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Afghan Doctor Wins Nansen Refugee Award in 2021

by K. Vatsala Devi
Afghan Doctor Win Bigs

Two decades ago, Saleema Rehman was one of only a handful of refugee girls attending classes at the Barakat Primary School in the city of Attock, west of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Now, at the age of 29, the Afghan refugee doctor is standing before a class of about 30 young refugee girls at her old school, dressed in a white doctor’s coat – this was the opening of her introduction written by Marie-Claude Poirier on UNHRC’s website.

Today, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR announced Dr. Saleema Rehman as this year’s regional winner of the Nansen Refugee Award in the Asia region.

Dr. Rehman who serves local communities and refugees in Pakistan, was awarded this accolade in recognition of her outstanding service and commitment to Pakistanis and refugees in the country. It also acknowledges her contributions as a refugee to Pakistan, particularly the unwavering dedication towards her patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Established in 1954, the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award honours individuals, groups and organizations who go above and beyond the call of duty to protect refugees, as well as displaced and stateless people.

What the Win Means

Dr. Saleema Rehman inspiring many young refugee girls attending classes at the Barakat Primary School

The award was presented to Dr. Rehman – at the Swiss Embassy – by the Ambassador of Switzerland, Bénédict de Cerjat, and the Chargée d’affaires of Norway, Elin Kylvåg, at a special ceremony held in her honour.

In her acceptance speech, Dr. Rehman said that access to education is very important in our lives and that investing in the education of a woman is an investment in a whole new generation. This is extremely profound as I read more on the website and found out that Saleema’s birth was a difficult one and she wasn’t expected to survive it.

Defying all odds, Saleema survived and her father, Abdul, swore to himself that he would make sure that she received an education and became a doctor. He stayed true to that promise and supported his daughter through years of schooling, despite facing criticism from his own community. Many among them frowned upon the idea of a girl aspiring outside the home and marriage.

How Dr. Rehman Inspires Women Around the Globe

UNHCR’s Representative in Pakistan Noriko Yoshida said, “She’s a trailblazer. She’s beaten the odds by becoming the first female doctor in her community. By achieving her dream of offering health care to the most vulnerable – refugees and Pakistanis alike – Saleema is a living testament to how women can contribute to the socio-economic development of their communities.”

Dr. Rehman tending to her patient

“I want to prove that a girl can be anything if provided with opportunities. Whether I am in Pakistan or anywhere else, I want to serve humanity with my whole heart,” said Saleema, whose story and work are bringing change.

The Swiss Ambassador Bénédict de Cerjat termed her as an inspirational young Afghan woman. “She is a bright example on how valuable it is for the international community to support countries hosting refugees with inclusive policies like Pakistan. Investing in refugees also helps Afghanistan, which needs professionals.

“Women and men, like Dr. Saleema, could contribute to their own country – if it becomes safe to return home. We are committed to help ensure that the next generation of Afghan girls can also fulfill their dreams,” he said.

About the Award

The UNHCR Representative in Pakistan and other dignitaries representing a range of countries and organizations participated in the ceremony. This year, the global winner is the Jeel Albena Association for Humanitarian Development, a relief organization in Yemen. There are also five regional winners, including Dr. Rehman in Asia, as well as regional winners in the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

The Nansen Refugee Award – named after the late Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian diplomat, scientist, polar explorer and humanitarian who went on to serve as the first High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations and won the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize – is given annually to one or more individuals or an organization for outstanding work on behalf of the forcibly displaced and/or stateless people.

Photo credit : Amsal Naeem & Betsy Joles, UNHCR.

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