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Resident Voices: My Journey to I-House

“Come back when you can speak English clearly.”

This is what my college counselor at my high school in Queens, New York, told me when I walked in into her office and told her I wanted to go to college.

I was born in Afghanistan and spent my early childhood in the Helmand province, a region of the country often called “the deadliest place on earth.” When I was three my mother, six siblings, and I were forced to seek refuge in Pakistan because the Taliban were pressuring my two brothers to join their madrasa. My brothers were beaten badly several times. Years later we returned to Afghanistan, joining my father who had stayed behind, and in late 2014 we all immigrated to the U.S.

Here I am presenting my summer research at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, July 19, 2018.

Today, I am a rising senior at the City College of New York, majoring in biology and minoring in psychology. My GPA is 3.9. My goal is to be a gynecologist, and once I complete medical school, I want to start a program in Afghanistan to support women’s health. I also want to practice medicine in the U.S.

That day at the college counseling office, I left without saying anything. I have always believed in the saying, “work hard in silence, let your success be your noise,” and that is exactly what I did.

I worked day and night to prepare for the English Regents Exam. I took the practice test many times. I took classes on Saturdays to prepare for the test. I got a library card, read books, sought help from my English teachers, and worked hard and as much as I could. I ended up getting a 100 on my English Regents Exam, something that is very rare for a student who speaks English as a second language.

My mom and me in June 2015, the day of my high school graduation in Queens, New York

I also looked up to my sisters as great role models. They saw the need for female doctors and all four ended up working in the health care profession, contributing to my family’s income in Afghanistan along with my father who worked at an ice factory.

When I was little I was known as the “doctor’s little sister,” the doctor being my oldest sister Fariha. (Fun fact: Fariha was the gynecologist who delivered me). Ever since I was a kid I would tell everyone I want to be a doctor like my sister.

My mom never went to school. She was 11 when she got engaged, 13 when she got married, and 14 when she gave birth to my sister Fariha. My mom was from a village and therefore never got the respect she deserved from her in-laws. My dad went to school only until 6th grade.

At an Ice Cream Social on July 21, 2018, where I met some of my I-House friends. With me are (L to R) Fran Franceschini from the U.S. (Puerto Rico), Eduardo Blancas from Mexico, Mugahed Ameni from Yemen, Brandon Wrignt from the U.S., and Grace Montoya from the U.S.

My first two years in the U.S. were very hard. I did not know the language and the system.  Even taking the subway made me anxious. My religion and my hijab, which I never thought would be a problem in the U.S, added to my anxiety when I went out (it doesn’t anymore). I didn’t feel accepted; I wasn’t confident enough to talk to anyone (I was very shy!).

When my parents moved back to Afghanistan less than 2 years after arriving in the U.S. I stayed behind with my older sister. I felt alone. I had to figure everything on my own. I got rejected for the first internship I applied to. 

At I-House I have met people with similar stories as my own. They come from different parts of the world to pursue their dreams. I love the atmosphere here because everyone is very friendly and motivating.

My father, pictured here Islamabad, Pakistan, on June 2014, left the U.S. after only a few months because he missed his homeland. My mother left a year later because he missed her too much.

Some of my new friends I met at the Ice Cream social events, all from different countries and pursuing different careers: biostats, international studies, public health, law, and many others. I love being around people from different backgrounds because I get to learn from everyone.

Along with my school and research, I work part-time as a medical assistant at a clinic in Flushing, Queens, where the patients are mostly Afghans. I enjoy interacting with them; most of them express how proud they are of me and my work given the short time I have been here.

Since moving to the U.S. I have not visited my parents, two sisters, and a brother in Afghanistan and there are many reasons why: what if I go and I am not able to come back from Afghanistan (even with a green card). My family would also worry about my safety if I were to go to Afghanistan.

When I was growing up my mother always told me she dreamed about going to school and being able to read and write. She wanted her daughters to achieve what she could not, which is to get an education. My sisters, and I, are her pride!

I live to make her proud.

Fadia Ahmad, 21, was a summer Resident at International House.