Interview: Fatima Roshanian and Hussain Ali Karimi
Nimrokh’s special interview with Dr. Shakardokht Jafari, the inventor of the cancer radiation dosimeter
Nimrokh: Ms. Jafari, on this occasion we will discuss your personal life, immigration experiences, beliefs, and achievements. Tell us about yourself first. From the experience of your migration to Iran and where you were born, what is your order among your siblings?
Answer: I was born in Daykundi province, Sangtakht, and Bandar district. I was about six years old when we immigrated to Iran because of the Soviet wars. It took us about six months to reach our destination. During this time, we endured many difficulties and hardships. On the way, my eighteen-month-old sister fell ill and died because we did not have access to doctors and medicine. I am the first child in the family. I have three brothers and two sisters who are younger than me. When we emigrated from Afghanistan, we were three brothers and sisters, one of whom died and another was born on the way (Zabul, Iran). I started studying in Iran. About two years after we arrived in Iran, the Iranian government stopped issuing residence cards to immigrants, and many after me no longer had the chance to go to school. When I was in the seventh or eighth grade, I realized that my family had engaged me and even wanted to have a wedding. I could get rid of this tragedy and stop it. The following year, my family again wanted to marry me to a relative. I canceled it with many problems. My father did not talk to me for three years due to the rejection of marriage. During these three years, without the consent of my family, I continued my studies with the mediation of the school principal. My principal, aware of my passion for learning, persuaded my father to allow me to study in the ninth grade, after which I went to school myself, regardless of my family’s dissatisfaction. We had a room and a kitchen. After ten o’clock at night when the other members of the family were asleep, I studied in the yard where I made a shelter that had a lamp for myself. But when the weather was colder, I would go to the bathroom and study. With this situation, I participated in the Iranian entrance exam. I was preparing for the entrance exam while I was not allowed to go to university. While all my classmates were taking entrance exam preparation courses. In an unequal situation and a difficult situation, I took the entrance exam. I was disappointed. But that year, I was the only girl from my school who was able to successfully pass the nationwide entrance exam in Iran and enter Tehran University of Medical Sciences. I was accepted to radiology. This success made me very famous. We lived in a small town, and everyone congratulated my parents on this. After taking the entrance exam, I did not go home for a while for fear of my father, and I lived in the dormitory. But after my success and the reaction of people, neighbors, and relatives, when I came home, my father said hello after three years and somehow reconciled with me. After that, my father became a good supporter of me and my siblings in the field of education. All my siblings are university graduates. Except for one of my brothers who could not continue his education due to personal issues.
Nimrokh: As you mentioned, you endured many hardships to achieve your goal. Opposition from families and parents to their daughters’ education has been a common issue among Afghan families. Families ‘attitudes toward girls’ education generally follow traditional and patriarchal values and standards. Accordingly, the difficulty of working for girls is twofold. In your case, what exactly made your father oppose your education?
Answer: I think there are two main reasons why my father and family opposed my education. The first reason is that it goes back to the religious teachings of people like my parents. In particular, some religious books suggested that girls should not be allowed to study at higher levels. Religious teachings always reminded them that girls should marry at a certain age or their faith would not be complete. The second reason went back to the social and economic environment of the host society at that time. The situation at that time was such that if one was also studying, one could not enjoy its benefits in the host community. This period coincided with the civil war in Afghanistan. Therefore, there was no hope for the future of Afghanistan. So I was told, whether study or not I must raise my children in the end. It is better not to waste your energy and time.
Nimrokh: Many immigrants living in Iran and similar places have the same experience as you. The point is if we look at their lives, they stopped or did not continue on the road for any reason. What motivated you not to give up your studies and desires and take your path?
Answer: In elementary school, I was interested in science subjects and did not have a very long-term goal. My curiosity and interest in science kept me going. It was a pleasure to understand and learn the cause and effect of the world around me. Later I realized that anyone who goes to university can specialize, and I became interested in continuing my studies in technology radiology. When I was in the third grade of high school, my little sister, who was 9 years old, became half paralyzed. At that time, there were only two MRI machines in Iran and its examination cost was very high. We had to do an MRI of my sister. I was very fascinated when I saw how a machine provided good quality information from inside the patient’s body without causing any harm to the patient. When I lost my father to cancer, I was completely determined to specialize in cancer treatment as a medical physicist. So I applied for a scholarship from the International Atomic Energy Agency. I came to the UK in 2010 to pursue a master’s degree in medical physics. After completing my master’s degree, I was offered a PhD scholarship, which I continued. Because I believed that a university professor should have at least a PhD and be able to actively participate in the production of science. On the other hand, because of the discrimination that my colleagues committed against me, I wanted my academic side to be higher than theirs.
