cases onwards to experienced doctors. Being a medical practitioner has been her life’s dream.

“I used to play doctor with my dolls,” Marzila explains, recalling her childhood. “I had to become a medical practitioner. That was final, and nothing else was acceptable to me.”

“I had to become a medical practitioner. That was final, and nothing else was acceptable to me.”

As a woman and as a refugee, Marzila’s path from “playing doctor” to being able to provide her community with medical care has been full of challenges.

Marzila’s parents had just been settling into married life when they were forced to flee their home in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, forty years ago. Seeking safety from the fighting and violence around them, they left the country and took refuge in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan Province.

Marzila, one of nine children, was born in 2000. In some families, only the birth of a male child is celebrated because only boys are believed to be capable of taking care of the household and of earning for the family. Despite this, Marzila dreamed of becoming a doctor, whiling away countless hours treating her dolls’ make-believe illnesses and injuries.

Her dreams hit a hard stop when she was compelled to drop out of school after Grade 5. Like other young girls in the community, Marzila was expected to leave her formal studies in favour of household chores; this was her expected role in the family. But she refused to abandon her dreams.

“For a little girl like me, poverty and the restriction of movement from my elder brothers and community were like monsters blocking my way,” she says. “But my determination to succeed was stronger, and it never allowed anything to overtake me.”

Her mother, and later her father, agreed to support her education – albeit secretly. Her elder brothers went to work in the early morning, so it was easy for her to sneak out to school after they had left for the day. If they returned home earlier than Marzila, her parents would cover up her absence while she climbed over a wall to enter the home undetected. She paid for her studies by taking on embroidering jobs and selling traditional chickpeas to children.

Marzila’s determination was not a source of pride in the community; on the contrary, she received disapproving comments and even threats of violence from relatives and neighbours who felt that her continued studies were inappropriate. After she completed Grade 10, she and her parents revealed their years-long secret to her brothers. Stunned by her determination and courage, they chose to support her ambitions.

“I lived in constant fear and anxiety until I won the support of my elder brothers,” she explains.  “Yes, I lost my childhood struggling for my goal, but I don’t regret anything because I have set a precedent and paved the way for other girls.”

“I lost my childhood struggling for my goal, but I don’t regret anything because I have set a precedent and paved the way for other girls.”

Thanks to the support of Mercy Corps, Marzila was then able to complete midwifery and gynecology courses at a hospital in Quetta and started practising at a local clinic. Her hard work was rewarded still further when she was awarded a DAFI scholarship and admitted to a bachelor’s degree programme in Medicine and Surgery at the University of Balochistan.

  • Marzila examining a patient at her clinic in Quetta, Pakistan.
    Marzila examining a patient at her clinic in Quetta, Pakistan. © UNHCR/Humera Karim
  • Marzila walking just outside her home in Quetta, Pakistan.
    Marzila walking just outside her home in Quetta, Pakistan. © UNHCR/Humera Karim
  • Marzila studying at her home in Quetta, Pakistan.
    Marzila studying at her home in Quetta, Pakistan. © UNHCR/Humera Karim

The neighbours who had once been hostile towards her started consulting her for their medical issues, especially for women. One particular community elder who held the strongest opinion against her became supportive when she provided medical help to his daughter. Today, Marzila is one of the community’s most trusted and respected members.

At home, Marzila has shown her parents, brothers and sisters that girls can support a family just as well as boys can. Through carefully saving up the sums she had built up through her medical work and other jobs, she has bought her family a washing machine and a refrigerator.

“I strive so hard to bring some happiness and comfort to my parents,” she says with pride. “This is an immense source of contentment for me. People should not hold their daughters back. Girls and boys are equally capable of nurturing the family, and they are both equally valuable to society.”