Afghan Refugee Takes Long, Arduous Path to the Nursing Career She Loves

    • March 22, 2012

For many Americans, the path to nursing is fairly straightforward; you graduate from high school, apply to a nursing program, earn a degree, and get a job.

Not so for Waheeda Siddiqui, an Afghan woman who escaped the oppressive clutch of the Taliban, survived a trying and traumatic childhood in a refugee camp in Pakistan, fled to the United States as a refugee, started a new life in Arizona and, against all odds, achieved academic success in a U.S. high school, a major university and now an accelerated-degree nursing program.

Like her mother before her, she will be a nurse—only she will work in her new, and more welcoming, home, the United States of America.

Siddiqui’s long and arduous journey began 15 years ago, when she was a young girl in Kabul. That year, the Taliban took over and implemented its repressive and misogynistic regime. Siddiqui’s mother was forced to quit her job and stay home with her nine children, and Siddiqui and her five sisters were forced to quit school and stay indoors.

The new regime also took its toll on Siddiqui’s father, a surgeon who was required to work all waking hours—and sometimes more than that. Taliban officials, Siddiqui recalls from her childhood days, would knock on the door in the middle of the night and force him to provide on-the-spot care. Overworked and under extreme stress, Siddiqui’s father, a diabetic with hypertension, suffered a stroke, fell into a coma and eventually passed away—leaving Siddiqui and her family with no way to support themselves.

“Nobody could work,” Siddiqui recalls. “My older siblings were all girls, and they couldn’t go outside of the house without a male escort, and neither could my mom. My dad was the only one who provided for us, and without him, we didn’t have an income or a way out of the house. When he passed away, we couldn’t do anything.”

The family fell into a deep and desperate poverty. Siddiqui’s mother owned a large house in the heart of the city, but she could not afford to feed all of her children three meals a day, and pricier foods like meat and vegetables were literally off the table. She couldn’t risk going outside to shop or even to shovel snow off the roof or in other ways maintain their home.

With little hope of long-term survival, Siddiqui’s mother gathered her savings and sold off some furniture and other possessions to pay a neighbor to transport her and her family—under the cover of burqas—over the border and into Pakistan. Because she was not accompanied by a male relative, she had to ask the neighbor to lie on her behalf and tell the border guards they were all part of the same family—a gamble that could lead to arrest, or possibly worse—for the entire group if it failed.

The gamble paid off. After a non-stop 10-hour drive, the family arrived safely in Pakistan. “I don’t know how she did it, but she made it somehow,” Siddiqui says.

Upon arriving in Pakistan, Siddiqui’s mother rented a two-bedroom apartment and began to scratch out a living by doing odd jobs for neighbors while trying to home-school her children. She didn’t earn enough to feed her family, though, so she turned to a nearby refugee camp to meet their basic food and housing needs.

“The only thing I can remember was how sick people were,” Siddiqui says. “Almost every kid had diarrhea; it was the biggest killer there. I was so scared. The moms would talk about it, how their children were about to die from diarrhea, but they couldn’t do anything for them because they didn’t have access to good sanitation systems or medication….It was a horrible life.”

But Siddiqui’s mother continued her fight for a better one. She rolled the dice again when she braved a trip back to Afghanistan to sell off some of her property so she could afford to apply for help from an international rescue group.

That gamble paid off too. After a long series of interviews, physical exams and background checks, the entire family was granted residency in the United States. The International Rescue Committee gave Siddiqui’s mother a small loan to support her family for a few months, rented a house in her name and helped her and her older children find jobs in the fields of housekeeping, waitressing and data entry.

Thrilled with U.S. School

Siddiqui, however, was one of the luckier members of her family. She and her brothers were still young enough to attend school, which, for them, may as well have been an amusement park. “I loved it,” Siddiqui recalls. “I hadn’t been to school since the third grade, and here I was in high school with everyone else. It was so awesome, even though I didn’t speak English.”

Somehow, she caught up—and then some. She picked up English, joined the math club and the student government, did volunteer community service and, of course, studied hard. She graduated in 2006 with stellar academic marks and earned a scholarship to attend Arizona State University, where she majored in biological sciences and worked part-time to support herself.

She graduated in 2010, again with a high grades and planned to become a doctor like her father had been. But after shadowing doctors in the hospital, she discovered that it was her mother, rather than her father, whom she wanted to emulate. “I want to be with the patients, I want to be at the bedside,” she says. “That’s why I decided to do nursing.”

Siddiqui then applied for a one-year accelerated program at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and was accepted into the program. But she couldn’t go, because she couldn’t afford it. Her application for a student loan had been denied because she didn’t have a credit history.

Then she found her way in. She applied for a scholarship through New Careers in Nursing, a program supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing—and was accepted.

The program provides grants to schools for scholarships for accelerated-degree bachelor’s and master’s degree nursing students. It aims to help alleviate the national nursing shortage, increase the diversity of nursing professionals, expand capacity in baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs and enhance the pipeline of potential nurse faculty. Getting the scholarship, Siddiqui says, was “a life-changing event.” She is now on track to graduate in August.

So how does the rest of the story end?

Siddiqui’s sisters have married and had children, Siddiqui’s brothers are enrolled in Arizona State University and on various paths to professions in health care, some in medicine and pharmacy. And Siddiqui’s mother? She’s enjoying the retired life in Arizona, watching her children blossom into mature and capable adults and playing with her beloved grandchildren.

Siddiqui’s mother has a special place in her heart for the daughter who is picking up where she left off as a young nurse many years ago in a distant, and now very foreign, land. She “likes the idea of me becoming a nurse,” Siddiqui says. “She told me I could find my true self in nursing, and I did.”



Waheeda Siddiqui

Waheeda Siddiqui, New Careers in Nursing Scholar