Raghad Al Katlabi reflects on four years as a translator with Ideas Beyond Borders, the sense of camaraderie and support that’s helped her pursue her dream of becoming a doctor in Germany
Raghad Al Katlabi whooped loudly, startling the officer at border control in Dusseldorf Airport as he stamped her passport. It had been difficult leaving her family in Syria to pursue her medical career in Germany but she was excited to be realizing a lifelong dream. Passing through customs, friends rushed forward to greet her. Hugs and tears followed. “It was very emotional,” the 26-year-old recalls.
Those first weeks in Germany were like that – joy one minute, sadness the next. She visited the zoo for the first time, caught up with friends who fled Syria during the war, and adjusted to a new way of life. “I was sad at first to compare women here with our situation in Syria…. people in Germany live and express themselves so freely.” But she was also happy that these were now her freedoms too, opening doors that had been closed to her in Syria.
As a medical student at Damascus University, Al Katlabi had studied hard to be a surgeon, but during a five-month internship, she encountered a degree of sexism that made this seem impossible. “They didn’t let me do anything because I was a woman, surgery is really a men’s club in Syria.” Now that she’s in Germany, Al Katlabi has decided to pursue a specialism that’s highly regarded in Syria, urology, which focuses on urinary systems and male reproductive organs.
On top of her medical studies, she juggles a part-time job at a restaurant and carves out several hours a day for her work as a translator with Ideas Beyond Borders. Her schedule is hectic, but she relishes the hours spent making articles about medicine available in Arabic, combining her passions for science and language with a deep-rooted desire to improve access to information and promote freedom of speech.
“We have been able to translate thousands of articles on Wikipedia and many books dealing with the subject of intellectual and human freedoms, making these texts available in Arabic for free to readers in the Middle East and North Africa so that the ceiling of knowledge is raised, enlightenment increases and peace and free thought prevail throughout the Arab world.”
During the pandemic she was among the IBB translators countering disinformation around the spread of Covid-19, making accurate medical advice available in Arabic at a time when misinformation posed a major threat to public health. The work helped her navigate the challenges of living in Syria. “When things were difficult it helped to feel that there was this space for free expression, even if it was just for a few hours each day. It was like being part of a family where we could be ourselves and be treated equally,” she says.
She remains part of the IBB family in Germany and relishes reconnecting with Arabic on a daily basis through her translation. When she applied for a visa to practice medicine in Germany, Raghad knew she could turn to IBB for financial and logistical support. “They are really keen for us all to reach our goals because they know how hard it is.”
And step by step she is moving closer toward those goals, ticking off the qualifications needed to secure a full working visa and build her career. But she continues to make time for translation each day, encouraged by the progress she believes is being made as more information becomes available in Arabic. “Year after year, intellectual and non-intellectual freedoms increase in Arab countries because young people today – who are the largest group in Arab society – have become able to access any information on the internet and are able to publish it on social media.”