Sheeba Shafaq always knew she wanted to work in health care, particularly women’s health. She can’t imagine herself doing anything else.
The 29-year-old was on her way to becoming an OB-GYN in Afghanistan when her work promoting women’s rights led to threats to her life and she sought asylum in the United States. Now, the only member of her family in the U.S., Sheeba has thrown herself into the long process of earning the new credentials she needs to rebuild her career. She currently works as a supervisor in a mobile medical clinic that has focused almost solely on COVID-19 testing since March. There she puts in 10-hour days while taking classes and preparing applications for medical school. She also mentors IRC clients—including other asylees and refugees—interested in health care and shares information about the coronavirus vaccines with refugee communities.
Below, Sheeba talks to the IRC about her work on the front line of COVID-19, why mentoring is important to her and what she hopes to see happen in the U.S. in 2021.
Why have you always wanted to work in health care?
As a girl growing up in Afghanistan, I cherished the midwives in villages across the country. The majority of them were uneducated but independent farmers, as well as well-respected and self-taught midwives providing emergency medical care for women. I admired their ambition and compassion for those they helped. Their persistence and perseverance ignited a passion within my heart to pursue a career in medicine.
At that moment, I vowed to spare others the same fate.
As a teenager, I watched a woman die from hemorrhaging during delivery. I wondered whether the outcome could have been different if the midwife had medical training. At that moment, I vowed to spare others the same fate.
What does your day-to-day life look like now?
With the unimaginable misfortunes the year 2020 brought upon us, I was fortunate to hold on to my job, not only for financial purposes but also to help underserved communities in dire need of medical assistance. As a medical professional, I feel more responsible than ever before to help, care for and educate patients about COVID-19 and overall health. With the rapid growth of positive cases this past year, and our country facing a shortage of medical staff, I am determined to serve communities in need.
I currently supervise a mobile COVID-19 screening and testing site, providing testing to all low income and uninsured adults in the Sacramento area. Our days are often 10 to 12 hours long, which can be exhausting. At one point, my team was conducting over 100 tests per day.
I have an oximeter to check oxygen levels and if a patient is very sick, we’ll send them to the hospital. That happened just last week.
There is a long line of people waiting to get tested when I arrive at work—we’ve even had to discourage people from lining up at one or two in the morning. After we test the patients, we provide them with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and sign them up for at least temporary insurance for COVID-19 testing and treatment. The majority of the people we serve do not have insurance.
In addition to long work hours, I attend school in the evening. Of course, the pandemic has forced schools to offer online classes only and we all know sitting for a 3-hour online statistics class is way more challenging than sitting in a classroom. Moreover, being a front line worker, I have isolated myself from my loved ones to keep them safe.
The effects of the pandemic are widespread. Keeping good mental health and adapting to this new way of life is key to balancing our lives during these tough times.
How has your job changed due to COVID-19?
I started my job on March 2. It wasn’t long before I was attending meetings to discuss COVID-19 testing. Once that began, it never stopped. We just had one short break to provide vaccinations to kids at the beginning of the school year.
For a very short time at the beginning of my job, we were providing mobile and street medicine to underserved communities. We’d go into hard-to-reach places and check on the homeless population in our county, offering services such as medical and dental care, plus wound care if it was needed.
You’ve been able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. What was that like?
I felt privileged, honored and thankful to be able to receive the vaccine early. The day I took it, I was very excited. It felt like Eid (a festival which follows a month of fasting for Muslims). My arm hurt a bit and I had a small headache and slightly elevated temperature but it was worth it.
Even with the vaccine, we must continue to wear our personal protective equipment (PPE). At work, we are considered low risk because we are vigilant when it comes to this disease, careful to wear our PPE, and because we treat everyone at the clinic as if they are positive. We’re more cautious because we expect the risk. I think that it would be different and harder being in a work setting where you're not sure if your clients are sick or not.
How did you become connected with the IRC?
After my asylum case was approved, I got a big stack of papers with resources for asylees. There I found information about the IRC’s scholarship for refugees and asylees who want to become certified in the medical field. It was fully funded—my tution, scrubs, books, national exams, even my CPR certification. The scholarship only required me to complete the medical assistant program but I also became an EKG certified technician and phlebotomist by the end of the program.
Why did you decide to mentor other refugees and immigrants who want to work in health care?
I was very grateful for the scholarship I got, so I called the IRC to see if there was something I could do for the program. They said I could volunteer and return to the IRC as a professional mentor and help other people who have recently moved to the U.S. with medical backgrounds. I now assist clients with mentoring, completing the paperwork process, job interviews and the courses themselves. I am also helping with job placements for IRC clients at my current work place. Recently, I was able to hire someone from the program and now he is one of the best employees on our team. His resilience and persistence makes my work easier and I can now be a dependable source to hire more qualified IRC clients.
A lot of the people I mentor are doctors or surgeons. They are refugees in a new country and trying to restart from anywhere in health care and work their way up. Being in the medical field for a long time changes you. I know I wouldn’t love doing anything else. I think a lot of people feel the same way.
What is the best part of working in health care?
That thrill of putting on scrubs, mask, face shield, gown, gloves, and my game face to get out there to fight this pandemic with resolve, positivity and grace—all in a day of work. My commitment to provide care is far more significant than the challenges I face daily in the health care system here in America as a foriegn medical graduate.
What are your personal goals for 2021?
Personally, it is to finally get my travel document so I can travel to see my family.
I haven’t seen my parents for over five years. I’m very grateful for everything but the last four years...it’s been awful going through the immigration system. With all the policies changing every day, I have had nightmares. There were nights I would wake up with headaches thinking and overthinking about everything I heard on the news. I do see potential for change now and hope that other people won’t suffer as me and millions of others like me did in the past four years.
I’m very grateful for everything but the last four years...it’s been awful going through the immigration system.
Every time I check my social media to see what is happening in Afghanistan, I see that there has been an explosion or attack in the city where people I know live. When I was living in that situation, it felt somehow normal. There had been explosions right outside where I would go to school. But now that I’m here, I’m not used to noises like that anymore. Every time I see something in the news, I break until I can call everyone I know to check if they were affected.
Professionally, I have witnessed the shortages of health care in the United States and how underserved communities experience hardship when adequate care is not available. By doing my part and getting licensed I hope to provide short- and long-term care and education that can increase health equity, decrease disparities and improve health in vulnerable communities.
What are your hopes for the U.S. in 2021?
One of my personal priorities this year is to educate and advocate for COVID-19 vaccines. I was chosen to be a board member for the National Resource Center for Refugees, Immigrants and Migrants (NRC-RIM) at the University of Minnesota and funded by the CDC. Currently, we’re focusing on raising awareness in refugee communities. We’re reaching out to people that communities trust; for instance, in Muslim communities the religious leaders in the community can help us get the message out. Also, word of mouth is very popular among immigrant and refugee communities, particularly when it starts with good behavior and respect. We are also working on short videos and flyers in many languages.
I hope everyone gets on board with getting vaccinated when it is their turn. In order to end this pandemic, we need advocates and educators to make sure people have accurate information from reliable sources.
Saving lives has always been my passion in life. Even though, as a foreign medical graduate, I am restricted from using my skills to the fullest during the pandemic, I have taken on new challenges and responsibilities to collaborate with my team members. Impressed by my professionalism and work ethic, this summer my work promoted me to a supervisory position. Being part of this outstanding team taught me the importance of team-based care in medical settings in the United States.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sheeba writes about her refugee journey in Newsweek (May 13, 2021)