“Nothing will stand in my way”: Pharmacist, student and pregnant in a pandemic

MSF pharmacist Ola Barakat shares her determination to follow her own path and to go where her skills are needed most.

Ola Barakat - MSF pharmacist

First of all, I am a woman.

I am also a mother of two children, Ayham (four years old) and Adam (eight months old).

From a professional standpoint, I am currently a pharmacy supervisor with MSF in Jordan.

My journey

I’ve worked as a humanitarian with Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for nine years now.

Being part of a humanitarian organisation means you are witness to human suffering, and this experience has made me strong and caring at the same time.

This combination has helped me advance in my career with love and passion and to fulfil my ambitions although this has meant breaking with some of the customs and traditions of my community in Jordan, that can limit the realisation of a woman's dream.

My journey with humanitarian work helped me fight all my battles, succeeding without hesitation or fear.

Rising to the challenge

Before starting my job as a pharmacy supervisor, I worked in Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps, which are about 85 km away northeast of Amman, the capital of Jordan.

This daily trip was my first challenge as a working woman in a traditional society. I know I was talked about by both the women and men around me, and I was bombarded by questions daily.

I was sure that I was doing what I wanted in both my mind and heart

“How do you travel alone for such a long distance?” or "how do you keep away from your children in order to work?”. “How do you walk around as a woman among the refugees?” and "are you not being bullied or even harassed?”

All of these questions did not bother me at all. I was sure that I was doing what I wanted in both my mind and heart.

Pregnant in the pandemic

With the spread of COVID-19, pharmacists were fighting on the frontlines of the pandemic. We stood by people who desperately needed us, especially the most marginalised.

Under the general lockdown, when most people were at home, we were on the ground facing the pandemic.

When COVID-19 swept the world, I was seven months pregnant. And, I had three difficult months going back and forth between work and home.

I do not deny that I was afraid, because pregnant women are more at risk of severe forms of the disease, but I took all the necessary preventive measures out of fear for myself and my children.

Disinfection has become a routine daily task.

Balancing life

My days are not easy, between work, family and studying, but I have been able to establish a balance as I am currently pursuing my graduate studies.

My daily working hours in the pharmacy are from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon. I allocate my children three hours of my time, and my studies, too. Given the current situation, most of my studying is online.

I am a master’s student, pursuing a degree in Humanitarian Practices at the University of Manchester in the UK.

I was able to pursue this thanks to a scholarship granted by MSF, which I was able to land through my work with the organisation. I applied to the scholarship, and soon after my application was accepted after I passed an exam.

After my return from Lebanon, many of my female Jordanian colleagues told me they were inspired and encouraged to take on travel assignments

This is how I became a worker, mother, and student in the most difficult period in history.

This came as a shock to people who surrounded me in our Jordanian society. Everyone considered me weak for being a woman:

“As a woman, you cannot work, raise children and learn. We are men and we cannot do everything you do," they would say.

I used to get a lot of comments such as “you exhaust yourself”, or “what do you want from this world”, “take care of your home and your children”, and “do not take your role and the role of others”.

But I grew stronger and stronger the more I heard this negative feedback.

Detachment and inspiration

My work at MSF presents many challenges, one of which is the subject of travel or what is known as “detachment”, meaning the experience of working for a certain period outside your country.

The organisation paved the way for me to go on an assignment to Lebanon. I applied with many others to the vacancy and was finally selected.

I was over the moon when my visa was accepted. My assignment was in a pharmacy in one of the organisation's hospitals, in eastern Lebanon, specifically in Zahle, in the Bekaa governorate.

This assignment was the talk of my community back in Jordan, and it was a shock to them that I would be travelling for six months, leaving my family for work. They considered my behaviour as a mother unacceptable, they never looked at my successes and my ambitions.

After my return from Lebanon, many of my female Jordanian colleagues told me they were inspired and encouraged to take on travel assignments – that was a huge achievement for me.

Ambition without limits

Partnership is one of the main things that help a marriage succeed. My husband is my greatest supporter, and he encourages me to be adventurous, unlike most of the men in our society, stressing that he would be by my side in the good times and bad.

My husband works in the field of journalism and has a PhD in Arabic literature. He is an open and confident man who appreciates my work, cares for my happiness and nurtures my ambitions. It is important to note that few of the men around him support their wives to advance, learn and study the way he has supported me.

I can’t deny that the pressures and responsibilities are great and many, between work, studying and fulfilling family duties. But, all of these tasks make me a successful woman, full of life, and my ambition knows no limits.

My motto has been: If I don’t follow a path of development, I will end up a miserable woman and a grieving mother.

So, instead, I put my career on one hand and my family on the other, and will always find a balance.


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