TikTok pioneer Bnar Talabani is taking the fight to anti-vaxxers

The medic and scientist hopes girls are inspired by her story as a 10-year-old Kurdish refugee arriving in the UK with little more than the will to survive

The young Bnar with her mother in a refugee camp in northern Iraq, left, and having graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in medicine, right. Photo: Dr Bnar Talabani
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When Bnar Talabani was invited on a work placement with a leading surgeon, it seemed to be a dream come true — until, as the only woman in the group of medical students, she was dismayed to find herself completely ignored.

Each of the three or four men scrubbed in to the surgery but, Dr Talabani, now a nephrology and transplant specialist, was not asked to do so.

“The surgeon would address them with questions but never me," she recalls. "It was definitely misogyny – but it is a rarity and the way I have been supported through my clinical training and academic career, especially as a woman from an ethnic minority background, has been phenomenal.”

In the nine years since she graduated from Cardiff University in Wales, Dr Talabani, 33, says much has changed in the gender landscape. Women make up two thirds of medical students and the majority of people now training to become specialists in surgery.

As the UN marks International Day of Women and Girls in Science, she is a shining example of what can be achieved against all odds as she undertakes a doctorate in immunology with funding from the Wellcome Trust.

Dr Talabani applied for the clinical training programme, offered to only the most exceptional graduate students, from a hospital bed where she was fighting for her own life and that of her unborn baby during a precarious pregnancy.

She had been diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, a condition that can cause a dangerous rise in blood pressure, and was admitted to hospital in the last month of carrying her daughter.

“I had nothing else to do," Dr Talabani says. "I was in hospital for a week before I deteriorated and in that week I wrote my application.”

That refusal to give in is perhaps an inherited trait passed down from a long line of freedom fighters in a family at the heart of the Kurdish struggle for self-determination and resistance to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Her grandfather, Atta, was a cousin and adviser to the late Jalal Talabani, the first non-Arab president of Iraq and co-founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who was known fondly by Kurds as Mam (Uncle) Jalal.

The late Atta and Dr Talabani's father Ashti, now 62, were Peshmerga, who helped to lead the uprising against Saddam and his Baathist regime from mountain hideouts in the now autonomous northern region.

Dr Talabani's grandfather and father were Peshmerga, who helped lead the uprising against Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime from mountain hideouts in the now autonomous northern region. Ramzi Haidar / AFP

Dr Talabani was born in Kirkuk as tensions were rising between Kurdish and Iraqi forces. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the Gulf War erupted, her mother Pary, now 59, fled carrying 2-year-old Bnar and her baby brother, Brwa, while the paternal side of the family stayed to fight.

“We had to leave our home very suddenly and hide out in a cave for a few days with lots of other families,” Dr Talabani says.

“There wasn’t even time to gather any food; there was nothing for us to eat. My mother tells the story of how I walked around the cave finding already-eaten dates and trying to suck any sugar left on them.”

Brwa did not survive the arduous journey on foot to the city of Sulaymaniyah and then on to Iran to find a haven. He died at nine months of suspected dysentery just before they arrived.

“My poor mother had to bury my little brother in Iran,” Dr Talabani says. “I don’t remember a lot of that time but my earliest memory is of my brother.”

After a return to Iraq where her sister, Kanar, and brother, Bahez, were born, Pary again left with all three children to stay in Syria for two years before landing in Birmingham in 1998 under a UN refugee resettlement programme.

Bnar arrived in Britain at the age of 10, unable to speak any English, but within a year sailed through her 11-plus exams and secured a place at King Edward VI Handsworth School for Girls.

A 10-year-old Bnar arrived in Britain unable to speak any English, but within a year sailed through her 11-plus exams and secured a place at the prestigious King Edward VI Handsworth School for Girls. Photo: Google

“I loved that school,” Dr Talabani says, “because it wasn’t just good academically. They really pushed us to do things beyond that.

“It was also culturally diverse. We celebrated Diwali, Hanukkah, Eid and Christmas, and it wasn’t until I left that I realised other places were not like that.”

Her passion for science and interacting with people made the 13-year-old realise that she wanted to become a doctor.

“When I was 4, my parents’ cousin graduated from medical school and gave me his stethoscope," Dr Talabani says. "That was like a passing of the baton.”

At Cardiff University, she met fellow student and future husband Jay, 33, who went on to become a dentist. “He not only supports me but encourages me,” she says.

