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Suraya Dalil: Taking the long way home

Dr. Suraya Dalil is on her way back to her native country of Afghanistan to continue her work with UNICEF.

By Thierry Delvigne-Jean

NEW YORK, 27 June 2005 – Suraya Dalil is ready to go home. With her new master’s degree in public health from Harvard University, this mother of two is eager to return to Afghanistan to help in the reconstruction of  her country.

Ms. Dalil’s story is intertwined with her country’s tumultuous past and the rise and fall of multiple Afghani regimes. “I was in grade four when the war started in Afghanistan, and from that time, the whole country - as well as my family - were affected in one way or another,” she says.

In spite of the growing violence throughout much of the following decade, Ms. Dalil’s family remained in Kabul until she graduated from medical school in 1991. By that time, heavy fighting had reached the capital, and when her father was injured in a rocket attack, the family decided to move to Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north.

Thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict had amassed along the country’s northern border with Tajikistan. Ms. Dalil began working for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), providing humanitarian assistance to women and children during the cold months of winter. She then joined the International Organization for Migration (IOM) until the flow of refugees subsided.

During those difficult years, she became familiar with the work of UNICEF in the field. She eventually joined the UNICEF sub-office in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1994, and started conducting nutritional surveys and immunization campaigns in camps for displaced people in the northern regions.

“UNICEF provided me with an opportunity to continue working during a very hard time in my country. In fact, maybe it was only because of my association with UNICEF that I didn’t leave the country,” she says.

But a few years later the country’s political conflict caught up with her again. When the Taliban reached Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, she was forced to flee. This time, she decided on short notice to leave the country.

“We had no choice; it was very hard to live. People were being killed, and we had to escape to survive,” she says.

The family fled with the bare minimum. It took them eight days to reach Islamabad, in Pakistan, where Ms. Dalil resumed working for the UNICEF Afghanistan office, which had been relocated there. Once again, she and her family had to put their life back together away from home.

“I grew up in a conflict situation, and many Afghans learned to be very much adaptive to the situation.” Ms. Dalil says that many thousands of Afghan families fled the country at that time. “This is war, this is a time when your survival is in question.”

But the rapid pace of events in her home country soon made her return possible. After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2002, she packed the family’s belongings and returned to Kabul with her husband and two children. There she found a renewed sense of hope amidst the rubble of her city, and threw her support into the effort to rebuild the country.

“What women need in Afghanistan is primary, secondary and higher education, access to health care – especially to obstetric care and family planning – and also participation in the political process,” she says.

As part of her new work, Ms. Dalil helped carry out a nationwide study on maternal mortality conducted by UNICEF, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Afghan government.

“The findings were striking,” she says. “We knew that maternal mortality was high – it was an obvious fact – but we wanted to document it.”

Ms. Dalil says she was particularly shocked by the findings in Badakhshan province, where 6,500 women die in childbirth out of every 100,000 live births the study found – among the highest maternal mortality rates ever documented. Every thirty minutes a woman dies of childbirth-related causes in Afghanistan.

Her experiences while working on the study served only to deepen Suraya Dalil’s determination.

“It’s very important for me as an Afghan woman and an Afghan professional to advocate for maternal health in Afghanistan and to make sure that maternal health is high on the agenda.”

In 2003, she left Afghanistan for a year to attend the Harvard School of Public Health in the United States. Now with a master’s degree in public health in hand, she feels that she can make even more of a difference. As a project officer for policy and training in the UNICEF Afghanistan office, she will work with the Afghan government and other partners to create a new health system.

“I know there is a huge need for me in Afghanistan, and I want to be beside my fellow Afghans who are working very hard to rebuild Afghanistan. It’s a very crucial time in the history of the country.”



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