Khyber Alam’s father says his son is “an old person trapped in a young man’s body”. He lost his childhood to the war in Afghanistan and now, from the safety of his new home in Glenorchy Tasmania, the 23-year old optometrist is determined to protect other young children living in war-zones from losing their childhood too.
Playing ball on the street with friends, going for a run in the park, watching a movie with family, turning out the lights at night and drifting safely into a peaceful sleep… so many childhood experiences we take for granted shape our sense of security, our happiness and our ability to embrace opportunity with confidence and optimism.
For Khyber Alam growing up was a very different experience. He was born in Pakistan, where his parents lived as refugees, having fled the Soviet-Afghan war. They returned to Afghanistan to begin a new life when he was about six years old but were forced to flee again seven years later when war broke out after the chilling September 2001 attacks in the United States.
Khyber recalls his family’s move from Pakistan to Afghanistan as being difficult for his mother and father who had eight children to support. “When we moved back to Afghanistan it was really hard for them because they had to start again. Dad hadn’t worked for a while because of the war and so he was selling fruit. My mum had left school in grade nine so there wasn’t much work for her either, just ordinary jobs here and there.”
Khyber and his siblings were sent to school. “We used to study under a tree during the summer and in winter we’d do our classes in a tent. Afghanistan is a country of extremes. It’s really hot in summer and extremely cold in winter, so on those really cold days we’d be let off school because the tent couldn’t cope. I studied there until grade four – I was probably about nine although no one was keeping track of ages – then my parents put me into a better school that had rooms until we fled for Australia.
Khyber has vivid memories of his time in Afghanistan that he says are impossible to erase.
“My grandfather was assassinated and at his funeral seven people were killed and 40 injured. I was there. I smelled the bodies burning. It’s something you never forget. In grade five, I was returning home and there was a scuffle. I heard a shot and then there was a guy lying down with blood all over him. My knees collapsed and I fell down in shock. I spent the next three days with a temperature. “As a kid none of this made sense.”
Escape to Australia
When Khyber’s parents made the decision to escape Afghanistan he was 13, a delicate age for any teenager, let alone one who has experienced so much death and destruction. Arriving in Australia, his family settled in Melbourne and once again, he was sent to the local school. Despite the peace and calm of his new surrounds, he said he experienced many dark days in the process of coming to terms with his future.
“At first, I used to stay at home a lot and not mingle, but eight months on I realised there was no going back, I had to do something. I read a lot in the library, the teachers were so encouraging, they looked after me and that made life a lot easier.”
“I have always been an optimist and I have had always had a thirst for knowledge. I could see opportunities and I knew I had to take them. I envisaged my future as someone with knowledge – it’s the best cloth to wear – it widens you and softens your heart – and that’s the only way you can help others.”
With a desire to give back, Khyber finished school and decided to work in healthcare. He enrolled in optometry at Deakin University, and, upon graduation in 2016 moved to Glenorchie, Hobart to work in an OPSM practice. A few months later Khyber’s practice manager and mentor resigned leaving Khyber in the top job.
“I like working and living in Hobart, it has an amazing mix of people. The lifestyle is so calm, and the community has been very kind to me. I have a small beard so I don’t look like your typical Aussie, but my patients have welcomed me, some have invited me to their home for food and brought gifts… I think that having spent my childhood in war-zones, I am particularly drawn to the peace and quiet of the area. I like being still, being silent and taking time to reflect on things, even the smaller issues. This is something that many friends of my own age find hard to understand about me.”
He said working with a global organisation appeals to him because it offers the opportunity to help people in Australia and internationally. Within his first year of practice, Khyber had travelled to India with Equal Health and Mt Isa with OneSight. Outside eye care he is equally active.
“When I was a kid I was really close to orphans and I saw a lot of kids in need.
I want to give them the childhood I didn’t have, so I’m working on building an orphanage in Khost in Afghanistan. This is something I promised I’d do when I got my first job and so I’ve already raised the money, from my own salary, and with help from friends, to buy the land. My father went back to Afghanistan to find the land and he found old friends and family who were willing to help get it up and running. We have already started building the infrastructure and I’ll go over at the end of this year to ensure things are running smoothly… it sounds difficult from the other side of the world but when you do things from the heart things fall into place.”
Khyber Alam’s father says his son is “an old person trapped in a young man’s body”
Saving Vision, Saving Lives
At a local level, Khyber is also having an impact. In fact, on his very first day back at work in early January, he saved a man’s life.
“I started the day consulting an emergency patient who complained of blurred vision. English wasn’t his first language which made it difficult to get an accurate and clear explanation of the presenting symptoms.
“We did our testing and everything was normal – visual acuities were OD 6/6 OS 6/7.5++ OU 6/6 and N5 with an ADD of +1.75 and there was no sign of any ocular pathology. Ocular motilities and cover test findings were normal. Intraocular pressures were 15 mmHg both eyes. The anterior and posterior ocular findings were unremarkable. However when I noticed the patient was moving his head when reading the near visual acuity chart, I questioned his visual field and on further questioning he revealed a right peripheral blur.
“I asked the next patient to wait a little longer so that I could conduct a neurological visual field test and the results revealed a homonymous hemianopsia caused by a disruption of blood flow in his body. I called the hospital, discussed my concerns and requested an MRI, CT scan and a blood work up. I sent him along to Emergency at Royal Hobart Hospital where he was diagnosed with acute infective endocarditis. The patient’s wife called me towards the end of the day. Understandably, she was teary and said had it not been for me, her husband’s life could have gone in a different direction.”
Khyber said it’s experiences like these that remind him of how fragile life is and how much he can contribute to the world.
“War teaches people selfishness and then, when they eventually experience the good life, it becomes easy to forget where they came from. Unfortunately there are not many who look back and want to change things.
“But I don’t want to forget. Through my work as an optometrist, I hope to solve conditions that can ease life – whether that’s through clinical practice, academia, or research.”
They Can’t Feel Anymore
For the majority of Australians who have grown up in a time of relative peace, it’s impossible to imagine how multiple generations of people can endure, let alone participate in war. Khyber has a fascinating, philosophical perspective.
“I have no excuse for the way people behave, everyone has their own perspective and their own narrative… but injustice done to human life should never be accepted as normal. People hurt and oppress each other and are so unkind, there is too much inequality.
“Unfortunately, war can really damage souls… it moulds people in different ways, and after four generations of war-time, many people in Afghanistan are poorly educated and have lost their empathy. It’s hard for them to look at life in any other way. Every day they hear about people dying and in the end, it seems like human life has no significance – not because people don’t feel hurt, but because everyone is so hurt they can’t feel it anymore.”
“War leaves behind scars that we spend our entire lives trying to forget but we can’t – we take them to the grave.”