This July 4th is my second Independence Day as an American citizen. It’s a special day for me and my family, a day when we think about the many freedoms America has given us after we escaped civil war and genocide in our native Sudan. Of course, this year is different. With the pandemic, we won’t be visiting a public space to watch fireworks. And as a Black American, I know there’s still work to be done, as the violence and discrimination I see sometimes reminds me of the forces that drove my country apart.
But that doesn’t mean my husband and I won’t discuss the significance of the day with our four children. Unlike in Sudan, Americans are free to speak out and protest in large numbers. Back home, my husband was arrested and thrown in jail for openly opposing the government. He was able to escape, and we barely made it out of the country alive. We were discriminated against for our skin color, religion and tribe. Some 300,000 people were killed during the genocide, and my family would’ve likely been among them. We want our kids to understand that American citizenship gives us powerful rights, but also responsibilities.
This is especially true now. Like many New Yorkers, our lives changed dramatically in March when COVID-19 hit. My husband lost most of his work driving for Uber. And though I was busy working full-time at a medical lab and homeschooling my four children, I was determined to give back. America has given me so much – I believe it’s my duty, regardless of the sacrifice. I have my paramedic license from the University of Iowa, so I immediately signed up to do intake and COVID tests at local hospitals. I’m grateful to contribute in this way, but I could also be doing so much more. Although I’m a trained primary care physician with more than 10 years of experience in Sudan, I’ve been unable to practice since coming here as a refugee in 2011.
At a time when America is facing a critical doctor shortage, I am eager to contribute my skills. To become a general practitioner here, I’m required to complete a U.S. residency program. Though I’ve applied multiple years, paying $5,000 each time, I’ve had no success; despite my years of on-the-job experience, applicants from foreign medical schools are often overlooked.
This is unfortunate. Even before coronavirus, New York faced a growing doctor shortage. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, New York has a shortage of more than 1,000 primary care providers. With our state one of the hardest-hit during the pandemic, governor Andrew Cuomo called on healthcare workers from all over the U.S. to help. Yet nationally, the numbers aren’t much better. The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a physician shortage of 122,000 by 2032. Immigrants like me could help fill this gap, as we’re twice as likely as U.S.-born citizens to become physicians and surgeons, according to New American Economy.
There’s an incredible willingness among immigrants and refugees to work in healthcare on the frontlines. Approximately 176,000 refugees work in healthcare, with 11,400 in New York State alone. And in March, Upwardly Global surveyed 325 immigrant and refugee jobseekers with healthcare backgrounds; 95 percent said they’d be willing to serve on the COVID-19 frontline if given the opportunity. Yes, physicians must be thoroughly vetted and held to America’s high standards. But we can also reduce unnecessary barriers to entry for highly trained professionals with years of experience.
Recently, I became eligible for an emergency medical license in New Jersey, which is good for six months. But I have to wonder: if some states trust trained foreign physicians in a time of crisis, why not afterwards? After all, the doctor shortage won’t diminish simply because the pandemic ends.
I am eager to practice medicine here because I want to give back to the country that saved our lives. The first few years in America were challenging, but I felt grateful every day to be here. I still do. This Independence Day, I hope we can all recognize the freedoms America provides, even as we fight against racism and work toward criminal justice reform. Diversity is what this country was built on and deserves to be celebrated – in medicine and beyond.
Rasha Abdalla is a refugee from Sudan and lives in Queens, New York