Remembering my time Afghanistan: “We had come together with the purpose of saving lives”

Sleiman is a Lebanese doctor who recently returned from an assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Afghanistan.

Sleiman and a colleague at Ahmed Shah Baba hospital.

I was planning to head to the Central African Republic or South Sudan, but I found my journey taking me to Afghanistan. Although I was looking forward to an experience in a different country, far away from the Middle East, that didn’t stop me from grasping this opportunity.

After initially studying medicine, I specialised in general surgery, working in Syria until 2014.

In May 2015, I then joined MSF’s medical team in Lebanon as a general physician and medical activity manager of the organisation’s projects in North and South Lebanon.

However, I wanted a new challenge. And before I knew it I was heading to one of MSF’s projects in Afghanistan, which turned out to be a life-changing experience on both personal and professional levels. 

Afghan hospitality

We reached the capital of Kabul after a long flight.

I remember looking outside the aeroplane window when we were flying over the city and seeing the mountains which surround Kabul. I thought “Wow, not only have the Afghan people survived a harsh political environment, they’ve survived a harsh natural environment, too.”

It was after I got to know the Afghan people better however that I really understood just how strong they are.

The Afghans are renowned for their hospitality, enjoy meeting foreigners and respect friendship. Despite the headlines, their culture is characterised by kindness and generosity.

Ahmed Shah Baba Hospital

During my six months stay in Afghanistan, I worked as the medical activity manager in Kabul’s Ahmed Shah Baba hospital, a 69-bed facility run by MSF in partnership with the Ministry of Public Health.

The services provided by the hospital include a huge maternity unit where up to 1,700 babies are delivered every month, an emergency room, operating theatre, in-patient paediatric and malnutrition wards, and an outpatient department with a specialised programme for non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. The hospital employs around 450 staff.

The services are very much appreciated by the community, with residents from all over the city travelling long distances to visit the hospital. They can trust the services and can be guaranteed that the care is free of charge.

One patient I especially remember was a child who fell from a tree.

He arrived at the hospital in bad shape after his parents had driven for more than three hours to reach us. As soon as they came in, they told us that they brought their son to us instead of to the closer hospitals because they trusted us to care for their son.

A healthcare system in ruins

Overall, the medical needs in Afghanistan are enormous.

In many parts of the country, the health system does not function and families struggle to access even the most basic medical care.

Care for more complicated conditions is of course even more difficult with many people being forced to turn to expensive private clinics.

A new mother with her baby in the hospital's maternity unit
A new mother with her baby in the hospital's neonatal unit

Take maternity care, for example, Afghanistan has some of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world with women often giving birth at home without professional medical assistance. With each woman giving birth to an average of 6.6 babies, the risks associated with not having access to healthcare are enormous.

Thankfully, I feel MSF was making a difference here. Particularly when I’d look back at reports from the day before and see something like 60 children born in the hospital. The highest record I witnessed while working there was 95 babies! An incredible number of women and babies given the support they need in such a small space and short amount of time.

The services we provide might seem basic to some people, but they really are life-saving.

Outside of the maternity, I found it strange that while children were dying of malnutrition, some adults suffered from high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease as a result of obesity. I wondered if buying food was a luxury only the rich could afford, while the poor starve to death? But this was a question without a clear an easy answer.

A shared purpose

As months passed by, I realised how resilient the Afghan people truly are. After so much suffering and many years of war, death is really a part of life and they have learnt to cope with loss.

It was immensely rewarding to work with a team from all over the world who had come together with the purpose of saving lives. Together we lived through joy and sorrow and despite endless cultural differences came to understand and respect each other.

For me personally, working in Ahmad Shah Baba forced me to reflect on my own life compared to the immense challenges faced by others.

The next assignment

My experience at Ahmed Shah Baba cannot be condensed into a few paragraphs, but I can definitely say it was a milestone.

I was originally going to stay for three months but ended up staying for six, and if I was asked to stay even longer I would have done so without hesitation.

My last day in Afghanistan touched me deeply. In our final morning meeting together, every staff member said goodbye in their own way and language. Personally, I was very grateful for this enriching experience that introduced me to people from different cultures and social backgrounds.

I’m currently back in Lebanon where I have joined MSF’s project in the Ein El-Hilweh refugee camp.

Between Afghanistan and Lebanon, I am longing for another new experience with MSF.