When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Emran Hassanzada’s parents fled the country. Like so many refugees, they left everything behind—careers, a home, friends and family—for a shot at a better life. They were chasing the American Dream. 

With pennies in their pockets, Emran’s parents landed in California. They didn’t speak English, were illiterate, and had grade-school level educations but they knew the value of hard work. They accepted part time jobs at fast food restaurants, served ice cream at the local airport, and an auto shop—anything to build a foundation for their life in America.

“Just thinking of the challenges and adversity they overcame, it’s deeply humbling,” Emran says, hinting a smile. “I really value their work ethic. I can remember my dad saying he felt like he had the day off when he worked one shift instead of two. That drive, that selflessness—those are characteristics I hope to emulate as a physician.”

Nearly 40 years later, it’s easy to imagine their pride as their son begins his first year of medical school at American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine (AUC). Not only that, but he is doing so as one of two First Generation MD Scholarship recipients. The award, which provides $10,000 toward tuition and is renewable for four additional semesters (a potential value of $50,000), supports students striving to be the first generation of physicians in their families.

Out of Darkness

Emran knows that the next four years will be challenging but he’s faced plenty of challenges in the past.

On September 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda launched terrorist attacks on the United States, Emran was just 9 years-old. As Afghan-Americans, his family was persecuted and verbally assaulted. And even though he was just in elementary school, Emran remembers being called a terrorist by his classmate.  

He faced the toughest moment of his life 10 years later when his 12-year-old brother tragically passed away. The two had just finished playing a game of basketball when his brother fainted by the side of the court. Medics rushed him to the hospital but despite the physicians and nurses' best efforts, he didn’t recover. They later discovered that he had he suffered a heart arrhythmia. 

Comes Light

Something happened to Emran during that time in the hospital. While at his brother’s side, he watched a teams of physicians and nurses do everything possible to try and keep him alive. Their service and dedication woke in Emran a desire to practice medicine.

“I had always felt intrinsically connected to medicine but my brother’s ordeal gave me a sense of purpose and belonging,” recalls Emran. “I wanted to help other families going through the same challenges as mine.”

Emran (top center) with his two sisters, parents, and late brother.

A few months after his brother’s death, Emran began volunteering at Hoag Hospital in Irvine, California—the same hospital that cared for his brother. He assisted with electrocardiograms, organized patient charts, observed procedures, and even helped with transporting patients. He lost himself in the simplest of tasks and committed all of his time and energy on helping healthcare workers as they helped their patients. It was cathartic and it helped him heal from a tremendous loss.

Emran continued to volunteer throughout college and joined the hospital’s Clinical Care Extender Internship Program (now known as the COPE Health Scholars Program). While at the University of California, Irvine, he took courses in public health and worked as a research associate for the Department of Development and Cellular Biology’s Gross Lab.

He’s now ready to take his experiences—academic and personal—to the next level. As a student at AUC, he will have the opportunity to apply his public health education and his patient encounter skills from Hoag Hospital toward a medical degree. In the future, he hopes to become a cardiologist and understand and prevent heart conditions like the one his brother had. Regardless of the type of doctor he will eventually become, Emran knows that he wants to land back in California, close to his family.

On AUC, His Scholarship, and a Special Mentor

When asked why he chose AUC for medical school, Emran pointed to three factors: a positive endorsement from a friend here, the small class sizes, and the opportunity to begin school in January. The thought of waiting another eight months to start felt daunting.

Receiving AUC’s First Generation MD Award was the cherry on top.  

“Getting that news—I was just as excited as the day I was accepted at AUC,” he recalls. “I’d especially like to thank Dr. Yosuf Subat, a great mentor whose passion serves as a fine example of the type of physician I hope to become. His leadership, patience, and generosity inspires me.”

Now, the son of refugees who has faced so much adversity in his short 24 years, can feel supported by his new extended family at AUC. 

This blog is part of a special scholarship series. Each week, we will highlight one of our January Class scholarship recipients. 


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Shannon Toher

Posted February 13, 2017 11:37 PM

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    2/15/2017 9:19:42 AM

    Emran sorry for your brother. Didn't knew that. and congrats for the opportunity. http://sybridmd.com