‘Unfortunately, Ireland’s pro-vaccination campaign is not strong enough’

People are getting information from anti-vax groups, says Dr Arman Rahman

Arman Rahman was 27 when he secured a scholarship to study in Sweden. Born and brought up in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, the student doctor knew how difficult it was to study abroad. The son of a marine engineer who had trained in Australia, Rahman grew up in a household that strongly valued education. However, building an international career as a doctor was a near impossible dream for most young Bangladeshis.

“It didn’t really matter what I wanted to be, it was all about what profession would secure me a good job and a good life. If you ask our entire population what do you want to be, most would say a medical doctor or an engineer.

“Leaving Bangladesh to do a postgraduate in Sweden was probably the toughest thing you could do. All the graduates who came out of Bangladesh for higher study at that time, I could count them on one hand. Once I secured the visa for Sweden you cannot imagine the joy I had.”

'I felt humiliated and insulted. So I started applying for jobs, and the first one I got was a post-doctoral fellowship at DCU'

Rahman moved to Sweden in 1996 to study for a master's in public health at Umea University in the northeast. He planned to return to Bangladesh after a year but stayed in Sweden after he was offered the chance to do a PhD in immunology. "I was assigned to a Japanese supervisor and he took me under his wing and coached me. The first six months were a gruelling process but I wanted to learn so much, I was like a sponge."


He coped with the long, dark Swedish winters by focusing on his studies. “You have seven months when you only have daylight for three or four hours. When the summer comes it’s the world’s best weather, but then you have to go back to winter. There were very few Bangladeshis in Sweden in the 1990s; I think there were only four of us in Umea.”

Rahman was four years into his PhD when his supervisor suddenly died. His wife, Afifa, who had joined him in Sweden, had also recently given birth to their son Adnaan.

“It was impossible to continue my work without my supervisor. The head of the department told me I could take an MPhil but I wanted my PhD. It was one of the most difficult periods of my life, I was so uncertain about what I was going to do.”

A chance encounter with one of the country’s leading cardiothoracic surgeons resulted in Rahman refocusing his career on surgery. “There was a serious lack of cardiothoracic surgeons at the time; they had specialists but no junior doctors to assist. The senior surgeons taught me from one week to the next and I just learned surgery like that. I really enjoyed that work, it was a fantastic time.”

While he loved the work, Rahman repeatedly encountered problems securing a visa that would allow him to work as a surgeon and, after three years in the job, he returned to his PhD.

Despite assurances from Swedish authorities that Rahman and his family could stay in the country once he completed his studies, his application was refused in 2007, the same year his daughter Arminta was born. “Immigration told me I had to leave the country straight away. I felt humiliated and insulted. So I started applying for jobs, and the first one I got was a post-doctoral fellowship at DCU.”

The Rahman family arrived in Ireland in 2008 and moved into a house in Santry. “There was nothing exactly wrong with the house, but if you’ve lived in Sweden you know what high-quality living is. This was not the European life we were used to.”

During their first week in Dublin, the electricity went and an elderly neighbour called by to give some candles to the family. “She saw we had small kids and wanted to check on us. That never would have happened in Sweden. I could be lying dead in my house for years and the neighbours wouldn’t check on you.

“Our neighbours, the people I worked with, the people I met on the street had something we didn’t see in Sweden. Irish people are completely different to people in many other European countries. I liked it, my wife liked it and within six months we realised we wanted to stay in this country.”

In 2011, Rahman briefly moved to Cambridge University for a visiting fellowship but returned to Dublin the following year to work with the Oncomark diagnostics company. In 2016 he became a full-time senior research fellow at the UCD Conway Institute.

Working in cancer research, Rahman discovered that programmes were not reaching Ireland’s immigrant populations and decided to focus on educating Ireland’s Arabic- and Bengali-speaking communities about cancer treatments. He found immigrant women were particularly difficult to reach and that many were not availing of screening programmes due to linguistic barriers and cultural sensitivities.

“Breast cancer, cervical cancer – there were social taboos around talking about them, and by the time women got pain and went to their GP it was advanced cancer.”

Last year he gave a talk to Ireland’s Bangladeshi community as part of the “Invisible Spectrum” series on cancer awareness. He is grateful for the support of his Irish colleagues in this work and says they “respect other cultures”.

'If I moved to Switzerland I'd earn three times what I make now . . . But I don't want that, I'm happy here'

Rahman is also now using his expertise in immunology to help tackle misinformation around Covid-19 and vaccines by writing articles for a Bangladeshi newspaper, which has a circulation in the millions

He admits feeling nervous about the growing influence of anti-vaccination groups in western countries. Women, in particular, need clear, unambiguous information about the Covid-19 vaccine, he says. “Let’s not confuse people by giving information from too many sides. Unfortunately, here in Ireland our pro-vaccination campaign is not strong enough and people are getting more information from anti-vax groups.”

Now an Irish citizen, Rahman says he and his wife are very happy to live in Ireland and bring up their children here. Earlier this year, he was named senior researcher of the year at the Irish Cancer Society Awards for his work in helping researchers better understand which treatments are more effective for cancer patients.

“If I moved to Switzerland I’d earn three times what I make now or if I went to America I could probably get a position as a director with a pharmaceutical company. But I don’t want that, I’m happy here. Naturally, I’ll be Bangladeshi until I die, but my wife and I, we find that Ireland is our home.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish