CAN I GET A TAKBEER FOR MY MUSLIM SISTER?
She is also a prodigy!
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.
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