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Thursday, 28 November, 2002, 10:09 GMT
Training the refugee doctors
Dr Nayeem Azim
Dr Nayeem Azim: Tracking down refugee doctors
The NHS has a massive shortage of doctors - particularly those who want to be GPs. So what it's like to be a doctor who arrives as an asylum seeker, only to find you can't work? Dr Nayeem Azim, for one, decided to change the system for the better.

I fled from Afghanistan many years ago. I had been a doctor in cardiology at Kabul hospital. When I arrived in England, I had become a refugee who spoke no English.

I had landed on a different planet. The world was turned upside down. One day you are a doctor with a position and respect in the community. The next day you are no-one, on your own and trying to survive.

I could already speak four languages, but with English I had to start with ABC

All I knew about Britain was that it made me feel safe, that I had a chance to rebuild my life.

My immediate task was to learn English and join the community. I could already speak four languages, but with English I had to start with ABC.

Starting anew

As my English improved, I began trying to find out how I could restart my career. And I discovered it was difficult.

Refugee doctors in the UK
770 found to date
288 seeking asylum
463 permanent residents
55% in London
30% Iraqi
18% Afghans

There are a lot of doctors who arrive in Britain as refugees. Doctors from abroad must pass tests on their medical training and understanding of English [see internet links].

The course is tough and many people, including doctors from Commonwealth nations, don't pass it first time.

There was very little information available to refugee doctors in the 1990s, little to explain how they could retrain and nobody was trying to work out how many of them were living in Britain.

However, I found out enough to know I wanted to do it and got on a course in 1997.

After a year of working up to 18 hours a day, I sat the test. And I was lucky - I passed it on the Friday and began work in a hospital on the Monday.

That day was like a dream. I was back practising medicine, I was myself again, someone who was of use to society. Britain had saved me. Now I was able to give something back.

'My big idea'

By this time we knew there were hundreds of other refugee doctors unable to work, stuck on benefits - but with skills the NHS needs.

A refugee doctor studying for the NHS
Determined: "Doctors don't want to sit around"
We need doctors who are multilingual. We need doctors with extensive experience of diseases such as TB, which is on the rise. Most of all, we need more doctors - especially GPs where there's a real problem.

In my case, I spent a year learning about TB in Afghanistan - something British doctors don't do in the same way.

In 2000 I began setting up the idea of a college with the support of the British Medical Association, the Refugee Council and others.

We wanted a training course for refugee doctors run by doctors.

Rather than sending them to college all the time, the course would run all year round in a special centre. They'd be able to work online through a special website at all hours.

Refugee doctors studying to requalify for the NHS
Study: Course uses innovative techniques
The then health minister John Denham met us and said he would support the idea.

We started the programme from scratch, doing everything from buying office furniture to learning how to build a website.

I had to buy every book for the library myself, get hold of equipment, and learn new technologies.

We promised Mr Denham we'd get approximately 10 doctors through in the first year with the money we had.

When we opened, we had three doctors signed up. By the end of the first year we had got 46 through.

It costs approximately 250,000 to train a doctor from scratch. We are getting doctors into the NHS for about 5,000 a head.

We've cut the time it takes to retrain by changing the way we teach. The record so far is a doctor through the course in just nine months.

Secret of success

The centre has been a success so far in London but there are refugee doctors throughout the UK who want to work but can't at present.

One of Dr Nayeem's online courses
Online: Learning around the clock
If we get the funding, we want to open in the north. Using IT, we want to hold lectures in London with people participating from different locations.

I'm currently learning how to make videos for the internet which is where I really want to expand what we do.

Why have we been successful?

Doctors are people who want to work. They are incredibly productive and dedicated to helping society.

When they became refugees, they lost a great part of their identity. For them to be sitting on benefits is utterly demoralising. So when they're given a chance to work for the good of society, they will do.

And that's why I feel it's such a privilege to be working with such dedicated and determined people.

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