Afghanistan: Reflections on My Journey — A Conversation with Dr. Suraya Dalil
by Chelsea Rice
Dr. Suraya Dalil is the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the UN and International Organizations based in Geneva, and Ambassador to Switzerland. She was the Minister of Public Health in Afghanistan from March 2012 to December 2014 and lead a diverse team to reform health system with improved quality of care and evident impact in child and maternal mortality indicators. Working as a surgeon in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, she experienced a time of political and cultural volatility where violence was brought to her doorstep. The rocket attacks and civilian casualties forced her and her family to flee to northern Afghanistan, where she worked with UNICEF and other non-governmental organizations to roll out vaccination and nutrition campaigns.
In 2005, Dr. Dalil came to the United States to pursue her MPH as a Harvard President Scholar, and on November 29, 2017, returned to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to discuss her extraordinary journey. She reflected on her career not only as a public health minister in a country torn by conflict, but as a woman leading public health reform and advocating for women’s health in a conservative Muslim country.
A mass graveyard three hours from the center of the province where she worked during this period — simply marked “measles” — contained the bodies of hundreds of children killed from the measles in one winter. This reminded Dr. Dalil of the public health battles plaguing the country that wouldn’t wait for the violence to settle, and helped shape her core principles as public health practitioner.
“I started to question serious issues…asking how health priorities are set in the country, and how those interventions, which may not seem very important [on the outset], make an impact on life and well-being of children and families,” she said. “I saw the linkages between girls’ education and maternal health outcomes, between food security and child survival, between child survival and child development.”
It was during this time of volatility that she also developed essential leadership skills: adaptability and perseverance.
“I understood that things may not work in the way I planned for it,” says Dr. Dalil. “I also understood that we should not take things for granted in life. We should be open for opportunities. We should learn from the hardship. And we should continue.”
“Why didn’t you leave?” asked Dr. Sue Goldie, the Roger Irving Lee Professor of Public Health, who interviewed Dr. Dalil for the Voices in Leadership event. “You had the ability and the connections.”
“I had a sense and a strong feeling that, if I leave the country, somehow, down the road, I will feel incomplete. I will feel unfulfilled,” said Dalil. “Afghanistan should be built by Afghans…. Afghanistan has challenges. We have faced hard times, but we have also seen very good times, promising times, happy times, joyful times. So it will come back again.”
Dr. Dalil grew up in Kabul during the 1970s, a time so different that many might not recognize it today. “There was a mood of tolerance and openness, as the country started its first steps toward democracy,” she told the Leadership Studio audience. Dalil’s parents, who were teachers, encouraged her to pursue a higher education, and eventually she graduated from the Kabul Medical University.
“Boys and girls attended school together…. Women had access to university-level education, professional careers, public transportation,” she said. “Later in my life, I realized [this foundation] affected my beliefs and aspirations. I realized how important it is to have access to public services, good governance, and peace.”
As a testament to how quickly Afghanistan can change, Dalil rose from being barred as a woman from entering the ministry in the 1990s to leading the Ministry of Public health in 2012. Under her leadership, women’s health rose to a place of special prominence in the country, and from 2002 to 2003 the ministry rolled out the Afghanistan maternal mortality survey through a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF. Its findings, published in The Lancet, have since been regarded as one of the most important public health achievements in Afghanistan’s recent history.
Dalil’s success in bringing public health issues, especially women’s health, to prominence across the various ministries in a religiously conservative country was tailoring her communication and staying focused on the larger impact.
“I knew my success of my failure would not be individual. It will have an impact on decisions that girls and women — the new generation of Afghanistan — will be making for themselves,” she said.
One day a father and daughter asked to speak with her. The father had been a ministry employee for years, but it was his daughter that wished to speak with Dalil. The girl hoped to become Minister of Health one day. “But I said, that’s not enough,” said Dalil. “You will become minister. You will become a governor, a vice-president, and a president of Afghanistan.”
When days at the ministry were long, she treasured these moments that reminded her of the scope of her impact, not just in rolling out progressive public health interventions, but on the next generation of Afghan women.
Today, as the Afghanistan’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva and the country’s Ambassador to Switzerland, Dalil has continued to advocate for the Afghan people on an international stage as a champion of global health and public service.
“We have a number of young leaders who are educated, who are committed to the cause. And that cause is development, prosperity, and peace for Afghanistan,” said Dalil. “We want to be helped. Please, help Afghans help themselves.”
Story by Chelsea Rice, a student in the Master of Public Health program in Health Policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseaRice.
Story edited by Sohini Mukherjee, a second year student in the Master of Science program in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, interested in gender equity, maternal health, and health policy and governance.