What Lies Within Us

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| This is the 419th story of Our Life Logs |


When the going gets tough, the tough get going. This sentence pretty much sums up my whole life. I was born in 1995 to a Muslim family as the middle child of five girls. We lived in a well-reputed area in Sahiwal, Pakistan. Sahiwal is known as one of the most breathtaking cities in Punjab because a nearby river aids the fertility of the surrounding land, and I loved living there. My father owned a business, while my mother was a hard-working housewife who let her kids enjoy their youth. My childhood was focused on playing with friends and going to school, simple but joyful. What a time it was!

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As I grew up, I watched as my father tirelessly labored to provide for us as the only earning hand of our family. I know that he always wished for a son to help carry the burden, but his wish went into the void, never to be granted. And so, my father worked with what he had, and he loved us girls with all his might. As he raised us, he made clear his eternal desire for us to obtain a higher standard of education than he ever had. Pakistan had a lack of education in general, but my father was determined to send us to greater heights through schooling, whatever it took.

And I didn’t disappoint him. I worked hard at school and dreamed of going to college someday. I wound up cultivating an interest in the medical field because I was very close with my Nana (maternal grandfather) who, whenever we went to visit him, would express his desire to see me become a doctor. His suggestion sparked a thirst in me that needed to be quenched. I thought being a doctor was such a noble profession. To know that you could save someone’s life felt like so rewarding. So, growing up all I ever fantasized about was studying at a medical college, becoming a doctor, and making my Nana proud.

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To fulfill my dream, I worked hard to thrive in my classes and completed my intermediate courses from a local college with flying colors. With that under my belt, I could begin pursuing higher education in medicine. Determined to get the best possible schooling, I decided to apply to universities in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab. The city was home to many well-reputed medical schools and rightfully called the “City of Colleges.” Being a hardworking student with stellar grades, I didn’t have a tough time obtaining admission to the medical school I desired. But I had no idea of the challenges ahead just yet.

Everyone wants to accomplish their goals, and I was beyond grateful that I had been given the opportunity to see them come to light. My father was incredibly supportive and thrilled to hear of my Lahore aspirations. With my clothes packed neatly away in my suitcase, I was excitedly counting down the days until my flight to Lahore. Everything was so perfect. I couldn’t stop daydreaming about the day I could return to Sahiwal with my degree and help support my father and Nana.

With a supportive family that shielded me from hardships in life, what I never had to see were the dark parts of my town, like the fact that in Sahiwal, being born a girl practically makes you a second-class citizen. In a town full of uneducated, conservative minds, the thought of a girl having a career was unthinkable. In fact, they believed any girl who worked was someone of loose character. I never saw any of this ruthlessness until the news broke that I was going to Lahore for higher education. I naturally hoped that everyone would be happy for me but unfortunately, I was met with disgust. I couldn’t walk on the streets without seeing people whisper to one another, like I was some sort of freak. I did my best to ignore them, convincing myself that it would be better in Lahore where people were more open-minded, but the staring did hurt from time to time.

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Nevertheless, the sun rose on the day for me to go to Lahore, and I was feeling as weightless as the clouds up in the sky. I kissed my family goodbye and made the trek to my future.

It wasn’t until I set foot on the busy city streets that I realized the harsh truth about society. Lahore, too, was not an exception. Sexism won’t disappear just because you’re in a progressive city. It’s imbedded in it. While walking on roads, people gave me weird stares, making me feel like I didn’t belong. Many believed that girls were meant to stay at home, and so every girl who was out of her home was an opportunity. I would get harassed on roads and even in universities. Hanging out with friends was even considered a weird thing for girls in the city. I was completely baffled. I never had to endure anything like this growing up, and I now was overwhelmed by it all.

Not long after I’d begun my classes, my uncle called my father and insisted that he shouldn’t waste his money on my education. “She’s a girl,” he said, “Education isn’t meant for her. You should bring her back home while you can.” Thankfully, my father didn’t listen to him and continued to encourage me to study. Knowing that so many people were rooting to see me fail, I decided to put in twice the effort to succeed. I wanted to show everyone that spending money on a girl’s education wasn’t a bad choice. Nothing would distract me. Or so I thought. .

