Medic sisters struggle to qualify for British jobs

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Sisters Khalida Suri and Farzana Taiman fled Afghanistan in 1993 fearing they would be killed in the Islamic fundamentalist revolution which gripped the country. But when they arrived in Britain they found their ordeal was just beginning.

"When we arrived at Gatwick airport we asked for political asylum," says Farzana. "There were so many questions. Why did we leave? Had we been tortured?" Then they were refused full refugee status.

Instead they got "exceptional leave to remain" meaning neither is eligible for student grants and the family and Khalid's husband (who are now in India) cannot join them.

As they arrived before benefit rule changes about to be brought in by Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley they are able to claim income support and are entitled to free college study. From next month, refugees like them may be denied such rights unless they applied for asylum immediately on arrival in Britain.

Khalida is a qualified GP while her younger sister Farzana had completed three years' medical training at university in Kabul. "We trained to be doctors in order to help our people. Afghanistan needs us," says Khalida. But she cannot work here because she does not have British medical qualifications and Farzana needs to start from scratch in order to get into medical school.

After spending two years improving her English at Kingsway College, London, Farzana started an access to medicine course at Lambeth College, south London, last September. There are 40 students on the course but only three are guaranteed places at medical school - so Farzana has less than a 10 per cent chance of success. The cost of travelling from her north London flat leaves her Pounds 28 to live on.

And, as a part-time student claiming benefits, Farzana is also supposed to be "available for work". Like many other students, twice a month she has to sign on and explain why she has not found a job.

"Sometimes it makes me so upset that I can't concentrate on my studies. But I can't get an ordinary job here because I don't have British qualifications and I don't want to work as a cleaner. All I want to do is study medicine."

To work in the medical profession in Britain, people from overseas must pass the PLAB (Professional and Linguistic Assessment Board) test which covers a mixture of English language and general medical knowledge.

PLAB courses are offered at a small number of FE colleges (Southwark College runs one and Hendon College runs a pre-PLAB course). The PLAB test is difficult to pass because only a prescribed number pass each time, whatever their results. It costs Pounds 500 to take the test and some people take it four or five times.

Many refugees also arrive without papers or certificates and find it difficult to obtain references from former employers back home with civil war raging in their countries.

Khalida is waiting until her two children (aged three and five) are at school before she tries the PLAB test. Meanwhile, she lives on income support in a council flat near King's Cross station.

Farzana, who lives in a shared rented flat, is trekking across London every day and trying to survive on Pounds 28 a week. "But this course is my only chance. What else can I do?" she says.

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