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A Portrait of Resilience

Hamida Ebadi, a management apprentice in Johns Hopkins Environmental Care Department, is executive director of an organization that provides education and care to women and children in her native Afghanistan. | Photography by Keith Weller

A Portrait of Resilience

Although Hamida Ebadi has three jobs, you might say her life’s never been easier.

As a full-time apprentice in The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Environmental Care Department, Ebadi manages about a dozen staff members. One day a week, she’s a medical translator at an East Baltimore medical clinic, helping patients who speak Urdu, Pashto or Dari communicate with their physicians. And she serves as executive director of an organization dedicated to maternal, child and reproductive health in her native Afghanistan.

“It’s a lot,” she smiles. “But that’s what I do.”

Ebadi spent much of her career as an Ob/Gyn physician in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health, directing the country’s efforts to improve conditions for women and children. But after decades of dodging the wars that have all but destroyed her hometown of Kabul and killed hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians, including friends and loved ones, Ebadi and her family immigrated to the United States in 2014.

Five years before that immigration, she’d spent a year studying maternal and children’s health policy as a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“When the time came to leave our country for the U.S., my experience at Hopkins made our decision of where to live easier,” Ebadi says. “I liked it when I studied at Johns Hopkins. So Baltimore became our new home.”

Because her medical credentials are different than those of U.S. physicians, she’s unable to practice medicine here. But having devoted her career to health care, Ebadi says she likes working in hospitals and caring for patients, even if that care is less direct than she’s used to providing.

At The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Ebadi is part of the Baltimore Alliance for Careers in Healthcare, an on-the-job-training apprenticeship program sponsored by Johns Hopkins Medicine, the International Rescue Committee, the Community College of Baltimore County, the Baltimore mayor’s office and the Maryland Department of Labor.

Brittney Lawrence-Stephens, a trainer in the apprenticeship program, says Ebadi took to her new role quickly.

“Her experience in health care is great, but the reason she’s good at what she does is because she connects with the people she supervises,” says Lawrence-Stephens. “Hamida does what good managers do: she supports her staff.”

Ebadi has spent most of her life adapting to change and caring for people.

Living through the dangers of nearly 40 years of war taught her to be ready to uproot the family at short notice. “Many times, we left our home very quickly.” They moved frequently around Kabul, avoiding the fighting between the Soviets and the Afghan rebels, then later between U.S.-allied forces and the Taliban.

“When rockets and bombs would come near a building we lived in, we moved to a place in the city that was safer,” she says, adding that most times the family had to leave without food or money. When there were no more reliably safe places in Kabul, she says, the family fled to nearby Pakistan. They spent several years in the early 2000s moving between the two countries, avoiding the Taliban, which opposed her work in the field of women’s health.

“The first year we were in Pakistan, it was OK,” she says. “But our second year, the situation got worse. Our house was robbed and they burned our clinic. Some people realized that we had come from Kabul and so they wanted to put us at risk.”

She describes a harrowing night with her husband and children sheltered in a hallway outside their apartment.

“We slept in the hallway because bullets came into the rooms. In the early morning, we couldn’t get into the room to get our money or our food or anything. We just took the children and we ran away, with no car, with nothing.”

Despite the anxiety of war and the devastating loss of family and friends to violence, Ebadi and her husband, also a physician, have made the education of their four children a priority. Their oldest daughter, Hamasa, is a recent college graduate who works at Johns Hopkins as a research technologist in Pediatric Surgeon-in-Chief David Hackam’s laboratory. When schedules permit, mother and daughter meet for lunch at the hospital.

Hamasa says that, while growing up, it never occurred to her that education wouldn’t be a top priority. She recalls studying late into the night as a child and her mother gently suggesting she put away her homework and go to bed.

“It’s funny, I just never considered anything else,” she says. “My mother never had to tell us to do our homework or to study. No matter where we were, school was always a priority.”

Hamasa says her family has remained strong throughout their journey.

“My sisters and brother saw our parents start over so many times,” she says. “The moment they graduated from medical school, things in Afghanistan got bad. But they never gave up.”

Hamida Ebadi’s own parents earned higher education degrees and her siblings are all physicians or scientists.

“I think if a mother is educated, probably her children will be educated,” says Ebadi. “Children see their parents and they learn. My parents were so hard-working and loved education and to serve people. So that’s what I learned. And my children learn from me. They see how I love to work for people.”

As executive director of Empowerment Health, a relief agency dedicated to providing health care and health education to women and children in Afghanistan, Ebadi continues her life’s work.

At night and on weekends, using email and online video chat, she manages community health workers in Afghanistan as they provide care and spread health literacy among women, particularly in the country’s rural provinces.

“I’m still trying to help my country,” she says. “But now I’m doing it from Baltimore.”

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