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This Doctor Can: what it means to be an immigrant working in the NHS

During the pandemic, clinical oncology registrar Dr Asadullah Anees Khan was struck by how many immigrant NHS doctors tragically died from COVID-19, and how their stories and experiences were only gaining recognition after their deaths. He resolved to set about changing this, and to create a space for the stories of NHS staff from all over the world, told on their own terms.

For as long as I can remember, I have not belonged to one place. My parents came from a working class background and worked extremely hard to build a life for themselves and their children, after leaving the land of their birth (Pakistan) for a life in Oman. I learned the value of diversity early, living in a small city in Oman where my friends were from different races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. When the clock struck six, we would all gather at George’s house (George, if you are reading this – I have tried to find you many times over the years without success) and play cricket until the sun went down.

Unfortunately, not everyone was as tolerant. The overwhelming majority of people I grew up with were nice, but episodes of islamophobia meant that my brother and I travelled away from our parents to continue our education. We travelled as ‘unaccompanied minors’ to Lahore to study, while our parents remained in Oman so that they could earn enough money to support our education as well as my little sister’s. By the time I was nine years old, I had lived in Lahore, Muscat, Ibri, Dubai and Abu-Dhabi among other cities, often also supervising my little brother.

I graduated from CMH Lahore Medical College, Pakistan, in 2014 and getting my medical degree was the second-best thing to happen to me while I was living there. (The best thing was meeting the woman who would later become my wife.) We both completed our F1 years and passed the PLAB exam to start working in the UK. I completed my MRCP and core medical training, and after a year working as a medical registrar, I started a registrar post in training to become a clinical oncologist.

The last few months of my core training year were marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, which uprooted any semblance of normality for most of the world. Of course, as an immigrant, it meant I could not hug my dad when my lovely grandmother passed away, as my travel documents were being renewed by the Home Office. As I type this, I have not been able to see my parents in more than 2 years, and my 2-year-old son now says ‘Dada/Dadi’ (grandfather/grandmother in Urdu) when he looks at my phone, as he has only ever met them through the screen.

When the pandemic started, I thought about the first few doctors who had died in the UK. I said their names out loud as a measure of respect to them. Alfa Sa’adu; Amged el-Hawrani; Adil El Tayar and Habib Zaidi. Four doctors who were immigrants – international medical graduates to the UK – and had decided to make this place their home, serving in the NHS and raising their families here. It struck me as a pity that their stories were only shared because these doctors (among many others) lost their lives in the line of duty.

This gave me an idea. I decided to start chronicling, via a series of video podcasts, the journeys of my colleagues from different parts of the world, from their home countries to the NHS – in this beautiful melting pot of many cultures that I have been fortunate to be a part of. Every story is based on the name of a city of origin. I want this to be the biggest collection of stories from immigrants, refugees and people who have moved due to any reason from one part of the world to another.

Representation matters: seeing someone like you in a place of success matters, and I have always believed that stories have power. Who better to tell these stories than the people who have lived them?

People have often asked me why I came to the UK, when most of my friends went to the USA or elsewhere. Quite simply put, this was bigger than me. My mother, a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, worked in the NHS many years ago and, as fate would have it, my parents met in London. If not for a visa processing issue, my dad would have also started working in the NHS, which would mean my life would have been very different.

My parents decided to move to the beautiful country of Oman, and that’s how I learned a heart can beat to the sound of two very different drums. Home, to an immigrant, does not have to mean one thing.

Find out more about Dr Khan’s podcast on Twitter at @imgukpodcast. The video podcast can be viewed here.

Would you like to share your experience of going into medicine? Get in touch on Twitter via @thisdoctorcan.