Detours and setbacks couldn't keep former Afghan refugee from reaching her dream
July 5, 2012
HONOLULU - "I think success is the best revenge in life," said Maj. Rhine Hejran, as she described her long and harrowing journey from an Afghan citizen to a doctor in the U.S. Army.
Hejran, who was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan, is now the deputy chief of Inpatient Psychiatric Service at Tripler Army Medical Center.
Hejran graduated from Kabul University School of Medicine and was proud to have reached her life dream of becoming a doctor, only to have her future ripped away.
"Without notice (boys were taken) from the streets and (sent) to fight at the border," Hejran explained, as she described the spread of communism by Russia's army into Afghanistan in 1979. "We felt in danger, especially about my brothers because one was in a university and the other was still in school."
Shortly after Hejran graduated from medical school, her family made the difficult decision to flee to neighboring Pakistan.
"Can you imagine leaving your country (and) you don't know where you are going (or) what you will be doing?" Hejran asked.
Hejran, along with her father, had to cross the border through deserts and mountains. She said they were stranded for more than a week at the Afghan-Pakistan border, as the Russian army did not want Afghans, particularly educated Afghans, leaving the country.
"(We) had many close moments where I was shot at and passed nearby mine explosions," Hejran said. "I witnessed people being shot and caught in mine explosions who lost their lives."
Hejran's mother and two brothers were able to travel to the U.S. in the early 80s unrestricted, and did not have to make the trip to Pakistan. Shortly after their arrival, the U.S. allowed Hejran's father to join his wife and sons, while red tape stranded her in Pakistan for two years.
Despite the hardships and family separation, Hejran says it was during her time at the border while she cared for Afghan refugees that she realized that she wanted to be a psychiatrist.
"In the refugee camps, I was noticing a lot of the families didn't really have physical problems, but because of the depression they had, they were becoming physically disabled," Hejran said. "I realized the power of the mind and my deep interest in the field of psychiatry took shape."
When Hejran was finally able to join her family, in addition to the culture shock and language barrier, she was dealt another hard blow, when she learned she was not recognized as a physician in the U.S., despite her prior medical education and humanitarian work.
She took other jobs in an effort to socialize and learn English, all the while not losing focus of her dream of becoming a doctor. In 1996, she passed her board exam and was eager to apply for residency programs, but found that too was no easy road or a quick process.
"Persistence and perseverance were my tools," Hejran said. "I never gave up."
Hejran's younger brother Hamed agreed that it was her persistence that made her so successful.
"My sister is a very tenacious person," Hamed explained. "She is really focused on her goals and has always put her professional life as a priority."
He recalled instances in Afghanistan where his sister would study by candlelight when there was no electricity, and later her devotion to caring for refugees at the Afghan border when she was a physician.
Though Hamed never (thought) his sister would join the military, he supported her decision.
"When the opportunity (to join the U.S. Army) came up, I was the first person she called," Hamed explained. "I reminded her of how dangerous a time it was to join (the military), but I admired (her decision). I was one of the few who encouraged her to pursue the path she wanted (and saw) it as something noble."
"I always wanted to be a doctor and I was fascinated by the military," Hejran said. "To me it was more like a fantasy, because in Afghanistan, women cannot serve in the military."
After moving to the U.S she became fascinated with the idea of joining the Army, partly from watching movie and television depictions, like M*A*S*H.
"I was (intrigued) by the military life and the structure," Hejran explained. "(Everyone) respects each other."
Hejran's specialty is a highly demanded field in Army Medicine and she was almost immediately deployed to Iraq. In August 2011, she deployed with Combat Support Hospital 96 as the only psychiatrist to Contingency Operating Base Speicher to provide psychiatric services for more than 3,000 service members.
Hejran says she has no regrets and loves her career. For her, the sky is the limit and in the future she hopes to complete a fellowship in the field of forensic psychiatry.