Translated by Micol Berhe
Dr. Ascalu and Dr. Jemila are an exemplary friends who met in Sawa. Coming from different places of Eritrea, once they met to attend their 12th grade and do National Service in Sawa, they established a strong friendship. After they had left Sawa, they studied in the Eritrean Institute of Technology for a year. Then they joined the Orotta School of Medicine in 2007. Here is an excerpts of their interview with Meneasey magazine.
Had you ever been asked the question: “What would you like to be when you grow up?”
Dr. Jemila: Well, if you ask any child, what she/he would like to be when they grow up, there are some answers that usually come to the mind regardless how far fetched they could be. ‘I want to be a pilot; I want to be a singer; I want to be a doctor, etc,’ are still the common answers. I was not an exception and in fact I used to answer in the same way. But, after you grow up, you start to realize that the most important thing is not knowing what you want to be, but how you can achieve it. Then, I changed my answer and started to say: “I have to be the best in my class or in my carer in general.” Consequently, in every step of my life, I wanted to be the best. And this helped me a lot in becoming a medical doctor, I think.
Dr. Ascalu: Obviously, being a child you hear this question a lot. When I was a child I was too much influenced by my teachers at Gheza Kenisha. They were the ones who were academically higher than anyone around us. Therefore, I had this deep desire of becoming a teacher. And when you score better marks than your classmates or your siblings, the joy that you see in your parents’ face inspires you to do more than that. When I was in eighth grade, I recall telling my brother, ‘I had no idea of what I wanted to study at the university.’ Then he told me that I could be a good business woman. After that I got interested in Economics. But finally, the desire of becoming a business woman failed and soon I discovered the world of doctors.
Would tell me about your background please?
Dr. Jemila: I attended my elementary and junior school in the Finland Mission; secondary school at Lmeat. After that I went to Sawa for 12th grade and then I was enrolled in the Eritrean Institute of Technology for my first year in college. After finally I joined the Orotta School of Medicne.
Dr. Ascalu: I went to Rebto Elementary School and learned until third grade. Then fourth and fifth grade in Sheab Seleba; Junior level at Natsinet School and secondary school at Denden. After spending a year in Sawa, I joined the Eritrean Institute of Technology in Mai Nefhi. I completed my medical degree in the Orotta scholl of Medicine.
Congratulation for your big achievement. I have heard a lot about your strong friendship. Could you tell me little about how it develeoped?
Dr. Ascalu: We met in Sawa. Besides the fact that life in Sawa is very sociable, I was attracted by Jemila for her laughter. She is a very outgoing and fun person to be around. I love sharing a laugh with her and passing time with her. So, when we came closer, we found out many things in common. Even after Sawa, we shared the same room and the same locker in E.I.T. We also continued together in the Orotta School of Medicine. Over time we learned to respect and value each other’s differences so that we are able to establish a strong relationship.
Dr. Jemila: When I was in Sawa, Ascalu had a friend in my room. So, she used to show up a lot. We became friends instantly. I believe that I have to be a strong and independent woman or at least I try my best not to let any given burden weaken me. And I found my equal in Ascalu. Whenever I had something bothering me, and If I got extremely angry, I realise that Ascalu was the only one who would know how to comfort me. You see I am not one of those girls that tear up easily. I am truly lucky to have her; she is my type.
Is there anything you consider remarkable in your life that you learned from Sawa?
Dr. Jemila: I consider Sawa to be the place that shaped me a lot. Being a child, I was a very taken care of at home. I never had to do anything on my own or make any decision. When I was told to study, I would study; do this and I would do. Now, no one pressure me in against my own decisions. When I went to Sawa the life I experienced was totally different. I had to make my own decisions. You need to learn how to cope and live with so many different girls; it’s a hectic. I learned a lot from Sawa and I truly believe it is what you need when you finally leave home and have to face the outside world. Sawa opened the real world for me.
Dr. Ascalu: I agree with what Jemila has said. And I would add that you also discover yourself in Sawa. You learn what your strenght and your weakness are. Therefore, you start making the most of the former and avoid as much as you can the later. You can not evaluate yourself at home not only because that at home you have your family who do everything for you. They guide you in every step and make your life easier. I do believe that the Ascalu before Sawa is completely different from the Ascalu of today. And most importantly, Sawa gave me my best friend Jemila. So I am very thankful.
Dr. Jemila: I can add that in sawa you completely change because the way of living is different. Sawa shapes you mentally and physically. Before, whenever my family would decide to make a trip to Massawa, I would always get scared of the hot weather. And I was lazy in doing things by my self. But now I could easily handle things. I could walk for hours and could resist any hot weather. Because I know I am strong and fit now.
Many people dream to be doctors. What was your experience of becoming a real doctor?
Dr. Ascalu: It is true that many people dream to be doctors. But dreaming to be a doctor and being a doctor is totally different. The professional responsibility is beyond our imagination; and you only realise that when you experience it. Once you are a doctor, you no longer have your own time or life; you are always occupied by your patients situation, be in the hospital or at home. You always find yourself thinking about one patient or another. However, there is an immense satisfaction in being able to help others; to be beside their pain and give them hope. It is worth to save people from death and pain. Being a doctor it is a selfish profession that makes you all about it. When I was younger I used to believe being a doctor was putting on a white gown, your stethoscope on your neck and strolling down a white corridor… In reality, however, it is a profession that puts you with pain and blood.