Nimrokh: You were one of the few lucky people who could study in Iran. Because many Afghans did not have this chance. Because the gate of Iran’s entrance exam was closed to them for a while. After that, they could study at university by paying a high fee, which was beyond the reach of many. In migration, we have to leave some of the memories, friends, connections, and what we have gained over the years. Immigration has always been a source of sorrow, separation, and suffering for us. You have gone through a difficult path to reach this stage of success, migrating from Afghanistan to Iran and back to Afghanistan and from there to the United Kingdom. What keeps you thinking about your ideals and goals all these years and moving forward?
Answer: Our initial migration from Afghanistan to Iran was my father’s decision. My father was a teacher in our village. A conscientious teacher who himself taught the children of the village. Partisan differences between militant groups led to my father being labeled a member of a group. That he works for that party against other existing parties. While this claim was not true. This was the main reason for our migration from Afghanistan. When we were in Iran, the Taliban government fell. I lived in Iran for 21 years but I never felt that this was my home. Or is it a place where I belong to? This feeling arose from the social behavior of the people and the policies of the Iranian government towards Afghan immigrants. We have always been in a humiliating situation by the host community. Many times I heard the phrase from ordinary people”When will you return to your country, Afghan?” At the same time, I was optimistic about the future. And I always dreamed that one day I would return to my country. The fall of the Taliban and the formation of a new government ignited this hope in me. I can say that hope for the future and building and improving the situation has always been important factor in moving me forward.
Nimrokh: How did you feel when you returned to Afghanistan? And how was your experience finding a job or integrating into the new community?
Answer: I felt like I was back in my own country and the arms of my homeland. But at the same time, I felt completely alienated. The way I spoke, the way I dressed, the kind of cuisine and culture we grew up with was foreign to the Afghan environment. But despite the large number of families like us who had returned from Iran, life was not very difficult. I was looking for a job with great hope. Little by little, I realized how much prejudice there is in this society which I had only heard about. But now I could see them. For nine whole months at Kabul Medical University, I ran from one college to another to get a job. Each time they came up with different excuses. Even though I passed the technician exam and met all the conditions and criteria, in practice there was always an excuse not to hire me. However, I did not give up and finally, despite all the discrimination, I succeeded to get to Kabul University.
Nimrokh: You mentioned that you returned to Afghanistan after 21 years with a thousand hopes and aspirations. After that, you encountered an environment and situation that was contrary to your expectations which caused you to feel alien. You said that after passing the technician exam, you tried to work at Kabul University for nine months. What kind of injustice did you face in thisprocess?
Answer: At that time, I did not realize that these behaviors were the cause of discrimination against me. But it was always a question for me that the Faculty of Radiology announced four vacancies and four of us passed the exam successfully, the rest were able to enter the faculty and start their work in one to two months, but for me, they asked a new document each time. They make excuses every time. The later I studied the conditions for inclusion in the team, the more I realized that all of this was an excuse. For example, I was told that you studied radiology technology, you should go to physics faculty. My documents were sent there. Wherever I went, they said you studied radiology and you should go back to the radiology faculty. They pass me like a soccer ball between faculties and wouldn’t cooperate with me. I was not notified of important meetings and decisions. If there was a scholarship for the college, a particular circle would decide who would benefit. The only chance I had in the meantime was to have the support of the president of the University of Medicine. He understood that my field was special and that no one else was at my level. Nine months after I joined the staff, I started training. I taught my boss and all my colleagues the basics and foundation of modern radiology. I set up a class for them for two hours a day. When I introduced my department members to some of the new sciences in radiology, I then tried to bring it into the students’ curriculum, thereby informing medical students about new topics.
Nimrokh: It seems that although discrimination has caused you suffering, you could turn it into an opportunity for yourself. And cross its boundaries. What kind of discrimination did you face?
