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Susan’s Bookshelves: In the Wars by Waheed Arian

This is not the first time Radio 3’s Private Passions has led me to a book. Until I heard him talking to Michael Berkley about his life, work and chosen music I had never heard of Dr Waheed Arian. Shame on me because given what he’s achieved I certainly should have done. As it is I ordered his book as soon as the programme ended and then gobbled it in 24 hours almost unable to tear myself away from it.

Now 39, Waheed was born in Afghanistan the eldest son in a large, loving but poor family. Constant conflict meant that he saw death and destruction daily and lived all his early years in almost continual fear and the sound of shelling. For a while the family escaped to Pakistan, returning when things seemed better – for a while before a politically different war started. There was very little schooling for anyone and health care was scant. And that was before the emergence of the Taliban. Waheed is very good at explaining the troubled history of his country in a succinct, accessible way.

As a young child in Pakistan, Waheed was seriously ill with TB and malaria. Somehow his father managed to get him to a specialist and that treatment inspired the idea that he’d like to be a doctor one day – and help people get better. So he started asking questions. At one point back in Afghanistan he took a part-time job in a pharmacy because he wanted to learn the names of the drugs.

The future looked bleak and after a whole series of terrifying incidents he persuaded his parents to let him come to the UK. They engaged the services of a “travel agent” (actually a ruthless people smuggler), somehow scraped together the money and Waheed was despatched, aged 15. Of course his papers were forgeries and on arrival at Heathrow he was arrested as an illegal immigrant and sent to Feltham Young Offenders Institution for a fortnight. Eventually luck kicked in.  A friendly barrister managed to get him freed and a social worker was kind to him. And he went to live with a friend in a room in Notting Hill.

Thereafter he worked flat out at every menial job he could find (sending money home was a priority) did all he could to improve his English and enrolled on courses in English and science in a bid to get university entrance qualifications – in spite of having effectively had no childhood and almost no education and inadequate English. Gradually – and there are heartwarming tributes to various people who helped him – he began to pass what he needed, ending up with straight As at A level. Then a miracle happened and he was offered at place at Trinity Hall Cambridge – with accommodation, bursaries and the like so that he could continue to support his younger brother who had joined him in the UK.

It’s a movingly compelling – if often horrifying –  story. But qualifying as a doctor, working towards a specialism in radiology and marrying a tremendously supportive Brit with whom he now has two children is really only half of it.

What Waheed really wants his readers to know about is the charity he has set up: Arian Teleheal offers a way of connecting doctors in places with poor medical provision with those if the west with excellent facilities. Using simple mobile phone apps to exchange information the idea is to offer specific advice relating to individual patients and to save lives. It’s very hands on and all the Western participants are volunteers. The award winning work started in Afghanistan but has spread to other underdeveloped countries and there have been pinch-me moments when Waheed has addressed audiences of state presidents and other very powerful people. And the wonderful thing is that the learning is not just one way. Staff – for example – in the NHS here in the UK are learning a huge amount about, among other things, how to treat victims of conflict.

I often gasped in horror, admiration and amazement as I read all this. I also chuckled occasionally about, for instance, the girl in Cambridge who told him she was pissed and he thought, appalled, she meant she’d been pissed on because he’d never heard the expression.

And when I got to this, near the end, I wept:

“Many of the volunteers and Afghan doctors are now on first name terms. Their messages show them enquiring after each other’s families and at Eid the greetings flow round the globe. It is amazing to see a critical-care consultant in the US talking to a doctor in the village in Afghanistan like old friends. Our pioneering methods have broken down barriers and built bridges between people who would never meet in any other circumstances and who now stand shoulder to shoulder across the world to promote peace through saving lives and improving education”.

I worry, though. In the Wars was published in June 2021. Two months later  the Americans left Afghanistan and, within weeks the Taliban had moved centre stage again. At the time of writing restrictions are strict and there is, once more, no schooling for girls. How fervently I hope that Waheed’s work can continue.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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