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Going into my second year of the program in 2016, I heard shocking news. My Nana, my motivation to become a doctor, had suddenly fell sick and had been rushed to a hospital due to a brain hemorrhage. I was completely shocked by the news, but my family tried to remain hopeful and encouraged me to stay focused in my classes. But how could I when my dear Nana was in pain?

Time with Nana was as fleeting as day passing into night, and it wasn’t long until the gloomy moment came when his soul left us. That was the darkest day of my life and I was emotionally battered, nearly inconsolable.

I believe losing someone you love so dearly, whom you have so many memories with, is the most heart-wrenching thing you can go through. Nana’s death was so devastating that it was almost unbearable to think about. Darkness was all around me, and life felt empty. I couldn’t go back to my daily routine no matter how hard I tried. I stopped going out with friends. I stopped going to classes because I couldn’t concentrate on what was being taught. Without Nana, the whole medical journey felt meaningless. He was my main motivation, my light. Without him there, what was the point in being a doctor?

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This hopeless feeling remained for months. It got to a point where everyone feared that I would not make it through—that the gears in my dream machine were stopped up forever. But then I got up one day and realized something. Why was I giving up Nana’s dream for me just because he was gone? He wouldn’t have wanted me to give up. I also realized that if I gave up now, I’d be letting the societal criticism against me win. Who said that a girl could only be a wife and couldn’t have a career? I wanted to defeat that. I couldn’t let that happen. My father had worked too hard for me to give up now. I had to help him. I had to become a doctor for myself, for Nana, and for my family.

After that day, I picked up the pieces of my heart and put them back together. I launched full force back into my studies and began searching for a job to help send money back to my grieving family. I started teaching at a local tuition center. Some days I had to work 12 hours, but it was worth it to take some of burden off my father.

Dealing with my grief and work became even more bearable in my third year of studies when my younger sister also came to study at a university in Lahore. With her around, I felt less alone. She helped me stay focused despite everything. We were both fighting society’s prejudices and I felt stronger having another person to walk along with.

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Me on campus.

Since then, I’ve passed my third and fourth year with great marks, and now I’m in my final year working an internship in the medical field. I know that if I continue to work hard, I will fulfill my own and my Nana‘s dream. Seeing how well I’ve thrived in medical school, those relatives who once criticized me for getting an education now greet me warmly and take pride that I am a part of their family. And oh, did I tell you that I even fell in love? With whom? A handsome man I met on an educational tour two years ago, one of the purest souls I’ve ever seen. He gives me the strength and courage to face any challenges in my life.

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After spending 24 years on this planet, I realized that life is a self-sustainable phenomenon. It continues. At some point you may hate the journey but at the next turn, the scene could be really mesmerizing.  Who knows? You have to give life a chance and take the downs even though they may be hard to endure. They are an integral part of life and only make us stronger. You have to keep going, no matter who or what tries to stop you. What lies within us is mightier than we think.

 

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This is the story of Afeef  Sarwar

Afeef is a final-year medical student in Lahore, Pakistan. As she grew up in an underdeveloped area in the country, she had to struggle and bear the criticism of a society that doesn’t encourage the education of women. During her five-year long journey in the medical school, she had to endure the loss of her grandfather who was her inspiration. But through all the grief, she found the strength to keep going in the program in honor of her grandfather. Afeef hopes her story can serve as a source of inspiration for many other young women in her city—women can become educated and be successful. You just need to be brave.

 

 

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This story first touched our hearts on September 3, 2019.

| Writer: Afeef Sarwar | Editor: Kristen Petronio |

 

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

3 thoughts on “What Lies Within Us

  1. I know how difficult it is to grow in such an environment with such a glory… You’ll always have my heart girl… ❤️❤️

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