Mehria Sayad-Shah's Remarkable Journey from Kabul to Madison
On a hot morning in 1994, 8-year-old Mehria raced through the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. "Run!" her parents shouted at the confused girl and her two siblings as rockets flew overhead.
Overnight, her parents had decided to flee their war-torn country, leaving behind most of their possessions and a large extended family.
They sought safety from the death and injury that shadowed them every day and had claimed friends and family. Mehria's little sister had died when they could not get her medical care amid the violence. And they wanted an education for their children. With the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, girls could not go to school. At age 8, Mehria had yet to attend school.
Mehria's desperate run that day began a remarkable journey that has taken her, along a circuitous route, to Madison. Today, Mehria Sayad-Shah is a second-year student in the MD Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH).
Wearing blue jeans and a summer top, she exudes calm and poise as she talks about her tumultuous past. In fluent English, with barely an accent, she also stresses fond memories, like time with her grandparents and getting soft ice cream with her uncle, cousins and siblings.
"It is my favorite ice cream to this day, and I found the exact one here at McDonald's," she says with the broad smile and warm laugh that punctuates so much of her conversation.
The family first reached Pakistan but lasted only a few months there. They didn't know the language and her father, a collegeeducated civil engineer, couldn't find a job.
Mehria turns solemn as she explains that he suffered torture as a prisoner of the Soviets during their war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. During that war, her uncle emigrated to Germany - one of many family members
who scattered to countries all over the world during the last three decades of violence. He encouraged them to join him in Germany.
Access to medical care, safety and an education for the children lured them to yet another country with its new language and culture.
Nine-year-old Mehria, who had never been to school and spoke no German, joined a third-grade class mid-semester.
"I remember the first day of class because it was so embarrassing," she says.
The teacher asked her name but didn't understand it, even when the girl repeated it three times, so she asked her to write it on the board.
"I went to the board but I couldn't even write my own name in German," she says, sounding more bemused than embarrassed.
Mehria knew only how to read and write a little Dari that her mother had taught her. School was "tough and terrifying," she says.
But Mehria became more resolute.
After fourth grade, German students are divided into three tracks based on their performance, with only the highest group moving to 13th grade and university. Mehria was in the lowest group.
"I wasn't OK with that," she says.
As her German improved, her confidence grew. She chose to repeat fifth grade, worked very hard, and by seventh grade she made the unusual leap to the university-bound track.
"It was a good time. I felt very happy," she recalls.
Meanwhile, she and her brother translated German into Dari for their parents.
"For some reason, it just happened, or maybe it was my own interest. I was always translating for healthcare appointments," she recalls. "Often, because I felt a responsibility, because this was serious, I would read the entire medication package and all the side effects and translate it to Dari."
That experience, together with her little sister's death, probably planted an early interest in medicine, she says. But she never dreamed of becoming a doctor.
"Being a doctor was probably not for people like me," she thought then.
From Survival to Adventure
Mehria's odyssey continued in 2004, at age 18, when as part of her school's exchange program, she ventured to Oceanside, California, where her aunt lived.
"Going to Germany was about survival," says Mehria. "Coming to the U.S. was more about adventure."
She enrolled in high school and soon took a sales job at Macy's "to learn the culture and language more rapidly." She laughs as she recalls when the Macy's manager told her she would be working in "fragrances." She had no idea what that meant and was too embarrassed to ask.
After she earned her high school diploma in just three months, she took a calculus class at the local community college.
Then came a big decision: return to Germany, where her parents and siblings remained, to complete three years of high school - her American diploma would not get her into university there - or remain in the United States.
She decided to stay in the United States, got married to Edris Shah, a first-generation Afghan-American, and earned a community college degree. Then she transferred to University of California-San Diego (UCSD), where she earned a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering.
With each accomplishment, her sense of possibility grew. As she watched classmates who were in a combined biomedical engineering/pre-med track, she began to think maybe she could be a doctor after all.
Following graduation, she worked for a year as a research associate in the UCSD Clinical Physiology Laboratory. Her projects included work on a non-invasive method for simulating intracranial pressure to evaluate severe head injuries.
The research also had applications in space medicine, where it might be used to identify causes of the increased intracranial pressure that astronauts can experience. She was part of a team that earned a trip to NASA to test its model in weightlessness.
'It was Meant to be'
With encouragement from her family and husband, and the support of her mentors, Dr. Alan Hargens and Dr. Genevieve Bloom, she started applying to medical school. She first heard of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health through collaborators in the laboratory and then a UW professor who spoke at UCSD.
"It was meant to be," she says with a big smile. "I absolutely love it," she adds, praising the dedicated faculty and her classmates.
It was another difficult transition, though, and she says her first semester was challenging. Her husband, a certified public accountant, relocated to his firm's Wisconsin office well after first semester had started. But her classmates were quick to recognize her strengths, electing her their representative to the school's Education Policy Council. Josh Tarpley, president of the Medical Student Association, says he thinks students see her as very approachable, responsible and hardworking.
"She is friends with everyone," he says.
Looking back, Mehria sees her life in nine-year segments - the Mideast, Europe and now America. No place has been 100 percent home, she says. And she doesn't know where the next leg of the journey will take her.
She says Afghanistan is more dangerous now than when her family left. She has not returned, though she often thinks of her cousins who lack the educational opportunities she has had. When her mother went there during spring semester to visit Mehria's ailing grandmother, Mehria was so worried she didn't sleep well for a week.
What she knows is that she is passionate about helping people in disadvantaged communities get care. In college, she was co-founder and vice president of the UCSD chapter of Engineers without Borders, and she volunteered in a clinic for the underserved.
At the School of Medicine and Public Health, she volunteers with MEDiC and went to Guatemala this summer with the Global Health Institute.
With all the cultures and languages she has navigated, and all she has accomplished, Mehria says one of her goals has so far eluded her: She hopes one day to acquire a Wisconsin accent.
By Renie Schapiro
This article appears in the summer 2012 issue of Quarterly.
Date Published: 08/22/2012