This Cambridge Life

The medical student who dug deep to overcome challenges

Buraq Ahmed outside Fitzwilliam College

Buraq Ahmed at Fitzwilliam College by Lloyd Mann

Buraq Ahmed at Fitzwilliam College by Lloyd Mann

Fitzwilliam College medical student Buraq Ahmed has had more than his fair share of challenges to overcome. Arriving in the UK from Iraq in 2005 for routine medical treatment, he became stranded when the conflict intensified. He shares how his experiences have shaped him – and what it’s like to start university during a global pandemic.

I was born with a medical condition called dysplasia of the hip. The treatment available in Iraq wasn’t great. But my family was in the fortunate position of being able to afford to send me to the UK for private medical treatment aged five. I’d be staying with my grandma, who lived in Cardiff, and then I’d return to Iraq once I was back to full health.

But the war started to heat up in Iraq. My grandmother and I were stranded. We spoke very little English and just didn’t know what to do.

My parents sent us whatever money they could make, which was very little as most jobs had been stopped. We’d already spent a lot of our savings on my treatment.

Buraq Ahmed outside Fitzwilliam College

I was missing out on education and so started in the local reception class. I was young which made it easy to settle in quickly. At that age you don’t really worry about culture, you just eat, play and enjoy yourself.

I’d speak in English or Welsh during the day and switch to Arabic when I was home in the evening. I think it was much harder for my grandmother, being away from her country and family.

We’d call my parents once a week from a library or internet café. It was a bittersweet time, seeing my family but hearing about what was happening in Iraq.

When my youngest brother was born, my parents decided they needed to leave Iraq. They had seen my other brothers’ lives so disrupted by the war and didn’t want that to happen again.

It was a stressful time knowing my family were crossing dangerous borders. We waited for news and eventually we heard that they had been granted asylum as refugees in Belgium. When they were a little more settled and my father had found work, we made the journey to meet them.

I think the meeting was more emotional for my grandmother as she was seeing her son again. For me it was almost like I was meeting new people. I was 14 at the time. I didn’t really know what to feel. I was just trying to process the situation.

Buraq Ahmed

Around that time, I also moved schools. My previous school was not as academically focused as my new school. While before I’d been cruising along, suddenly I found myself at the bottom of class. I decided I needed to kick into gear and try to make sure I achieved my goals in life.

I’ve wanted to be a doctor ever since a nurse cheered me up by sitting and watching cartoons with me when I was little in hospital. I look back and think how busy she must have been that day and how she took time out to look after me. I remember how happy and safe I felt.

My parents were ecstatic when they heard I had got into Cambridge to study medicine. I think they were quite taken aback by how much academic progression I’d made in the last few years, and to be honest, so was I. It was a really happy time.

Buraq Ahmed sitting on sofa

Café at Fitzwilliam College

Café at Fitzwilliam College

The pandemic has meant that it’s been a very tough year to start university, but I think as a course group we’ve all really bonded because of the challenges − we’re like a team or a family. We were all in it together and now we are out the other side.

On a more personal note, another difficulty was balancing pain management alongside my work. The medication I take makes me drowsy, so I need to take naps through the day. Lectures taking place remotely have made that easier, but next year could be more of a struggle. I’m sure that I will find a way to work through this!

We’ve just finished our end of year exams and my friends said to me, “you’re a robot, how do you stay so calm and stable and level-headed?” and honestly, I don’t know! But I think I’d probably attribute it to everything I’ve gone through. I think it’s become quite normal for me to need to dig deep and find some sort of motivation to push through, do the best I can and get to the other side.

I think to myself, “in five years’ time I’ll be a fully qualified doctor, doing what I’ve always wanted to do,” − and that’s all the motivation I need. And thinking in the short term helps too − imagining spending time with friends after exams with nothing to worry about.

I think my outlook is just to do as much as I can. As we’ve seen in the last year, without everyone giving a helping hand we wouldn’t be in the position now where so many people are vaccinated. Things are starting to look brighter.

This profile is part of This Cambridge Life – stories from the people who make Cambridge University unique.

Words: Charis Goodyear. Photography: Lloyd Mann.