Fri. Jul 1st, 2022

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Rustam, his wife Maryam and their three-year-old son arrived in Ottawa as refugees from Afghanistan late in December.

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Less than five months later, Rustam, a physician who has worked as a public health advisor to the Afghan government, is working on his long-term goal of getting his Canadian medical license. The first milestone in that journey is a job as a front-line worker on the overnight shift with the Shepherds of Good Hope.

“I applied to many jobs, and I finally got a response from the Shepherds of Good Hope. They said, ‘You know what? We need you. Just come over. It’s a people job and you will love it, ‘”he said.

“And they really need you. As a medical doctor, you’re trained to help people. Your brain is wired that way. ”

Rustam, who asked that his real name not be used because it could endanger his family in Afghanistan, said he and his wife chose to come to Ottawa because they were looking for a place to raise their family that also has job opportunities.

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In the early 2000s, Rustam worked as a “fixer” for Canadian journalists in Afghanistan, acting as an interpreter for interviews, but also arranging meetings and making sure situations were safe.

He went to medical school in China, where the language of instruction for international students was also English. On returning to Afghanistan, Rustam worked as a family physician at a health center, then moved to a position as a government advisor. Maryam worked for an international non-profit that focused on women’s education and empowerment.

Last year, their lives were becoming increasingly unsafe. “Everything collapsed and we had to leave,” said Rustam.

“When the Taliban took over, they had information about her and specifically about me. Our credentials, our history, our CVs were in the hands of people we could not trust. ”

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Rustam contacted journalist friends who told him Canada was working on a plan to evacuate Afghans with a connection to Canada.

The family was told to wait for a phone call from the Canadian military. In the middle of the night, before they were scheduled to leave, they received a message that the plan had been aborted over warnings of a terrorist attack. That turned out to be accurate – 13 US service members and at least 170 Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport on Aug. 26.

Rustam’s friends were working on another plan. In November, the family was among the refugees on a plane chartered by Journalists for Human Rights to evacuate journalists, human rights workers and their families. Their luggage consisted mostly of books and a few mementos, including their wedding photos.

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The charter took the evacuees to Islamabad, Pakistan, where the family stayed in a guest house for about a month before they were approved to come to Canada, arriving on Dec. 21.

This is the second time Rustam has had to leave Afghanistan. He lived in Pakistan for 13 years as a child.

“I do not know what will be the fate of our country,” he said.

Maryam feels guilty about all the women left behind. “That was the point of being an educated Afghan, that I could help them. It’s just so painful. ”

Rustam believes that with hard work, it will take at least four years to re-qualify as a physician in Canada. He has already started to study for the exams, which test not only science and medical knowledge but also understanding of the Canadian context of medicine, such as health law.

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“My short-term goal was to work somewhere I can ‘speak’ medicine, whether it’s social health or the social determinants of health. Working, for example, as a receptionist in a clinic, or anywhere you’re dealing with people, ”he said.

The Shepherds of Good Hope has jobs for newcomers and refugees both through applications and through Experica, which offers 12-week unpaid placements that allows workers to gain Canadian experience, said Tara Hall, the Shepherds’ manager of communications and community engagement.

For front-line positions, the organization aims to hire workers with a social work or human services background.

“It’s important to have these kinds of interpersonal skills,” she said.

The Shepherds of Good Hope is at the epicenter of the opioid crisis in Ottawa. Rustam started doing shadow shifts four weeks ago and admits his first day was shocking. He was not expecting to find so much drug addiction and homelessness in a city like Ottawa.

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“But then I realized there was help I could provide. In Afghanistan, drug addiction is also an issue. “

His first goal in his plan to become a physician in Canada is to do well on the medical exams that test knowledge of science, medicine and the Canadian medical context.

The exams are notoriously difficult. According to the Medical Council of Canada’s 2020-21 data, 64 per cent of the 2,711 international medical graduates who took the exam passed on the first try. Of the 2,638 physicians newly registered in 2020 by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, 291 were international graduates. The bulk of these people were trained in Saudi Arabia, Ireland, the US, India and the United Kingdom.

“It’s not an easy pathway. It’s very tough. But it’s not impossible, ”said Rustam. “I’ll take the exams. And then I’ll let the Canadian system decide whether they want to take me or not. ”

Rustam speaks five languages, including Mandarin, English, Persian, Pashto and Urdu. “Maybe I can work in a community where there are a lot of immigrants.”

For now, he’s glad to be here and to have a job.

“Once you pass the first board exam, you have more doors open to you.”

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