ANKARA: The Ankara-based IGAM Research Center on Asylum and Migration has recognized an Afghan doctor for her work helping refugees.
Zakira Hekmat, 33, was awarded $2,000 by the center, led by Metin Corabatir, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’s (UNHCR) former spokesperson in Turkey.
Hekmat, herself born an internally displaced person in Jaghuri district in Ghazni province, Afghanistan, said she considered herself lucky, which had driven her to help other Afghan refugees.
“I think that by giving back to my own community, I can best heal the pain of displacement, ruination of my homeland, and the suffering of my people,” she told Arab News. “I was lucky enough to have a house to live in and a university to attend when I first came to Turkey, but not everyone was lucky like me. So, I wanted to help them with all my capabilities because I know they face many challenges.”
Hekmat’s Afghan Refugees Solidarity Association (ARSA), which she started in 2014, worked tirelessly throughout the coronavirus disease pandemic to help people in need, including with those who lost homes and jobs or were left vulnerable, and she was recognized in 2020 by Washington-based charitable organization HasNa as one of its Peacebuilders of the Year for her work.
She graduated high school living under the Taliban while doubling up as a teacher due to a shortage of female staff in her area. Hekmat then briefly attended Kabul University as an undergraduate before leaving for the medical faculty of Erciyes University in Kayseri, Turkey, and then working at an immigrant health center in the city, predominately serving refugees, many coming from neighboring Syria fleeing the country’s civil war..
Hekmat said her formative years in Afghanistan shaped her identity. Teaching poor children in Ghazni, she said, shaped her lifelong commitment to social justice by reconnecting marginalized people with the rest of the society.
Now her focus is on refugees, especially widowed women, refugee girls and children, by promoting education, language-learning, cultural programs, capacity building, child-focused activities, translation services for refugees and conducting awareness programs.
ARSA, she added, had worked on dozens of voluntary projects with the financial support of the UNHCR and the Turkish government, including setting up a network of 370 refugees volunteers in 58 cities across Turkey to help newly-arrived refugees to settle into their cities, and producing and distributing items to protect them from the pandemic.
“By teaming up with our local volunteers, we produced protective masks and soap (to help prevent) contagion, and we distributed them free to NGOs in need across the country as well as to the refugees themselves,” Hekmat said. Her network produced about 1,000 face masks per day, she added.
In addition, with the UNHCR, ARSA helped around 600 needy Turks and Afghans by providing them with essential supplies for the winter, and delivered hygiene kits to over 6,000 families.
“I don’t care much about the country of birth, but I attach high importance to the country where I can breathe and live freely,” Hekmat said. “We can only overcome stereotypes and prejudices against refugees if we listen each other and come together around a cup of Turkish tea.”
Her current work also focuses on child protection, stopping underage marriages and domestic violence, and promoting social cohesion and awareness campaigns about asylum-seekers. She has also launched a project for women refugees to design accessories and other handicrafts.
“They produced about 600 items (so far) and we provided the raw material for them. It became a source of livelihood for them and served as a pathway to self-accomplishment,” she said.
Corabatir said Hekmat had acted as a bridge for more than a decade between each Afghan refugee and UN agencies in Turkey, and had tried to solve their problems with an extensive network she established herself over years in the medical sector and through her charity activities.
“We intend to raise awareness about these charity works and introduce these people to the attention of the authorities. She also showed to her peers that they have rights to enjoy as refugees. It is essential that these people inspire other refugees for raising awareness and leading social change in their communities,” Corabatir said.
Turkey is home to more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees and about 330,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers of other nationalities, including Afghans and Pakistanis, according to the latest data of the UNHCR.