01/21/11 Portland, Ore.
Yassar Arain stepped off the plane in Cairo and was immediately swept back over a decade to a trip he had made as a seven-year-old from the US to Pakistan. “It was the smell,” he said. “Diesel, heat, dust, animals. It all came flashing back.”
Something else came back as well. “I recalled my first clear realization that people lived different lives from mine.”
Now a medical student in his third year, Arain grew up a second-generation Pakistani-American in Orange County, Calif., and majored in psychology at San Diego State University. As a Fulbright scholar he spent nine months in Egypt during college, documenting the needs of predominantly Sudanese, Somali and Iraqi refugees who were barred from accessing even basic public health care services in Cairo. “I was forced to reconcile the enormous disparities I saw there with the life I was living in southern California. That was the struggle that led me to a social profession.” He spent the final two years of college focusing on a medical career and, in his final year, rediscovered Islam and his Muslim faith.
“As a Muslim, I pray five times a day and sometimes find a quiet classroom to lay down my prayer mat. At first I was inevitably noticed through the window by my new classmates. It was awkward to begin with but it opened up a dialogue between us, contributing something to a broader process whereby class members shared their rich diversity of experiences. We all learn something from each other.”
Arain is acutely aware of the expectations placed on him, both as a physician-to-be and a practicing Muslim. “I feel humble and enormously grateful for my life and the opportunities I have as a citizen of this country. Yet I also occasionally feel cast as a spokesman, or compelled to raise issues of injustice or prejudice,” he said. “Whatever my behavior is at any given moment, it reflects on my religion, my ethnicity, my profession. Everyone carries a similar responsibility, but I feel it is more visible and obvious in my case. It may not be fair, but it is the default position of human nature.”
Sometimes the clinic is the place where questions triggered by his ethnicity arise. “Given the war situation I anticipated that there might be a tension, especially in certain populations, and I’ve intentionally chosen to rotate through those areas early in my clinical experience. Several patients have asked me about my cultural heritage and many have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome as their health care provider. To be honest, I’m still working on ways to formulate a response that defuses a prejudicial situation when it arises, and I’m not there yet. Until I am, I continue to resolve to practice medicine to the best of my ability, transcending any and all barriers.”
Click to read an article and view a video of Yassar Arain in conversation with the Oregonian about being a young Muslim in Oregon.
Click here to read Yassar Arain’s blog on OHSUStudentSpeak – the OHSU student blog (OHSU login required.)