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Refugee working on frontlines of pandemic helping the immigrant community

Posted at 1:21 PM, Apr 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-02 13:21:32-04

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Aside from when she’s giving a shot, you won’t see Sheeba Shafaq sit still. She’s working long days at a mobile COVID-19 clinic in Sacramento, helping the immigrant and refugee community.

Shafaq learned this tireless dedication from her family growing up in Afghanistan.

“I was home schooled by the books my brothers brought home from their school, and my parents worked so hard on me to get the education that I needed,” she said.

Years later, schools were eventually opened to women. Shafaq's parents encouraged her to become a doctor like she’d always dreamed of doing.

“Growing up, I have seen a lot, and I always wanted to be that change that I always wanted to see in our society,” she said.

To Shafaq, that change meant working in a hospital fighting for better healthcare for women and girls. She started doing that in Afghanistan, and was well on her way to becoming a doctor.

“Seeing how much they suffer from lack of medical care broke my heart,” said Shafaq of the treatment for women in villages surrounding her hometown.

Even though she was passionate about her work and helping her community in Afghanistan, she was getting threatened for her work.

“Being a woman who speaks her mind and being a women’s rights activist often got me in trouble with the extremists back home, so that led me to the option to flee my country,” said Shafaq of the hardest choice she’s had to make. “I had to do it. Otherwise I would lose myself in the process of asking for justice.”

She left her brothers, parents and everything she knew behind. But when she arrived in the land of the free, she felt trapped. Not all of her schooling and experience would transfer. Her dream of becoming a doctor was set back years, just for moving to a safe place.

“Starting over with everything, it was, it was hard,” she said.

That’s when she went to the International Rescue Committee for help.

“It's really incredibly difficult for foreign-born doctors to get picked up for residency programs because unfortunately, United States universities do not transfer credentials efficiently,” said Yana Mann, who runs the Career Pathways program for the IRC.

The Career Pathways program connects immigrants and refugees with U.S. jobs and training, “to help narrow that gap and build that bridge to help medical doctors take those very first steps into the medical field that they love so much,” explained Mann.

IRC reports the refugees who finish the program typically find jobs, paying 70 percent more than the positions they held prior to the program.

IRC helped Shafaq connect with medical professionals in Sacramento to get her current job. Working on the frontline of the pandemic today is helping her train to be a doctor here in the years to come.

“I raised my hand, even though I was scared a little bit, but I felt like this would be a good purpose even if I die for it,” said Shafaq of working on the front lines of the COVID-19 response in her community.

She hopes to break down the stereotypes she hears about refugees in the process.

“I was told that refugees and immigrants they come here, and they took the jobs that the Americans are supposed to have. Being a refugee doesn't give you the privilege of getting the job. It's the hard work that gets you the job,” she said.

Shafaq said she is prepared for more hard work and longer days ahead. She knows her hours of work and dedication will one day earn her the certification in the United States to do what she loves most.