4 September 2023
A former war correspondent says her new career as a nurse has given her a way to help people directly and enabled her to overcome some of the powerlessness she felt as a journalist.
Bahaar Joya works in the private patients unit at the Royal Free Hospital and is undergoing additional training so she can become an intensive care nurse to support the very sickest patients.
The 33-year-old says her life experience enables her to be a better nurse because she has first-hand experience of traumatic situations.
Bahaar’s ambitions are a world away from Afghanistan, the country she was forced to leave and where her mother and one of her brothers still live because, under the Taliban regime, they are unable to leave the country.
Although she was born in Afghanistan, Bahaar grew up in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and then in 2003 she and her family returned to their homeland, with the support of the international community.
At the age of 16 Bahaar joined a radio station in Kabul aimed primarily at women. Her family had encouraged her to study law, which she did, but journalism – especially shining a light on the discrimination facing Afghan women - was her passion.
Bahaar admits she’s always been determined. She said: “At my school they would paint the windows with white paint so the boys couldn’t look in. I remember picking at the paint and complaining about it. Why should we have to put up with this just because we were female?”
She added: “When I started at the radio station I just turned up. I worked for free and it went from there.”
Bahaar’s career developed. She worked as a journalist for Afghan media and studied in India for a Masters in international relations, as well as freelancing. In 2012 she joined the BBC as war correspondent for its Persian TV channel and was based back in Afghanistan.
But Bahaar (pictured at work as a war correspondent) reveals it was far from easy doing her job as a woman in such a strictly religious and patriarchal society.
She was stabbed in a street in Kabul because she wasn’t wearing a headscarf and it became clear that her life was in danger. She applied to the UK for a student visa and studied media management in Oxford in 2016, looking into how women used social media in Afghanistan.
Realising she could not go back, Bahaar was granted refugee status. She continued to work as a journalist in the UK for a private channel broadcasting to the Middle East and Africa.
However, it also became clear to Bahaar that she needed to take a step back from journalism.
She explained: “There were things I witnessed in Afghanistan that I couldn’t get out of my head. I was suffering from a lot of trauma. It was my husband who suggested nursing. He said, ’You love people and care about them, why don’t you consider nursing?’”.
After attending Middlesex University Bahaar graduated as a nurse and joined the Royal Free London in 2021.
She said: “Before I used to see people getting hurt and all I could do was report it and that made me feel extremely helpless. Now I have the ability to help people and that really matters to me. My communication skills are really useful to talk to my patients and of course my leadership skills are transferable.”
Since the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 the country’s situation has deteriorated as the Taliban are firmly in control and women in particular face ever more restrictions on every aspect of their lives.
Bahaar said: “The irony is that the number of women applying for nursing and midwifery roles in Afghanistan has now doubled. But that’s because these are the only jobs available to women. Everything else has been banned. But given that girls can no longer go to school there will shortly come a time when no woman will have the necessary education to even become a nurse or a midwife. On top of that the lack of equipment and supplies means that only the most basic of care is available.”
Although Bahaar despairs for her country and worries desperately for those members of her family left behind she has not given up.
She said: “I still freelance as a journalist in my free time. My work as a nurse and my campaigning work are incredibly important to me. In this country as a woman you can do what you want, when you want. You don’t need to think twice about going out on your own for a coffee or to meet a friend. I’m well aware of the freedom I have living in the UK and I just want people to realise this isn’t the case for millions of women across the world.
“I also want to encourage anyone thinking of retraining as a nurse to do so. It’s so worthwhile.”