21 May 2024
by Frances Ewings

Wall of small rectangular coloured cards pinned into a display of a heart with the letters NHS across it.
The Heart - An interactive display at the end of the exhibition asking visitors what care means to them. (Migration Museum / Hamish Irvine)

The Migration Museum explores how the movement of people to and from the UK across the ages has shaped who we are – as individuals, as communities, and as nations. Like so many things during the pandemic – doorstep gatherings and DIY haircuts – our exhibition ‘Heart of the Nation: Migration and the Making of the NHS’ was born out of necessity. Unable to open to the public, we decided to create our first digital-only exhibition – and there was no subject that felt more relevant than the staff of the NHS. It features dozens of personal stories of people who have come to Britain from around the world to build, shape and sustain the NHS at all levels since its creation in 1948. With Refugee Week (17-23 June) approaching, we wanted to highlight some of the refugee stories in the exhibition, which is now an award-winning touring display.

The GP – Joachim

Aged 50, Polish medic Dr Joachim Weinreb arrived in England as a refugee in 1946 following the end of the Second World War. By the end of the war, the Jewish doctor’s first wife, child and wider family had all been killed by the Nazis. Starting his life all over again was an uphill struggle. Despite being a senior physician in Poland, Joachim felt overlooked in England, as immigrants and refugees were at the bottom of the medical hierarchy. Unable to practise in his chosen field, he decided to become a GP. He took on a practice in Kilburn, a working-class pocket of north-west London where the doctor shared commonality with his patients – many of whom were also immigrants, mainly from Ireland and the Caribbean. Certain treatments at the time, such as some vaccinations, had to be paid for. Many of Joachim’s patients could not afford the fees and would instead pay in kind – fixing his guttering or gifting a bottle of whiskey.   

Joachim’s daughter Irene was inspired by her father’s work, and also became a doctor in the NHS – where she worked for 40 years.

Sepia photograph of a man stood behind a woman sat in a chair.
After his family were killed by the Nazis Dr Weinreb built a new life in England, becoming a well loved GP in London. Here he is pictured with his second wife. (Image courtesy of Irene Weinreb)

The pharmacist – Neena

Following dictator Idi Amin's expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972, Neena Lakhani was just 14 years-old when she and her family were forced to flee their home country. Given only 90 days to leave Uganda – or face imprisonment in camps – Neena and her family were just some of the 28,000 people who sought refuge in the UK around this time. Ordered to leave with one suitcase per person and no more than £55 per family, Nina’s memories of her journey to the UK are traumatic.  

Experiences of malaria as a child in Africa, and the remedy quinine used to treat it, sparked an interest in the power of medicine – leading her to study pharmacy. Much of her work as a pharmacist has been hospital or primary-care based, where she has been part of a multi-disciplinary team treating patients. Her heritage also meant she was able to connect with patients when they needed it most: “Indian patients would start talking to me in Hindi or Gujarati. Suddenly, I would be pulled away from my normal job to do translations, or to hold their hands. I learned that being able to talk to people was an important skill I had.” Neena now works in academia and also has a role with the National Institute of Health Research.

The surgeon – Muhayman

After graduating from medical school in Iraq, Dr Muhayman Jamil MBE was conscripted into the national army under Saddam Hussein’s regime and forced to serve for five-years during the Iran-Iraq war. Finally escaping Iraq, in 1990 he came to the UK – where he decided to pursue neurosurgery. ‘I applied for a training post and was interviewed by three senior consultant neurosurgeons. I was telling them I did neurosurgery in Iraq during the war. All three went very quiet for a minute and they went, “You have more experience in trauma neurosurgery than the three of us put together.”’

Muhayman eventually moved into palliative care, providing invaluable support for those at the end of their lives. A keen sportsman, he also helped set up Wheels & Wheelchairs – a charity dedicated to accessible sport.

4 people in santa suits and in-line skates pushing a 5th person in a santa suit, waving from a wheelchair.
A talented neurosurgeon from Iraq, Muhayman Jamil was recently awarded an MBE for ‘services to people with disabilities’ in recognition of his charitable work. (Image courtesy of Muhayman Jamil)

The nurse – Yasin

Originally from Syria, Yasin was at school when war broke out and he fled to neighbouring Lebanon. He studied to be a nurse but was unable to secure work in Lebanon due to his refugee status. Frustrated, Yasin heard about 'Talent Beyond Boundaries' – an organisation that matches refugees with companies in need of their skills. He moved to the UK in 2022 and transitioned from general nursing to mental health. His experiences of war have made him acutely aware of the effects of trauma: "I know how much a person can deny when it comes to mental health, but I learned never to underestimate it. We are all prone and we all need support."

Selfie of a young man in medical uniform.
Yasin draws on his experiences as well as his talent to help people in the UK.

All images supplied by the Migration Museum. 

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