Dr. Jemila: Yes it is true, if you happen to leave a patient in a critical condition, as soon as you get home you are already calling the hospital to check him/her out. When I joined the medical school, I didn’t expect it to be this mush demanding. The main thing that I didn’t realize was that being a doctor means you are the person in charge of the lives of other. When a patient comes to you in discomfort and looking for help, they put themselves in your hands. You automatically are responsible and everyone starting from the patients to the nurses and to the family members expect you to make good things out of the bad situation. You can never get lazy or wish to get some rest when there is someone in pain and discomfort waiting for your help.
What were the main challenges you faced while studying your MD?
Dr. Ascalu: It is a difficult profession; and especially the first year was really hectic and heavy. But after you somehow start getting a hang on it, you start moving. You start to be focused and always prepared. Sometimes things look dark and hard, but you need to focus on what is ahead of you , what your plans are.
Dr. Jemila: When we joined the college in 2007, we were called “Batch 2013” because that was the year we were supposed to graduate in. And whenever I tell people that I will finish my studies in 2013, that looked like an awful long time to spend studying. I realized it was indeed long when we actually finished in 2015. The first two years of learning basic sciences were very hard and we would spend the whole day studying. On our third year, we entered into the medical profession – we loved it.
What do you feel by joining the School of Medicine, where there is a lot of competition?
Dr. Jemila: We were extremely lucky to have had the opportunity. We might have joined other fields of study, but I don’t think I would have felt this much satisfied. Learning MD for free is almost a miracle.
Dr. Ascalu: There are many things that happen to us every day in our lives. And if we can learn to seize the moment and enjoy what comes in our way, then that is truly a miracle.
How did your friendship continue when you were assigned to different places after graduation?
Dr. Ascalu: After we were assigned to different places, we were no longer together. But fortunately we were close because I was in Massawa and Jemila was in Ghindea, just about 50 kilometers away.
Working outside of Asmara was a unique experience. People from the remote areas tend to cure their illness in a traditional ways. Only when they are extremely weak that they would come to the hospitals. So here you are not only a doctor; you have to teach them the dangers of traditional medication and thus they should immediately come to the hospital when they feel sick.
I had the pleasure of attending your graduation ceremony that was held at Hacos’e. You had your ceremony together. What made you decide to organize your party together?
Dr. Jemila/Ascalu: Well, first of all none of us wanted to have a big graduation ceremony with the traditional Das and many invited people. Secondly, as we have been together for so long and shared so many things together, we couldn’t imagine having a separate ceremony on our graduation day. We used to have tea at Hacose and one day we asked ourselves why don’t we arrange our graduation party in the way that we could afford on our own. We just invite our parents and our close friends. We agreed. That is how it came to be.
Who do you think was behind your success story?
Dr. Jemila: Definitely my parents; because they had a very strict rule with our school attendance. If I wanted to have some time of peace at home, I had to make sure that I was all straight with my homework. If I ever came with low marks, there would be someone scolding me and sitting with me until I got it right. When you are a child, you believe everything you do is to please your parents; but it is only afterwards that you realize they were shaping you up in the woman you will be.
Dr. Ascalu: Well, eventhough I believe that a lot of people helped me along the way, I must say the honour goes to my grandfather. You see he didn’t had a chance to attend school and he would always envy anyone that showed some academic quality in front of him. So, he vowed he would send his children to school and see them become someone important and literate. But he wasn’t lucky for the struggle for independence took his children; where they died and wounded. And so he patiently waited for his grandchildren to start going to school so that he would tease us and push us forward by buying us different types of gifts. For me to have him at my graduation ceremony was the best gift I can think of.
What could we expect from our two leading women in the future?
Dr. Ascalu: My wish is to always stay genuine and devoted to my profession. And with Jemila our plan would be continuing to the highest level of school of medicine and maybe one day we would be able to run our own hospital. But for sure we plan to be very diligent and hardworking doctors and I cannot visualize a future without Jemila by my side.
Dr. Jemila: I agree with Ascalu, I do believe we will be good doctors to our patients and hopefully we will continue our studies together.
What would you like to say to the Eritrean government for allowing the youth free MD studies?
Dr. Jemila: Truly this kind of opportunity is hard to get anywhere else. Our government prepared everything and all we were asked to do was to study hard and be worthy of it’s legacy. And now we are ready to start giving back to our people.
Dr. Ascalu: Can you imagine that such kind of chance given to you and just waist it away? Here there is no difference between rich and poor, everyone has the chance and is only asked to work hard. You can easily get the chance to attend one of the most expensive schools, as long as you are ready to study. One of the highest and most expensive doctrines given to us for free is a humbling experience, of course.
Would you like to make final remarks?
Dr. Ascalu: Being a doctor means that you are at the service of your patients no matter how simple the simptom or the condition is. People might think that it is a simple choice to be a doctor, but I say that it is an art of living that you have to learn how to act and be responsible for all the decisions you come up with. Last but not least you shouldn’t forget that doctors are also human beings and like everyone else need to rest; have fun; and live. Being a doctor is a profession and not a personality.
Dr. Jemila: The reason we agreed to do this interview was because we wanted to help the youth to know about the experience we had in the school of Medicine. So that they would take their own decision in selecting a profession. Especially we want to share that the number of women doctors is increasing from time to time. For example, in the last years there would only be three or four women among forty or fifty graduates. In 2014, for example, there were six women among 47 graduates. Last year, however, we were 16 among 32 graduates.