Answer: I encountered three types of discrimination. Racial, gender, and religious discrimination. The most prominent was racial discrimination. Being Hazara made them expect me to do small things like being a servant. While we were all on the same level in terms of livelihood. The second was gender discrimination. I was the only woman in that college. They believed in it and expected me to do what I thought was trivial as well as hard work, and they would wear suits and teach. For example, they expected me to correct exam papers or announce the students’ grades. They had such expectations. I was forced to stand up against their desires and notify them that we all are at the same level and have the same responsibility. The third discrimination I faced was religious discrimination. I came from a Shiite family and found that in my work environment, my religious beliefs were sometimes challenged. When we argued and I criticized some of their beliefs, I was labeled a Christian and an infidel. One day one of my colleagues even threatened me that when the Taliban came to power again, I would show you the meaning of your behavior.
Nimrokh: Did the scope of this discrimination end only in the workplace or did you experience it in the community as well? For example, are you familiar with the term “Iranigag”?
Answer: Yes, I was called “Iranigag” in society, the workplace, and everywhere. I remember a university delegation from Iran came to visit Kabul Medical University. My colleagues were calling me to come and see your Iranian countrymen. Neighbors called my daughters Iranigag and also at school. I had to transfer my daughter to a private school because the majority of families returning from Iran sent their children to that school.
Nimrokh: How did you feel about the term when you heard it?
Answer: To be honest, it made me feel upset, which meant I am alien either in my own country or in the country of others. When we were in Iran, we were called Afghani and asked when we would return to our country. When we went to Afghanistan, they did not accept us as an Afghan. Despite all, I enjoyed working in Afghanistan. I still live here (UK) with an Afghan passport. I have not yet gone to get citizenship here. But after the country fell to the Taliban, some of my hopes were dashed and I recently applied for permanent residency.
Nimrokh: Many Afghans living in Iran have had bitter experiences of living in this country. You also mentioned it in your speeches. How did Iranians treat you and your family members in both academia and society? Did you experience getting bread from a bakery that had made a special line for Afghans?
Answer: We did not have a special bread line where we lived. But while we were standing in line to get bread, it often happened that the Iranians forcibly pushed us back and said (Afghani), go to your country, buy bread but we couldn’t do anything. I was the oldest child and it was my responsibility to buy bread. Sometimes we waited in line for hours to get bread. I was supported in the academic and educational environment. My teachers at school were very supportive of me. I have fond memories of 99% of them. Except for the principal of our fourth high school, who was a woman and very fanatical, everyone else treated the Afghan refugees well. I remember we had Quran competitions at school. My friends and I won the competition. On the day they were supposed to take us to the provincial stage and compete, no one was willing to take us. When I asked, “Today is competition day, aren’t you taking us?” Our manager said; I do not have a free teacher to take some (Afghani) with her. We went ourselves and participated in the competition. We also won. But they didn’t give us our awards in front of the public as it was a custom. When we went to get our result sheet the principal pointed at the niche and said take your awards.
Nimrokh: You made a very good point. One of the most important criticisms that the ordinary people make of the presence of Afghans in Iran is that illiterate and very low-skilled people came to Iran from Afghanistan, especially from the countryside, and opportunities and jobs were taken from the people of Iran. How acceptable do you think this narration is?
Answer: Some people came from the villages of Afghanistan and did things in Iran that the Iranians themselves were not willing to do. Or they wanted a much higher salary and facilities. But Afghan refugees had to work with low wages and low expectations. Because they had no other supporter. This made employers prefer Afghans to Iranian workers. Because of the hard work and honesty that the Afghans work, the Iranians did not work. Demographically, the percentage of Afghan workers was not large enough as Iranians claim. But, the government was propagandizing this to the people. And hurt public opinion. Or if a crime or offense was committed in society, it was attributed to Afghans before the crime was proven. They made people think wrong about Afghans.
Nimrokh: The image of Afghans in Iran is that they face many restrictions. An Afghan immigrant in Iran does not benefit from the most basic human rights after years of living. This has prevented many of them from growing and achieving their ideals and aspirations. While in many countries, immigrants have basic human rights and can take advantage of the countless opportunities that the host community provides to an immigrant for the development of the community and themselves. Don’t you think that the reason for the backwardness of Afghan refugees in Iran is not their rural origins but the restrictions and policies of the host society that have made the migrants marginalized and passive?
