Express & Star

Remarkable journey for Black Country doctor forced to flee war-torn Afghanistan as a boy

Forced to flee a war-torn country as a young boy, it has been a remarkable journey for an NHS doctor now treating patients in the Black Country.

Dr Abdul Aziz

Dr Abdul Aziz currently works as a specialist registrar at Sandwell Hospital, but his journey to become a medic hasn’t been an easy one.

He was around five-years-old when he was forced to flee his homeland of Afghanistan with his family during the Soviet–Afghan War.

The war, fought from 1979 to 1989, saw the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan under the pretext of upholding the Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty.

The treaty was signed in 1978 and the two countries agreed to provide economic and military assistance.

A 1978 communist revolution in Afghanistan and its subsequent one-party state, run by head of the communist party Nur Mohammed Taraki, was extremely unpopular with the Afghan people and the Soviets attempted to bolster it with the treaty.

However, in September 1979 Taraki was overthrown and killed by members of the Afghan Communist Party who were unhappy with him.

So, in December Russia entered Afghanistan to re-establish a government closer to its desires.

Dr Aziz had grown up in the Kunduz province during the conflict and in 1985 his family decided to flee, fearing for their lives.

The war had claimed the lives of his grandfather, who died when his car was hit by a rocket, and the family mourned the loss of another relative after a bomb was dropped on his home.

“We had to leave the country – it was difficult at that time,” said Dr Aziz, who is now aged 42.

“This was peak of fighting between Afghan resistance forces and Russians/Afghan communist regime.

“The president at this time was Babrak Karmal. He was a ruthless leader who was appointed by the Soviet Union. The government took my dad and put him in prison because they said he was not co-operating with them.

“Dad was released after some time but he was worried that the government would want to catch him again.

“He had to leave our province and he walked all the way to Pakistan on foot. It took him 22 days to reach the border.”

Abdul Aziz, centre, with his father Abdul Rahim and his brother Abdul Karim Sharif in Iran in 1985

Dr Aziz, along with his mother, younger brother and baby sister, then tried to join him.

“We were smuggled out of the country by smugglers who were just looking for money,” he said.

“Many people were trying to escape the country. Me, my mum, my younger brother and newborn sister, we didn’t have any passports or documents.

“On the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan my brother and I were separated from my mum and sister. She had to crawl under the barbed wire to get into Pakistan while we were taken by the smugglers to Jalalabad.

“It was a horrible experience. We were with people we didn’t know, but within the next 12 hours we were reunited again. They sold my brother and I to another group of smugglers who found my mum and gave us to her.

“We found dad but couldn’t stay in Pakistan for more than a few months. Refugees were not well treated.”

The family left to seek refuge in Iran, where Dr Aziz’s uncle lived, but almost ended up getting separated again when they met up with another group of smugglers to help them on their journey.

“It was the middle of the night and we had to go through the desert,” said Dr Aziz.

“In the desert my dad and mum ran to the car with the baby – it was pitch black and no-one could see anything. It was very confusing. My dad thought my mum had my brother and I, while mum thought he had us.

“We were left alone and started crying. The smugglers then put us in another car but it was quite a few hours until we saw our parents and sister again.” The family were able to stay in Iran until 1988, but conditions were far from ideal.

“I couldn’t go to school, we didn’t have basic rights but we had a shelter and my dad was working,” said Dr Aziz.

“He was a chief accountant and was well educated, but in Iran he kept a low profile and worked as a labourer.

“Although, it wasn’t a good place for kids to grow up, so we came back to Pakistan and I got to go to school for the first time at the age of nine.

“This was my first experience of school. I had dreamed about going there in Iran – I thought about what it would be like to have a school uniform and my dad taking my hand to take me to school.

“My dream came true and I made it there but, because my dad had been home-schooling me, I was a bit worried and anxious. I didn’t know English and had to learn the language.”

He finished school in 1995 in Peshawar, Pakistan and then went back to Afghanistan to join Kabul Medical University, where he began studying medicine.

But unrest was far from over after the terrorist attacks in America on September 11, 2001, led to war in Afghanistan.

That morning, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners scheduled to travel from the East Coast to California.

The hijackers crashed the first two planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, and the third into the Pentagon, near Washington.

Dr Aziz recalled at that time the Taliban were taking young people to the war to fight for them and he was living near to a Taliban military base which was being bombed regularly.

After finishing medical school, he joined an American hospital in Afghanistan and was trained as a GP.

But Dr Aziz said he left the country again in 2012 when the Taliban threatened to target the hospital and this time travelled to the United Arab Emirates, living in Dubai for a while until 2019, when he left there for the UK.

Settling in Shrewsbury, he began working at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital as a specialist registrar in A&E and later became a medical registrar.

“This was a massive change for me, it was a completely new experience,” he said.

“In 2021 I got a training position. I moved to Hereford County Hospital, then went to Stoke hospital and to Sandwell Hospital, where I’ve been since September 2021.”

Dr Aziz now lives in Birmingham with his wife Taiba Aziz, 38.

Abdul Aziz in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1995

The couple have five children and he works as a registrar, specialising in elderly medicine.

He said: “I’m quite happy where I am. If I want to progress people will support me, that’s very encouraging.

“The people have been wonderful and I’ve had a lot of support from the trust itself.

“The poor people back at home need me more than here but I cannot go back there. It’s not safe for me.

“My sister, Maryam was a school teacher after finishing university.

“Due to her and her husband’s political activity her father in-law was killed by the Taliban and after the Taliban took over they had to flee again to Pakistan. This history is happening again for her.”

In 2009, he established an association which is helping junior doctors in Afghanistan.

Dr Aziz, who is now writing a book about his life experiences, said: “I was fortunate enough to follow my dreams and got an education. However, not everyone was as lucky.

“It’s given me a sense of pride getting to where I am today.

“I tell people if I can do what I dreamed, why can they not do it?

“I was not from a rich family, but I had this passion and desire to be a good doctor. I’m hoping my book will inspire others.”