This article is the first in a series of profiles of young refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people and their efforts to get education and employment.
Being a distinguished student with excellent grades and getting into a top medical school aren’t enough to secure your future when you live in a war-torn country like Iraq or Syria.
The story of Mohammed Al-Qaisi, an Iraqi medical-school graduate now living in Jordan, shows how the lives of many would-be young professionals are stalled throughout the Arab region. He was doing his internship at Baghdad Medical City, a complex of teaching hospitals, when he was forced to leave in 2013, after being threatened twice by militants. Such threats are frequent at Iraqi hospitals, and legal protections to shield doctors against violence are weak. In 2015, The Lancet, a British medical journal, reported that more than 2,000 Iraqi doctors had been killed in the country since 2003.
Dr. Al-Qaisi, who is 28 years old, had to leave Iraq without obtaining a certificate proving that he had completed eight months of his internship. He sought asylum in Jordan and abandoned his aspiration of being appointed to an academic position back home. “Life is more precious than everything else,” he says.
Pursuing his career proved difficult in Jordan. Without evidence of his internship, he had to start that stage of his academic career over. Al-Qaisi says withholding documentation is a frequently used tactic to try to coerce medical graduates to remain in Iraq.
“I applied to do my internship in Amman,” he added, “and it took almost six months before I got it. It was rejected three times, and I had to apply again and again, and wait.” He eventually secured and completed a one-year internship.
Al-Qaisi would like to leave the region, so he has been working toward passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination. He got excellent grades in the first two phases of the examination process, but the third one—a practical component—must be be conducted in the United States.
“This is a time-consuming and frustrating process,” said Al-Qaisi. “If it was safe for me to live in Iraq, I would be a specialized medical doctor by now. My former colleagues have gotten good positions there.”
Al-Qaisi also applied to the Arab Board of Medical Specialties in Jordan. He was accepted to study diagnostic radiology, a highly competitive specialty that is in demand. But the program’s tuition is $8,000 a year, and would require him to take an unpaid position at Jordan University Hospital.
“I’ve been working without pay for four years,” said Al-Qaisi, “while waiting for my asylum case to be considered.”
Al-Qaisi’s Iraqi colleagues who have been in Jordan for years aren’t faring much better. One of them got his license to work in Jordan—after being unable to secure a U.S visa back in 1990 but the license only grants permission to work in private hospitals, and has to be renewed every year. He was able to open a private clinic only a year ago, despite having lived in Jordan for more than 20 years.
With an unemployment rate in Jordan that spiked to 14.6 percent in the first quarter of 2016, non-Jordanian dentists, pharmacists and physicians find themselves working illegally or struggling to get jobs at private hospitals, a situation that has been made worse in recent years by the influx of more than 650,000 refugees from Syria and the previous waves of immigration from Iraq after the 2003 war.
According to a Jordanian labor law instituted to try to stem the unemployment rate, a wide range of 19 professions are off limits to non-Jordanian, including custodians, decorators, and accountants and any positions at the Jordanian offices of foreign companies.
“You can work shifts at a hospital,” said Al-Qaisi, “for 20 Jordanian dinars per shift (around $28), and you can work at most three shifts a week. . . Despite the fact that you are a legal resident, you cannot get proper work rights.”
Few slots are available to foreigners at Jordan’s private hospitals, with Palestinians getting priority. This makes it very difficult for highly qualified young people coming from other countries to make their way. As conditions deteriorate, more and more are getting desperate and leaving, with some still undertaking dangerous journeys by boat to reach Europe. Some of Al-Qaisi’s colleagues have ended up in Germany.
By the time Al-Qaisi gets his chance to leave the region and start a new life, he will have lost many years to repeating his training and being unable to get solid work experience. “I feel tired of waiting. Time is passing, and I am at a standstill. This is simply a slow assassination of competencies.”