Answer: I completely agree. When, for more than 30 years, the Iranian government, through its policies, did not allow Afghan refugees to grow up and the majority of migrants had temporary ID cards that couldn’t enroll in schools, education is the most basic human right which was taken from Afghan migrants. In such circumstances, how can an immigrant growing up in Iran? Iran’s harsh, anti-immigrant policies have left the only path for immigrants to grow up as construction workers or someone working on a farm. No more opportunities were given to the immigrant. The Afghan immigrants were forced to accept the situation. Those who studied hard did not have the opportunity to work and use their skills in Iran. My husband had to work as a laborer and I sewed at home. The relatives used to make fun of us that all these years others went and made money, worked in brick kilns and you carried bags and books, went to the school and university. So what did you achieve with studying? These issues caused the majority of immigrants in Iran to be held back, not their origin. I had the same origin. Others like me had the same origin. As we had the opportunity, we were finally able to make a difference in the lives of ourselves and others.
Nimrokh: You have spent an important part of your life in Iran. You studied and lived in Iran for about 21 years. A large part of your memories is formed in this country. You may have many friends among Iranians and Afghans. Also, part of your life was spent in Afghanistan with all the problems you had. Now you live in the UK. If I ask you, where do you consider yourself to belong , and is your homeland? What is your answer?
Answer: I have thought about this many times and concluded that it does not matter if I like the host community or not! As much as I live there, I belong to that community. Because the belongings of that society are formed in us. When I look at our food culture, our menu is a mix of Iranian, Afghan, and English food. Likewise, the way we dress and the way we think. I realized that after 11 years of living in England, my behavior and way of thinking have gradually become similar to English people. Not that it is voluntary. Inevitably, the environment influences us involuntarily. Depending on how many years you live in an environment, you consider yourself to belong to it. However, I do not consider myself to belong anywhere. I feel like I’m a world citizen. I feel that with the experiences I have gained, I can easily immigrate to another country and live in another part of the world. All aside, I always feel at the bottom of my heart that Afghanistan is my homeland. My heart beats for Afghanistan. I’m sad about the bad news and I’m happy about the good news. Where you were born and what family and emotional ties you have to make you still have a very strong sense of belonging to Afghanistan. Ultimately, I see myself as an Afghan who has become a world citizen and can live anywhere in the world.
Nimrokh: So you still consider yourself belonging to Afghanistan? You mentioned three types of discrimination that you faced in the workplace and society. “Iranigag” was a term that forced you to change your child’s school. You also mentioned that you did not know about the scholarships that came to Kabul Medical University. Despite all, do you still feel belonging to Afghanistan?
Answer: Yes, despite all this, I feel I belong to Afghanistan. Because I was born there. And I have blood and family ties. My love and belonging to Afghanistan is inner. I cannot describe it to you in words. I was indeed discriminated against. But we must try to change this situation. We have to fight. If I leave Afghanistan because of these problems, it is as if I have given my house to others. I think this is not true. Everyone should work in this field with whatever tools they have. Guns are not always the solution.
Nimrokh: The people of Afghanistan are not well these days. Hunger, unemployment, and poverty are on the rise. The scope of Taliban domination has increased the pressure on the people day by day. How do you predict the future and how do you feel about this situation?
Answer: The situation is very sad. I think words can not describe it. I just wish that this situation ends and that the international community wake up and does not recognize the Taliban, till the situation changes. At the same time, I feel that in such a situation, we should give hope to the women who protest these days. The future of girls, in particular, is disappointing. Taliban rule is not permanent. We must continue to fight and try. The only thing I can do is give hope. The situation in Afghanistan is indeed unkind, but there are other ways to live, study and specialize that you can make the world your home.
Nimrokh: Tell us a little about your living conditions in the UK and the atmosphere there. Compared to Iran and Afghanistan, how do society, people, and the scientific community view you after your academic achievements?
Answer: There are two points of view for me. One of the common people that I deal with in public and another is the professional and scientific community that I encounter in the workplace and at university. Ordinary people consider me an immigrant and they do not have a good view of immigrants. I was even attacked several times for my clothing. I always wear hijab in the community because I think I have to respect the traditions and cultural values of the women of my country and represent them properly. Once a woman hit me with her purse and said, “Immigrant, go to your own country and wear hijab.” The neighbors are not warm and friendly either. While they are not like that among themselves. In the workplace, I have my dignity. They respect my expertise. The British government was very supportive of me in my research. They have allocated several funds and awards for my research. They have even filmed me and my research several times. I saw part of it at the entrance of the most important airport here when it was shown on the way back from one of my trips.
