Although she only lived there the first two months of her life, for Muska Fazilat BA ’15, returning to Afghanistan was like returning home. It was also the beginning of a profound transformation, a professional but also deeply personal journey for the 22-year-old UC Berkeley student, an undergraduate majoring in public health.
“Everyone was telling me that it was a war zone, that I shouldn’t go,” she says. “But I was going to my beloved country; I was going to my roots.”
Due to the devastation brought about by the Soviet and civil wars, Fazilat’s family fled Afghanistan and lived as refugees in Pakistan for a decade, finally obtaining visas to immigrate to the United States, on September 10, 2001. Fazilat then spent half her life in post-9/11 America, attending grade school in Southern California and adding English and Spanish to her language repertoire, having already mastered Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Urdu, Hindi, and reading in Arabic. Throughout that time, her family held their Afghani roots close.
“My country, our values, the culture—I constantly saw the love of my country through my parents’ eyes,” she says.
In the summer of 2013, Fazilat was able to experience Afghanistan through her own eyes, when she traveled there as an independent researcher to learn about the maternal health and mortality of women who have suffered through decades of war. She was able to do this in part thanks to financial support and mentorship from the Robert and Colleen Haas Scholars Program, with additional funding from the Bergeron Scholars Fellowship and Feminist Majority Scholarship. Fazilat focused her research on maternal health because Afghanistan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.
“Every time a mother dies, a family breaks apart,” she says. “I am passionate about advocating for the women in my country.”
Within her first week in a war zone, Fazilat was surrounded by 116-degree heat and loud blasts of gunfire and bombs. She was also treated as a foreigner in her own country, despite being a Muslim Afghan woman fluent in Dari and Pashto. Over time, however, she became immersed in the voices and stories of the women whom she was interviewing about how midwifery practices have evolved from the Taliban regime to the current U.S. occupation. She met hundreds of Afghan women and learned from them their practices and their challenges, their suffering and their tremendous strength. At one hospital, when no doctors were available, she also delivered a baby.
“It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life,” she says. But witnessing the “terrifying and horrible” conditions in which many Afghan women must give birth was also one of the most heartbreaking.
This heartbreak is something that Professor Malcolm Potts, who served as a mentor to Fazilat on her research, understands well.
“As a rational person, when I look at the suffering of women in Afghanistan, I want to weep and turn my attention to some problem more open to solution,” he says. “When Muska Fazilat looks at that suffering, she wants to throw every ounce of her energy and love for others into overcoming problems that seem impossible to solve. I have no idea how she will do it, but something deep inside me says she will make a difference.”
Over the past year and a half since her summer in Afghanistan, Fazilat has put together ideas about how she will make a difference, and she has already begun to implement her plans. She will earn her MPH and an MD, and practice as a physician part-time in the United States and the rest of the time in a developing nation where the need is greatest. (She is currently learning Turkish, her seventh language.) She also wants to work with policy makers to create maternal health practices that are both effective and culturally appropriate.
“Going to Afghanistan and interviewing the ministry of public health and then also doctors, I realized that there is a huge gap of information and understanding,” Fazilat says. “Policy makers are not really able to address the needs of the patients because they’re not seeing on a daily basis what is happening in the hospitals.”
As an example of this disconnect, Fazilat points to purdah, a religious and cultural practice of female seclusion. Since the Taliban regime, purdah has become more extreme in Afghanistan. In the last decade, there has been ongoing reconstruction in Afghanistan, including the building of hospitals and funding of midwifery schools. But women practicing purdah often prefer to give birth in the home where they can control their surroundings, even though it is riskier, especially because there is not often a doctor present.
“There might be access to a hospital or other resources, but if it’s not going to fit your cultural needs, you’re not going to use it,” says Fazilat. “And that’s going to increase maternal mortality rates. Instead of something that’s designed for Western countries, why not implement solutions that resonate with Afghan culture?”
In Fazilat’s view, culturally appropriate interventions are key. She would also like to see increased education for men and women in Afghanistan, a country where the literacy rate is 26 percent. She believes that including men in the conversation about women’s health is essential.
“Men will listen if you give them a chance and teach them appropriately,” she says. “What husband wants to lose his wife? What father wants to lose his child? All members of a family need to be part of the solution. We need everyone’s participation if we want to create real change.”
To put her ideas into action, Fazilat is building and empowering a team. This past semester, as a senior at Berkeley, she taught a DeCal (student-led) class on maternal health nonprofits, where students learned about politics, culture, and maternal health in Afghanistan. The class culminated in the launch of a nonprofit organization with a mission to enrich the quality of life for Afghan women and children, one family at a time.
“The class went really well,” Fazilat says, “And I’m working on finalizing the paperwork for the nonprofit.”
Following graduation, Fazilat plans to return to Afghanistan to build a training center in rural Kunduz that will provide traditional midwives with biomedical skills to decrease maternal mortality and morbidity. She was awarded the prestigious Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize in support of this project. Next year, she will be a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley.
Some of these plans may take a while to make an impact, but Fazilat is convinced that change will come. “I believe in my generation,” she says, “in the Afghans who are living outside of Afghanistan as well as all the young people who want to make a difference. We each may only contribute one drop, but together we are an ocean.”