After graduating, Dr Talabani specialised in kidney and transplant medicine, while her PhD is focusing on the effects of kidney disease on the immune system.

Her studies are full-time at the moment but Dr Talabani plans to return to combining clinical work with research on completion of her doctorate.

When the pandemic struck, she was studying and caring for her daughter, now 4, but felt compelled to help her National Health Service colleagues.

“There was a sense of guilt,” Dr Talabani says. “I needed to do something to contribute. When the vaccines were approved, I realised there was a lot of hesitancy and something needed to be done about it.”

She forged links with three fellow doctors in Wales, together forming Muslim Doctors Cymru to counter the low acceptance of the vaccine among black and Asian minorities.

“We started off addressing our own Muslim communities but very quickly realised that other people wanted access to that information, so we addressed anyone who wanted to listen,” she says.

Quote
Hearing it from your imam is a bit different from hearing it from your doctor.

They began hosting weekend online seminars in six languages, with a panel of health experts, community and faith leaders, who could disseminate information among their congregations and simplify medical jargon.

The seminars were uploaded to YouTube where they were viewed worldwide.

“Hearing it from your imam is a bit different from hearing it from your doctor,” Dr Talabani says.

A great deal of vaccine hesitancy, particularly among ethnic minorities, comes from mistrust, which she says is not illegitimate since it is those groups with the worst health outcomes.

“You are five times more likely to die if you develop a pregnancy complication and you are black than if you are white," Dr Talabani says. "That just blows my mind.”

She drew up a list of common concerns and questions posed on social media to create a Covid myth-buster series for online.

A nurse administers a Covid-19 vaccine to a woman at a health centre in Cardiff on the first day of the largest immunisation programme in the UK's history in December 2020. Justin Tallis / Getty Images

As concerns arose about Covid vaccines being linked to blood clots, it dawned on Dr Talabani that they had to move quickly because “if we didn’t, the anti-vaxxers would”.

She posted messages on Twitter that were retweeted by Frank Atherton, the chief medical officer for Wales, and the Welsh government.

Muslim Doctors Cymru was invited to healthcare board talks on the vaccines and organised weekend pop-up vaccination centres in mosques, as well as carrying out a health survey among ethnic minorities.

In March last year, Dr Talabani was invited to join the UN's Team Halo, a group of scientists and healthcare professionals volunteering to fight misinformation surrounding Covid-19.

She began making videos on Tik-Tok and describes it as something of a learning curve.

“The first couple of videos did not get any views," she says, "and then I realised I had not even made them public.”

With her higher profile came an avalanche of vitriol, including death threats, abuse and severe trolling, often from anti-vaxxers.

Quote
I am not going to stop doing this because it is important work.
Dr Bnar Talabani

“They say things like: ‘You should not be allowed to be a parent’ and ‘you should hang in the Nuremberg Trials’," Dr Talabani says.

“In a way, it means your message is getting to the people who need to hear it most.”

The harrowing childhood experiences that taught her how to deal with tough situations were discussed at the Womenspire awards ceremony last year, where she picked up the prize for Woman in Health and Care plus the biggest one of the night.

“Bnar’s place as Womenspire Champion reflects the immense barriers she’s had to overcome and the fact that, through hard work and determination, she has made immeasurable differences to her own life as well as the lives of others," the judges said. "She is a brave and incredible role model.”

Among many other honours and accolades, she is a vaccine ambassador for the British Society of Immunology, responsible for engaging with the public and dispelling myths about the Covid-19 vaccines.

But most bemusing of all has been an MBE in the Queen's 2022 New Year Honours List for her work supporting organ and tissue donation and transplants, along with her commitment to health promotion among black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

It is an appointment that is taking time to process. “I cannot comprehend it,” Dr Talabani says. “I think it is great that a country will take in a refugee and give them opportunities to do what they want to do with their life, and then recognise the impact that they have. That is the best of this country.”

There is much yet to be achieved personally, but she hopes that young girls will take heart from the story of the 10-year-old who arrived in Britain with little but the will to survive, a determination to learn and a desire to give back.

“There is a myth that science is male-dominated,” Dr Talabani says. “All you have to do is look at the teams behind the development of the Covid vaccines. More than half the scientists were women.

“The world is changing," she says, "and there are so many opportunities."

Updated: February 11, 2022, 12:40 PM
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