New to the Parish: Abdullah Afghan and Fatima Abdullah arrived from Afghanistan via Pakistan

Fatima Abdullah was on a break from her medical career when the coronavirus pandemic hit Ireland in March 2020. A qualified doctor, Abdullah moved to Ireland after her husband, Abdullah Afghan, who is also a doctor, secured a job in Co Mayo in 2014. She wanted to continue her training in obstetrics and gynaecology but needed time to care for her two small children. However, when the HSE launched the "Be on Call for Ireland" campaign in response to health crisis, Abdullah changed her mind.

“I was a doctor sitting at home, and a doctor’s job is to help people. I thought this is the time they need me. Of course I had no idea then things would get so bad.”

Her husband Afghan recalls how friends tried to discourage his wife from signing up. “They said we should wait for things to settle before she went back to work. But we said, ‘No, this is life and death and we owe the Irish people’. We’ve settled here, they’ve given us opportunities. We have a very good life with our kids and it’s our time to pay back to Ireland. We’re proud that we did it. It also made us feel like we really belong to this society.”

Originally from Afghanistan, both Afghan and Abdullah grew up in Pakistan after their families fled their home country. Afghan, whose family comes from the southeastern city of Khost, was born en route to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

“Things were extremely difficult. My parents never could have imagined I’d end up as a doctor. At that time all they were thinking about was staying safe. What they did for me was beyond imagination. They were not educated; they had to do manual labour for us to go to school.”

Abdullah, who is from the Afghan capital of Kabul, was two years old when her parents emigrated. "The situation in our country was so dangerous, our families could not think of staying there. They moved to save our lives."

The couple met in medical school shortly before Afghan’s graduation and were married soon after. In 2014, he was offered a job in Ireland while Abdullah, who was still completing her studies, visited during her three months off college where she would study before returning to Pakistan. In October 2015, their son Azlaan was born. “To be honest it was not a planned pregnancy and I was supposed to go back to Pakistan for my exams. I had a really traumatic delivery because he was a big baby, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I found it really hard being a young mother here with no family support.”

When Azlaan was nearly a month old, the couple travelled to Dublin to secure a visa for Abdullah and her baby to travel to Pakistan so she could complete her medical exams. "We had to drive from Castlebar at 3am to get into the queue," remembers Afghan. "There was no online system then; you had to queue outside to get the visa, and if you were later than 7am you could be turned back. But the immigration officers were extremely helpful and supportive. Azlaan was crying non-stop, and he processed our visa within minutes."

Abdullah stayed in Pakistan for five months to finish her studies before returning to Ireland with Azlaan, and in 2018, their daughter Anaya was born. Abdullah had applied for her sister, who lives in the United States, to visit and help care for the newborn but the visa request was rejected.

“She had her two own kids in the States and we just wanted her to come and help us for three months. But because she was Afghan she couldn’t get it. I had really bad postnatal depression after Anaya was born. Being alone and having no support, everything was so hard.”

Similarly, Afghan found applying for visas to travel to the United Kingdom for training courses or to visit family in Germany extremely difficult. "It was rejected so many times. Once I had to travel to Birmingham for an exam, and I was stopped by immigration for an hour and a half. Initially it felt terrifying, what were they suspecting me of?

“Now I know this is going to happen and that I will be stopped and interrogated for hours every time I travel to mainland UK. Because of our passport, travel is hard.”

Having worked the long hours of emergency medicine in Irish hospitals, Afghan decided to become a general practitioner so his wife could resume her training and he could help more at home.

However, he discovered it was extremely difficult for non-EU doctors to qualify for Ireland’s GP training programme, which allocates places through a preference system starting with Irish citizens, followed by Europeans.

He also applied through the NHS and was offered a position in Craigavon in Co Armagh. Afghan now drives 1½ hours twice a day to and from his home in Bettystown, Co Meath, which the couple bought in 2019, to his job in Northern Ireland. "The commute is long but it's important for my career progression and once it's completed I can work in Ireland as a GP."

Abdullah has been working in the emergency department of Our Lady’s Hospital in Navan since September of last year and regularly cares for patients with Covid-19.

In November, both Abdullah and Afghan contracted the virus. “We got very sick and were checking our oxygen saturation all the time,” he says. “Our temperatures were reaching almost 40 degrees, we were praying that we didn’t deteriorate.”

“I kept thinking, ‘what will happen to the children if we both have to go to hospital’,” adds his wife. “We didn’t have any support around us. That was really hard.”

The couple have recently added their voices to the campaign calling for applications for Irish citizenships from migrant healthcare workers to be fast-tracked. Afghan, who applied in November 2019, says the wait has had a “major impact” on the family.

“After working here for almost seven years and responding to the Call for Ireland the only thing we are asking is for our naturalisation application to be processed swiftly. When we are ready to lay our lives on the line for this country, I believe urgent processing is not a big ask.”

The couple know Irish citizenship will help their children build a “bright future”. “I’m so happy my kids are in Ireland, they’re in a good country and living the best life a child could have,” says Abdullah. “They’re safe here.”

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