From refugee to doctor

Darbaz doesn't believe in doubt

Anyone can go to university, believes student refugee Darbaz Abbas. It’s not about intelligence, he thinks. It’s about believing in yourself. And never give up.
By Puck Swarte / Photo by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

He worked 365 days a year. He did his medical internship during the day and studied at night. On the weekends, he worked at the UMCG as a nurse. He barely had time to sleep, let alone go on holiday. ‘It was madness’, he says of this period in his life.

But Darbaz Abbas had no choice. He had been dreaming of becoming a surgeon since he was a child, but because he came to the Netherlands as a refugee, there was no guarantee that this dream would ever come true. His educational level hadn’t prepared him for university and because he only received his Dutch passport six months ago, he had to pay for a large part of his tuition himself. He is a doctor now, and hopes to become a surgeon soon.

Because of the war in his home country of Iraq, Darbaz didn’t go to school until he was nine. Which means he was already behind when he started. ‘I was lacking so much, and things are so different here. Suddenly I had to write from left to right. I had to relearn everything.’


This disadvantage meant that after elementary school, Darbaz attended lower secondary professional education. And although he wanted to go to medical school, his environment was hardly supportive. His friends would laugh at him, and teachers said he wouldn’t be able to handle it. When he wanted to move from caretaker level 3 to nursing level 4, people didn’t take him seriously. When he wanted to go to a university of applied sciences after finishing his nursing degree, people told him it would be too hard. When he wanted to go from the university of applied sciences to medical school, people said this would be nigh impossible.

But Darbaz did it. He can, he says, be incredibly stubborn, and he refused to let people get him down: ‘It mainly takes determination. If you don’t have that, it won’t work out. You also have to be able to stick to your guns, and to not let other people’s doubts hold you back.’

Fortunately, he didn’t really suffer from cultural differences; he adjusted easily. This was partially due to the fact that he and his family settled on the island of Ameland. ‘Because we lived in such an isolated place, we became integrated really quickly. If we’d ended up in an apartment building full of North Africans, it would have been a different story. I probably would have only spoken my native language, and I wouldn’t have come into contact with Dutch culture as much. On Ameland, I had no choice.’


What also helped was the fact that he had not been raised religiously. While his female cousins in Iraq weren’t allowed outside without their mothers or a headscarf, his father had completely turned his back on religion after he witnessed his father and his pregnant mother being deliberately run over. ‘My father became an atheist immediately at that. He just couldn’t understand that people could believe in an Allah who would let something like that happen.’

Awful as the reason for it may be, Darbaz is happy with his liberal upbringing. ‘I have nothing against religion. But I think people should practice it at home, and it should stay out of science and education.’

He names the physical examination, which every medical student must undergo, as an example. Darbaz: ‘Several students from Saudi Arabia refused to do it, when it’s mandatory for everyone. Their reason was that their faith forbade them from being touched by another man. That bothers me. If you want to study here, you have to adjust, simple as that.’

Refugees coming to the Netherlands in this day and age shouldn’t be discouraged, says Darbaz: there are numerous ways they can get an education, such as pre-masters and the UAF foundation for refugee students. They provide guidance to refugees who want to study and help pay for part of their tuition. There are plenty of options. ‘Having trouble speaking Dutch? Get rid of your satellite dish and start watching Dutch television programmes. Would you like to learn things? Get to the nearest public library, grab a book, and start learning.’


Darbaz does realise that it’s easier said than done, though. ‘Of course it can be really hard. What you need to do is make the uncomfortable, comfortable. When you don’t understand something, it can act as a barrier. You have to try and make it easier for yourself by investing time and effort.’

He never took physics in school, but he needed to understand it to be able to study medicine. ‘The formulas looked like hieroglyphs to me, I couldn’t make sense of them. It was almost frightening. I devoted a lot of time to it, watched YouTube videos that explained the concepts, and asked friends for help. I finally got comfortable with it, which meant I could move on. And that’s how I got to where I am today, step by step.’

But perhaps most important of all was his parents’ support. They always urged him to keep going, telling him that everyone can go to university as long as they try hard enough. ‘I don’t think success has anything to do with intelligence. As far as I’m concerned, intelligence is believing in yourself and not giving up. I’m living proof of that.’


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