Nimrokh: Do you wear hijab for religious or personal reasons? Because of that, you were insulted in British society. However, you believe that you did it to represent Afghan women and girls. Why do you think wearing hijab in a European community can represent Afghan women and girls?
Answer: I do not wear hijab because of my religious beliefs but for cultural issues. Religiously, I do not believe in covering my hair. When my research gave me a social and news image, I felt that the women and girls of my homeland might see me as a role model. Someone who has been able to overcome some difficulties. I felt that those girls might live in traditional families, and that their families might not allow their daughter to go out and study if they saw that I am hijab less. Because families are afraid that their children’s religion and faith will be lost abroad. I made this decision simply because people do not think so.
Nimrokh: Girls in Afghanistan went to school, went to university, and worked while wearing the Islamic hijab. But now they are deprived of everything. Do not you think that your knowledge, invention, and progress should be a symbol of Afghan women and girls and not your hijab! The people of Afghanistan must conclude that the hijab is a personal matter and has no effect on a person’s success?
Answer: I agree with you that the people of Afghanistan must conclude that hijab is a personal matter, but in a society like Afghanistan, it will take a long time for people to understand this. At the moment, not wearing my hijab may sacrifice the future of some girls from traditional families. While they see that a person can also achieve scientific success by preserving their culture, their negative mentality about girls’ education will change.
Nimrokh: At this time, and given the situation of Afghan women, it was important for us to know how you went about this path to success. Finally, we want you to tell us a little bit about what your new invention is and what it does?
Answer: My PhD project was to use nanoparticles to make radiation therapy more effective. Working in a hospital made it clear to me that even in a country like the United Kingdom, the overall cancer treatment rate is about 52 percent. 48% of patients die. This varies depending on the type of cancer. This made me doubt why there is still such a problem in a developed country ?! I asked myself what can you do as a physicist !? I saw gaps in medical physics as to why 10 to 25 percent of patients get problems when we do radiation therapy. The patient either suffers from very severe side effects or the cancerous gland recurs. The main reason was that the dose the doctor prescribed was not taken properly. The question arose in my mind: can I find a way to do a dosimeter inside a patient’s body? Measure the amount of radiation reaching the tumor and the healthy tissue around it? I looked at different types of dosimeters that have been researched in recent years. I found out that one of my supervisors got very good results from using fiber optics as a dosimeter. I took the optical fiber to the clinic and saw that despite all the good results it had in the laboratory, it could not be used in the clinic. Because optical fiber is as thin as a hair strand. If you cut it into smaller pieces, it will no longer be visible. So you have to cover it and covering it loses that quality to measure. I was looking for something similar that I remembered my childhood when we were in Iran, I used to make necklaces and rings with glass beads and sell them to make some money. I found that in terms of materials science, the structure of fiber optics and glass beads is the same. Because the glass beads in the jewelry industry have increased in quality, size, and purity, it made this very easy. I went to the store and bought a package. I tested. I saw that it works very well. Then, I left the initial subject of my PhD research. The topic I had been working on for 9 months. I focused on this topic. Because this problem was more serious and more common. Supervisors and other research groups welcomed the results when they saw them. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I thought that now you have found a solution and many scientific articles have been written about it. It does not cure pain. I thought about industrializing this research with the encouragement of the university. I also designed a fully automatic reading system. My first invention was dosimeters with a fully automatic reading system that was patented. In the second invention, which has just been patented in Europe, we made three-dimensional systems from these dosimeters. We place hundreds of dosimeters inside the patient’s body in three-dimensional, which is done with great precision and delicacy. So, we measure the dose of radiation that reaches the patient. We can correct the mistake made in the implementation of the treatment plan in the next sessions because radiation therapy takes between 5 to 35 sessions. Depending on the type of cancer and the treatment regimen, it is possible to correct the error when we can get it first.
Nimrokh: Ms. Jafari, thank you for the opportunity to talk, hoping for your further success!
Translated by: Jahan Raha