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I moved to the UK to try to get the best healthcare for my daughter

As I sat upright so my six-year-old daughter could lie on my chest because she struggled to breathe, I thought to myself: ‘She deserves better.’

Almost daily, she struggled with food allergies – gluten, eggs, dairy or pretty much anything she ate the previous day – and would spend the early hours of most mornings wheezing and feeling the effects of rhinitis – sneezing, itching and a blocked nose due to allergies.

So after an hour of nebulising – using salt water vapor to help clear airwaves for children with chest infections so they can breathe better – multiple doses of anti-allergy medication, I’d hold her in a way that made it easier for sleep.

At the time, we were living in Karachi, Pakistan – the city that had been my home for the most part of my life – but I knew that if I wanted a better quality of life for my child, I had to move to the UK after previously studying here and loving it.

So six months later in July 2017, I was hauling boxes up the staircase of our apartment building in Wimbledon, London and had a glimmer of hope that things would be better for the both of us.

Growing up in Karachi, I experienced heartbreaks, city-wide power outages, curfews and long drives listening to Linkin Park.

I had sleepovers where we’d watch MTV and The X-files while eating spicy crisps and had secret smoking sessions on my roof – not to mention hours chatting away on corded phones as we made plans for the future.

Then in 1999, I made a deal with my dad that if I got into a good place at university in the UK, I could go. Not long after, I placed my acceptance letter to UCL to study psychology on his pillow and he kept his word – despite my mother’s protests urging me to stay.

So that same year, I moved to London at the age of 21 and truly felt my life began in Russell Square, where my halls and university campus was. 

Zainab Ahmad with her daughter on the streets of London

Everything took a backseat when my daughter was born in 2008 (Picture: Zainab Ahmad)

Student life was all about getting into cabs after dancing all night at clubs we couldn’t afford the cover charge to, getting ‘pulled’ by guys, then walking home and carrying that one friend who couldn’t handle her drinks.

I finally felt like I was coming into my own, that I had a chance to discover what I wanted to do with my life and find a group of friends that accepted me as I was. The studies were challenging but they opened my eyes to an array of opportunities I could not have dreamed of otherwise.

I chose to study here because I knew one day London was going to be my forever home; the city felt so freeing. And even though I went back to Karachi after five years of being in the UK, I always felt the pull of the country calling me back.

Being back in Karachi after a few years away was a bit of a culture shock. I might have grown up there but after I moved, so much had changed in the city but more importantly, in me.

I had tasted freedom of thought and independent living. I could no longer tow the line and silently accept the conservative mindset and judgmental society that expected young women of my age to behave a certain way.

I took on a job as a grief counsellor at a rape crisis centre and then later in journalism – writing about human rights, technology and culture.

Everything took a backseat when my daughter was born in 2008 though. By the age of two we knew our life would never be the same again when she was diagnosed with multiple food allergies and asthma, as well as the onset of what we would know later as high-functioning autism.

There were a lot of weeks spent in bed with asthma and rhinitis, doctor visits, diagnoses of food allergies, anxiety and chronic fatigue, misdiagnoses, referrals, months of waiting for said referrals, anxiety pills, therapy, my daughter’s refusal to attend therapy and tears – my God there have been tears. 

All I knew was there had to be a better way. There had to be better doctors and better ways of managing her health.

It’s been an uphill battle to secure the education she needs the way she needs it (Picture: Zainab Ahmad)

I knew leaving behind the comfort of my family home and all that was familiar was a huge risk, but how do you stay in a country where you can’t find safe food for your child to eat?

I wanted her to have a chance to live a healthier, safer life and I would do whatever it took to get us there. I sold every asset I had to my name – including my car – and applied for the Enterpreneur Visa in January 2017.

The day it was granted six months later, all the doubts in my head silenced and I pictured a better future for us.

Arriving, not much had changed in London and I felt immensely motivated to work and jump back in as if I’d never left.

Reconnecting with old friends and family, making new ones, seeking medical support for her needs and exploring business opportunities kept me busy day in and day out.

When we moved to the UK, my daughter joined school in year six but her anxiety took over within the first six months and she couldn’t bring herself to go in anymore.

By February 2018, her school asked us to withdraw her due to her poor attendance and I began homeschooling her, but it’s been an uphill battle to secure the education she needs the way she needs it.

I had let go of my health, gained weight and some mental health trauma as I became a full-time carer – including teacher, parent, nurse, therapist and life coach – for a girl hitting puberty with high-functioning autism, POTS – a rare heart condition that causes dizziness and migraines and makes it difficult to sit or stand upright for long – chronic fatigue syndrome and anxiety.

I had a reality check when we began seeking medical support from the GP and CAMHS and saw how painstakingly slow and challenging the process is.

What I realised was that having the right people on our side makes all the difference (Picture: Zainab Ahmad)

Referrals took months, with reports even longer. But in all honesty, knowing that when the process was done we could have the help she needs was worth the fight.

What I realised was that having the right people on our side makes all the difference so with the help of a kind GP, a tenacious therapist and thorough cardiologist we now seem to be on the right track to help her manage her health.

Even though I was grateful to have moved to a country where I had access to healthcare and education, I was frustrated that it took so long to get the help she needed in London.

Befriending hundreds of other parents and carers through Facebook groups made me feel less alone.

They understood the struggles of what my days and nights looked like as a carer for a child with special education needs and what she endured due to her complicated health issues. Their timely pertinent advice on managing fatigue, sleep disorders and anxiety helped when doctors fell short.

As last year came to a close, the two of us – single mum and healthier teenage daughter – made a conscious decision to make every day count, to find joy, to order things from Amazon if we wanted to, dedicate an hour a day to colouring mandalas – artwork in colouring books for mindfulness – while listening to our chill playlist (mostly Jeremy Zucker vibes).

For my job, I write and edit children’s picture books and during the pandemic, my daughter and I volunteered our time to donate packages for elderly care home residents and autistic children.

Now we work on our health, practice Korean, sing karaoke, decorate her room to her current aesthetic, discuss YouTubers and friend dramas and cook Thai green curry multiple times a week.

But not a day passes where I’m ungrateful for the promise I made five years ago, and all I did to keep it.



Immigration Nation

Immigration Nation is a series that aims to destigmatise the word ‘immigrant’ and explore the powerful first-person stories of people who’ve arrived in the UK – and called it home. If you have a story you’d like to share, email james.besanvalle@metro.co.uk


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