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Chasing the dream

Many doctors have left the country to realise their potential, but many more still need a push to convince them that they have what it takes

Chasing the dream

Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is.

—Bhagavad Gita

As ‘Match’ season rolls around and I start getting calls and emails from current and former students to help them in their journey to the United States, a recurring theme in my conversations with these brilliant young people is their somewhat tentative confidence in their own abilities. These are young people who have excelled academically all their lives (and many times in other areas such as debating, sports or other extracurricular activities). They are all fiercely competitive and relentlessly focused, and it is this same singular determination to succeed that has brought them this far. Yet, along the way, something has changed.

When they talk about going to America they sound apprehensive, sometimes even afraid. Whether it is the thought of competing with brilliant doctors from all over the world or the idea that going to America means leaving behind all that is familiar and safe — is a theme that runs throughout our initial conversations. It also has to do with the nature of our families and culture which generally discourage independence and individuality.

There are so many stories, so many intelligent, motivated young people who have left Pakistan — many of them probably for good.

An extreme example of this was Farooq (not his real name). He was introduced to me by another bright student of mine. He had just graduated from medical college and was doing his ‘house job’ at the time. He was clearly very bright, from a humble family and very passionate about doing research, a rarity in young doctors. We became friends as I mentored him over a period of time. I was the one who broached the idea of him going to America for further training which he initially rejected. His reason: his mother did not want him to go. This is a common occurrence that I come across time and time again. Parents push their children hard to achieve but then balk when their child is finally ready to leave the nest and fly out on their own. At the time, I acquiesced to his decision but I knew that was not the end and sure enough, a few months later, he came to me and said he could not bear working in his current hospital any longer. His colleagues were unmotivated and sometimes plain lazy, no one wanted to work hard or learn anything new and he was sometimes required to do things which were less than honest. He couldn’t take it anymore. He took a few months off and cleared his US entrance exams with flying colours and then, once again, Mom decided to put her foot down. In this case, she told him if he left, she would probably die of a heart attack.

Emotional blackmail is an integral part of parenting in Pakistan so I continued to support him while he made up his mind. He finally did apply, got a good number of interviews and flew off. Midway through his interview season though, again at mom and dad’s urging, he cut short his interview season and flew back to Pakistan. This time I was firmer, I told him he owed it to himself (and me) to at least complete his interviews and when he pleaded a lack of money to fly back, I arranged some money for him and sent him off again. Of course he matched in a good training programme and, mom’s objections notwithstanding, did finally join his training in the US.

He has finished training now and came to see me a few months ago. He is married now and has just been offered a job making a handsome salary that, over time, will allow him to do much for his family. Sadly, his mother did pass away a year or so ago from complications related to an illness. We talked about it and I reinforced what he already knew: his being in Pakistan would not have made any difference to her illness one way or another. It was just meant to be.

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Someone else also comes to mind. Saadia (not her real name) came to see me while she was still a medical student. I forget what the initial reason was but I do remember that she cried her eyes out in my office because a class fellow had been ‘cyber-stalking’ her for months. He had been harassing her from multiple cell phone, email and Facebook accounts, pledging his undying love and devotion when she wanted nothing to do with him. Over time, she came to see me a few more times and we became friends. It turned out that she was also a militant feminist and we had many discussions in which, in the middle of her ranting about what pigs Pakistani men were, I would laughingly remind her that I was a man to which her usual retort would be: “Don’t start sir, you’re different!.”

She also passed her US exams with flying colours and eventually ‘matched’ at a prestigious university. We stayed in touch and exchanged emails regularly and one recurrent topic of conversation was marriage. As a typical Pakistani girl, dating was out of question even though attractive and intelligent as she was, she must have had more than her fair share of suitors. This dilemma, who to marry and when, often confronts single Pakistani doctors in the US, an increasing number of whom are now women. Some take the plunge and marry an American (whether ethnically Caucasian or of Pakistani origin) thus also settling the lingering question of where they will eventually live and work over the years.

Others, like me many years ago, harboured hopes of both maintaining a bond with Pakistan and perhaps eventually returning there as well and thus wish to marry someone from Pakistan. But living 10,000 miles away makes any courtship difficult and even arranged ‘rishtas’ become complicated since you cannot see or meet your potential mate except maybe once or twice. Most of us figure some way out and so did Saadia. I just received a wedding card via email. She is about to finish her residency, her soon to be husband has already done his and is pursuing fellowship training and she will find a job close to him and join him soon. She insists that I fly to the US to attend her wedding but for now, a gift will have to suffice.

There are so many stories, so many intelligent, motivated young people who have left Pakistan — many of them probably for good. I keep hoping that one day, maybe many years from now, a few will come back, like I did and give something back to this country which, for all its flaws, is our home and has given all of us so much. In the meantime, come fall, I will keep getting calls and emails from shy, hesitant young men and women and my task will be to convince them that they already have what it takes. They just need to leap off that cliff and spread their wings. The world is waiting.


Ali Madeeh Hashmi

ali hashmi
The writer is a psychiatrist and a Trustee of the Faiz Foundation Trust. He can be reached at [email protected]

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