'Goodwill is there, we have to highlight that while standing up to xenophobia'

Dr Waheed Arian, who fled conflict as a teenager, tells UNHCR UK about his journey from asylum-seeker to frontline NHS doctor and charity founder

You can order Dr Arian's book this Refugee Week, learn what it means to be a refugee and what a powerful force inclusion can be.

You can order Dr Arian's book this Refugee Week, learn what it means to be a refugee and what a powerful force inclusion can be.  © Dr Waheed Arian

LONDON - Ahead of World Refugee Day, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, met Dr Waheed Arian. He escaped conflict in Afghanistan and came to the UK by irregular means in the late 1990s.

Despite his daunting circumstances – a lone, penniless teenager with little English and no formal education -- he made up for lost time and was accepted to read medicine at Cambridge University, Imperial College and Harvard.

He is now an emergency NHS doctor and medical charity founder. His memoir, ‘In the Wars,’ is published this week and has been making a splash. His story is testament to the contributions refugees can make to their new homes given a chance. Under planned UK rule changes, asylum-seekers like Dr Arian might not be able to benefit from the same opportunities in future.

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: “His story intersects with the contemporary public debate, whereby asylum-seekers who arrive irregularly are often depicted as a threat to society. No-one who has been treated by Dr Arian would see him as such.”

Originally from Afghanistan, Dr Arian is leading by example. He is an emergency doctor in the NHS, and runs Teleheal, a charity connecting doctors here with health workers in conflict zones.

Originally from Afghanistan, Dr Arian is leading by example. He is an emergency doctor in the NHS, and runs Teleheal, a charity connecting doctors here with health workers in conflict zones.  © Dr Waheed Arian

Tell us about your current NHS role and how COVID has affected you?

I’m a senior doctor in an emergency department in the NHS and I’ve been working since the beginning of the pandemic. Sadly, we’ve seen a lot of trauma, misery and loss.

I’ve also seen a lot of solidarity, of human spirit, to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other -- people from various backgrounds.

Why start Teleheal – your charity?

When I came from Afghanistan, a 15-year-old refugee, I had $100 in my pocket and no formal education. But I had a dream to get an education.

I had seen a lot of suffering during the Afghan-Soviet conflict and the civil war, suffering myself from tuberculosis and malaria, and I’ve seen my family suffer. But I’ve also seen worse suffering around me that inspired me to become a doctor. When I became a doctor in 2010, I decided it was time to give back, of course, to the NHS, which has given so much to the UK, but also to people in Afghanistan, in conflict zones, and in low-resource settings.

And how does it work in reality?

I went back regularly to Afghanistan to help any way I could, but I soon realised one person’s contribution wouldn’t be enough … I also realised around me in the NHS there were many others that wanted to give back, to treat humanity, but they didn’t have the means to go to conflict zones. That inspired me to find a way – a virtual way – to bridge that gap … The technology actually doesn’t need to be that complex … Using minimal funding, minimal technology, it has worked in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We have managed to connect global experts to medical teams in emergency departments.

What are the ambitions for the charity?

Any humanitarian work, I’ve learned personally, revolves around partnership. So we do the work ourselves … But since 2017 we have started giving our model, working with other international organisations and governments to enable them to learn from each other and give our expertise and experiences to them.

What’s your opinion of the welcome for refugees? Is xenophobia a concern?

Xenophobia is a concern. We see many examples in the media – in social media – that’s something we can’t ignore and have to stand up to … We have to educate people and inform them of the realities of conflict. Refugees flee persecution, their lives are at risk, they have to leave, they don’t have many safe ways – safe passages. And safety is a human right.

But on the other hand, the UK welcomed me, gave me welfare when I needed it … Since becoming a doctor, and working in the NHS, I’ve seen a lot more solidarity, more teamwork -- we have to highlight that.

Have you found UK society welcoming?

I have indeed … All those memories are there: from when I arrived until now through our international telemedicine charity. We have dozens of experts working, for example, in London and Birmingham hospitals … when they have a free moment they look at their smartphones and say, ‘oh, how can we help with your charity?’

How was adjusting to your new life?

The first thing people coming from conflict want is safety, they suffer so much, they don’t know what normal life looks like … when I saw planes in the sky not trying to kill us but just going around normally transporting people, that was a new experience … When I came here, I realised I had carried a lot of mental health issues with me, for example, post-traumatic stress. That applies to almost all refugees … But on the positive side, we also bring in with us determination, a thirst for contribution, achieving, fulfilling our own potential ... Once we fulfil our own potential we try to give back to our families … But then we also think about society. Most of us try to give back any way we can, whether being a good neighbour, a good driver, a good shopkeeper, all the way to being a good doctor, engineer, lawyer.

How can we help ease the problem of global forced displacement?

Peace is extremely important. However, that’s not guaranteed. But, as a result of conflict, displacement is guaranteed … Displacement is not something that refugees want: they don’t want to leave their countries, their families or relatives, the lives they built for years, and suddenly say, ‘oh I want a better life somewhere else’ – that’s not the point.

They are displaced for a reason and that’s persecution. We can do things on an individual level, we can do it on a society [level], on a political level. But also, with private companies and organisations, they can chip in … Everybody can help.

What was the motivation behind your Memoir?

I realised the power of telling my story and how much goodwill it brought. It’s got various aspects. One, the plight of the people who live in conflict zones … The second is to offer inspiration – to show that somebody else has walked that path. Finally, how we can make a difference: no matter how big our vision is, it can be implemented with teamwork, with the help of galvanising people around you.

[text edited for brevity]

To learn more about Arian Waheed and to order his memoir you can visit his website.