ABU DHABI // Iqbal Al Assaad was not just a prodigy as a child, she was a prodigy with a dream – to become a doctor and help the Palestinian relatives she visited in refugee camps while she was growing up in Lebanon.
She graduated from high school, top of her class, at the age of 12. Already, she had mastered the biochemistry and mathematics she would need for medical school.
By the age of 13, Iqbal had not only learnt to drive, she had caught the eye of Lebanon’s education minister, who helped her to secure a medical scholarship in Qatar.
And this year, at 20, she became not only the youngest ever medical graduate from Cornell University’s Qatar branch, but possibly the youngest Arab doctor ever.
“Since day one, Iqbal stood out as a very mature and professional student despite her age and experience,” says one of her professors at Cornell, Dr Imad Makki.
“The sky is the limit for Iqbal.”
There is just one problem: Iqbal cannot work as a doctor in Lebanon, the country of her birth. “My dream is to come back to do something for the Palestinian refugees in the camps, even by opening a free clinic for them,” she says.
“But if you’re a Palestinian doctor, you’re not allowed to work in public hospitals.”
Medicine is among several dozen professions from which Palestinian refugees are still effectively barred.
Although Palestinians in Lebanon were given the right to take clerical and lower-level jobs in 2005 and allowed to work in further professions in 2010, skilled fields such as medicine and law are regulated by professional syndicates. These organisations impose strict restrictions on membership meant to guard jobs for Lebanese nationals.
The syndicates worry that a Palestinian “entrance to the labour market will be overwhelming – so they feel it’s about job opportunities for Lebanese nationals”, said Lina Hamdan, a spokeswoman for the Lebanese government’s Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee. “Officially there is nothing preventing them from practising and working, but the professions are ruled by the syndicates.”
Iqbal’s story is unique, but her dilemma is increasingly common. The UN Relief Works Agency, UNRWA, estimates the Palestinian population in the country at roughly 450,000, with about 92,000 new Palestinian refugees arriving from Syria since that conflict began in 2011.
For the young Iqbal, it was a lack of health care for Palestinians that touched her most deeply.
She grew up in Bar Elias, a small village in the Bekaa valley, after her parents arrived in Lebanon. She visited relatives in the refugee camps and was struck from a young age by the poverty she found.
Although UNRWA provides primary medical care facilities, it cannot pay for more advanced medical cases, meaning refugees often “face a choice between forgoing essential medical treatment and falling deeply into debt,” as the organisation explains on its website.
“It was seeing that refugees don’t have any type of medical insurance,” Iqbal says. “Only if this person has money and can afford things at the hospital, then he can get the medical care he needs.”
With a dream in the back of her mind, Iqbal dedicated herself to education, diving into mathematics and biology.
After she graduated from high school, herconviction impressed Lebanon’s education minister Khaled Qabbani, who promised to secure a scholarship. He turned to Qatar Foundation chairwoman Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned.
Qatar welcomed Iqbal on a full scholarship at Weill Cornell Medical College, part of a group of elite branch American campuses in the country’s Education City. She had never taken an entrance exam. Nor had she ever lived outside Lebanon. She was at least five years younger than all her peers.
Her voice still evokes the pressure she felt to succeed.
Ms Al Assaad is now on her way to the United States for a residency in paediatrics at the Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the top residencies for her speciality.
She wants to come back to Qatar to work, since the country’s education system gave her so much.
Then, she will follow her dream.
“I want to come back the Middle East between Qatar and Lebanon,” she says. “I feel it would be the first step” if Lebanon could let refugees work as doctors.
But working in an independent Palestine would be an even better solution. “Palestine,” she said, “is always a dream.”