Waheed Arian fled the war in Afghanistan when he was a teenager. Now an emergency room doctor in Britain, he has made it his mission to bring hope and healing to others.
CHESTER, England — When Waheed Arian was 5, his father knelt by his side and handed him a big, colorful kite. That small moment, in Afghanistan, seared itself into the son’s memory.
“I was a child born into war, “ said Dr. Arian, now 39, and a medical doctor. “I had no idea what normality was like And I only have a couple of happy memories like this from the first years of my life.”
Those years, in the late 1980s and 1990s, were spent in the chaos of war, with uncertainty swirling around him, first in his home city of Kabul; then in a refugee camp in Pakistan where he was displaced with his family; and then back to an Afghanistan engulfed in civil war.
Decades later, driven by hopes of one day becoming a doctor, he established a new life in Britain, where he overcame post-traumatic stress disorder, learned English and studied medicine at Cambridge University, eventually becoming an emergency room doctor.
“I came in with no family support and hardly an education,” Dr. Arian said. “But I wanted to do something with my life and I was taking steps toward it, although it was a long shot.”
Two years ago, he published “In the Wars,” a memoir about his journey from Kabul to Britain as an asylum seeker. His story, a personal tale of overcoming odds, illustrates how Britain’s asylum system has long provided sanctuary and opportunity for countless people.
But in recent years, successive Conservative governments have cracked down on the process, particularly with policies intended to deter asylum seekersfrom crossing the English Channel.
This month, the government introduced legislation that would expel all people who arrive on small boats crossing the Channel without hearing their asylum claims, a position that has been criticized by human rights groups. The British government says that many who arrive this way are economic migrants, and that the policy will act as a deterrent. Government data, though, shows that the majority who reach shore are eventually granted asylum.
Dr. Arian said his own journey showed “what can be done when you allow people to realize their potential.”
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“In this case, you can see the future I’ve got,” he said. “But there are so many other futures on the line.”
Speaking from his home in Chester in northwestern England, Dr. Arian, a father of two, recounted the arduous journey that led him out of Afghanistan.
When his parents sent him to Britain in 1999, alone at 15, it was a tough decision for them, he said. But, he explained, “I was at risk of being taken as a military soldier.” He added, “I didn’t have a future. I wanted to become a doctor, not a killer.”
So his parents scraped together the money to pay a man to help him get to Britain to join a family friend.
He boarded a plane from Islamabad, Pakistan, a false passport in hand, and claimed asylum when he arrived.
“As soon as I landed in the U.K., I was handcuffed and I was put in a prison,” he said. “But I did come with that hope of safety, and the dream to become a doctor.”
That dream began in childhood when he was treated for tuberculosis contracted in the refugee camp in Pakistan. Despite a grim prognosis, a local doctor gave him excellent care — and a textbook and a stethoscope. He made a full recovery and he now knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“On one hand, I saw so much suffering,” he said. “And on the other hand, there was this healer who could actually magically heal people.”
He eventually received refugee status in Britain. He worked three jobs and began studying for his college exams. He remembers other Afghan refugees telling him to become a driver or maybe a shopkeeper.
Instead, he applied to Cambridge University. And against the odds, he got in, and then went on to medical school. He became a British citizen.
A soft-spoken man who seems to put care and attention into every word, Dr. Arian spoke of the importance of giving back through humanitarian efforts.
“We might think it’s a small thing,” he said, describing the many supporters who offered him a kind word, a job or other opportunities over the years. “But it’s not for many refugees. Their futures rely on all these small parts, these bits of community service, that can then shape their future.”
In 2015, he founded, Arian Teleheal, a nonprofit online platform that connects British doctors with medics in Afghanistan through video links. The service was later extended to connect doctors in Syria, Iraq and other conflict zones, to professionals around the world. It was honored by UNESCO.
Dr. Arian is now building off that success with Arian Wellbeing, a platform meant to offer culturally sensitive mental health support, which he believes can be beneficial for refugees who have experienced trauma. It will be free for those who can’t afford to pay.
He hopes to roll out Arian Wellbeing in the coming months to provide aid for those newly arrived in Britain as part of a pilot with some local officials. Within five years, he hopes thousands of psychologists will offer their services on the platform, so that it can help when the next disaster, like the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria, or the war in Ukraine, arrives.
For years after reaching the safety of Britain, the ghosts of his past haunted him.
“I was working so hard, three jobs at first — cleaning, kitchen porter, as well as a salesman, and in the evening I was studying a bit of English as well,” Dr. Arian said. “It was at that time that my PTSD started showing.”
He found himself unable to relax, clenching his hands and having flashbacks. In the middle of the night, he would wake up with intense nightmares.
Working with a psychologist has helped him address these problems, he said.
He, his wife and their children live in a two-bedroom home with a big backyard. They have a Burmese cat and a small dog named Pushkin. The yard is scattered with children’s toys, and the walls of the home are lined with family photos. Some siblings and his father are still in Afghanistan; his mother recently died there.
Last month, Dr. Arian visited a local hotel where hundreds of recently arrived asylum seekers from Afghanistan are being housed after being displaced when the country was retaken by the Taliban in 2021.
“I see the same problems that I experienced in their eyes,” he said, describing how the children’s faces lit up when he spoke to them in their shared mother tongue.
In this meeting, and in the others he has had with asylum seekers from across the world who arrive in Britain, he said he has seen just how detrimental the government’s policies have been on their mental health.
“I can only imagine what at-risk refugees are going through in hotels,” he said, where many are being housed as they await a decision on their future. “We have made friends with some of them, and they are being re-traumatized to be going through all this.”
Most of all, he saw a reflection of his own story. He hopes he can be an example for those who struggle with the complexity of life in a new and unfamiliar place.
“Whenever I speak to these refugees, they have their individual dreams,” he said. “And I understand that.”