Your heart beats strong and healthy, as it should, said Dr. Sonja Ristic as she performed a cardiac ultrasound for me. An immeasurable sense of relief engulfed me and I breathed deep as I sat up from the examination bed, my first cardiac exam had gone well. Unlike my recent Thyroid, Breast and Gynaecology exams which had all resulted in further investigations, interventions and surgery.

She prepared my report and then turned to me and asked with genuine interest, ‘So what do you plan to do once you return to Pakistan?’

I’d been asked this question constantly by so many friends and acquaintances, as they found out that I’m moving from Belgrade. I felt my fears and anxiety resurface as I prepared to reply to her.

I had been moving from country to country, every three years, since the past 24 years. I was wary of making plans that wouldn’t materialise, I had experienced that every country was different and that even returning to my homeland, I would find a change in dynamics not always conducive towards my personal growth as a Dentist. I was accustomed to starting over but I never got comfortable with this transition. It is not easy to begin life from scratch physically, professionally and emotionally, again and again. I felt overwhelmed at the mere thought. My eyes welled up and I realised that some part of my heart wasn’t really as strong and healthy as it should be, it is scared of moving out of a comfort zone once again. My tears spilled over as I tried to express my fears to Dr. Sonja, she got up and hugged me and I thanked God for being in Belgrade, the one place on earth where an embrace is never inhibited or withheld in fact it’s an integral expression of Serbian love. My heart hurt some more to be leaving behind the warmth of the Serbian embrace that had held me in a bubble of positivity and love for the past three years.

It hadn’t been love at first sight, as I permit myself such a luxury only with inanimate objects, but it crept up on me, slowly yet surely, sweeping me off my feet. We had arrived in Belgrade in October 2019 and when the sweet perfume of roses in our garden, filled the spring air, I knew I was in love with Serbia. There was something inexplicable that just ‘clicked’ between us but the biggest surprise for me was when I discovered that Serbia loved me back!

If I think about how I got here and the major milestones that occurred during the last 24 years of my life, I’d have to start with the achievement of my Bachelor’s in Dental Surgery degree. By the age of 23 years, I had finished a year of vocational training at a Dental Hospital when my parents and my parents in law ‘arranged’ a marriage between my husband and me. It is still common practice in my country to have an arranged marriage but quite uncommon for the newly married couple to depart, for the groom’s first diplomatic posting abroad, just two weeks after the wedding. In all of two weeks, I had to leave the comfort of my parents home, with a man I hardly knew, for a strange country far far away. When I look back now, I really can’t believe I did that! Was it the naivety of youth, blind trust in my elders’ decisions or my faith in the Almighty, probably all three.

Years later, when we moved to Budapest, I wanted to work but was required to give a Licensing exam for dentistry, in Hungarian language. That being a difficult option for me, I decided to go back to university, an even tougher choice which I realised later. With two young children, aged 4 and 2 years, I started studying at Semmelweis University for my D.M.D degree. I graduated and also passed the Licensing exam for EU. I was able to work in Hungary. It was a really tough time in my life and juggling the studies, my kids, my home and diplomatic life was a real challenge. When I look back now, I don’t know how I managed to do all that. I guess it’s because I’ve always been energetic, if I set my mind on a goal, I’d set out to achieve it.

We moved to Scotland and I found out that the British Medical Council would not register me as a Dentist in UK because my passport was from Pakistan. I was required to take 2 Licensing exams in order to be registered. The exams were highly competitive and had a 700+ dentists waiting list. I qualified both exams but it took an year. Next I was required to repeat my Vocation Training. I had been working as a dentist in other countries yet I had to spend another 6 months working under a Trainer Dentist in order to work for the NHS. The dentist I worked for, at this point, was not a nice person. She bullied, insulted and humiliated me everyday, over petty issues. I really needed to finish my VT so she and I both knew I had to withstand it. That was not easy, it broke my spirit, I started to hate going to work and I lost my self confidence. I was depressed by the time I finished and quit her practice. The next job experience in the UK turned out to be with a practice owner who constantly wanted more earnings. He was conniving, manipulative and a liar. I discovered he was stealing money out of my earnings, so I hired a lawyer and got back what was rightfully mine. The experience was not good for my mental health but I learnt so many valuable lessons.

We returned to Pakistan and I decided to work with an NGO. I had my dentists office within a clinic and I was my own boss. I saw patients who were so grateful for their treatment, they would bring me little gifts as a token of their appreciation. The clinic staff and administration were very respectful towards me and I was invited to lead training workshops and give lectures. I was healing very slowly but I felt I had lost my love for dentistry as a profession. The only thing I enjoyed was helping people and I tried my best to do what I could.

When we moved to Jeddah, KSA, I was made President of the largest Pakistani Ladies Club existing in the city. I used my position to launch a Scholarship Program which would award scholarships, to the most deserving students, for a bachelor’s degree in Pakistan. It was a rewarding experience for all those who were involved.

Jeddah was a posting unlike any other as it is one of our country’s largest diplomatic missions abroad. With over 2 million Pakistanis, our lives were taken over by the community. Due to the proximity of the cities of Mecca and Madina, there were also countless visits by VIPs from our country. I found myself in the company of the First Lady, and other VIPs, several times over the years. I was also constantly addressing gatherings and making speeches thus honing my public speaking skills. I had no time to work as a dentist yet I was constantly working for our community or supporting my husband during protocol duties. Charity work became a routine and the ladies club would work all year on small projects that provided relief to our less fortunate community members. I developed a frozen shoulder on my right side but I carried on. A year later I developed the same condition on my left side but I continued with life, wearing a sling to immobilise my arm.

In this state we arrived in Belgrade in October 2019, fatigued after a gruelling and unrelentingly tough posting, seeking desperately yet not finding any respite.

Undeterred, I had begun to explore the possibility of going to back to work as a dentist and had initiated the process already when covid struck the world. It was a scary time for everyone but it was a much needed break for me and my family. So I started to discover Serbia, it’s history, it’s rulers, I visited museums with my friends and talked to the people. There was something inexplicable that just ‘clicked’ , somehow I understood the people, their point of view, their emotions and I found myself loving the experience. I feel these warm, friendly and hospitable people are misunderstood and my heart went out to them.

In May 2021, I was elected President of the International Women’s Club of Belgrade. Covid had affected the Club adversely but I felt ready to take on this challenge. I addressed the members, for the first time, at a gathering where the First Lady, Tamara Vucic was chief guest. I was nervous during that first speech but I received a warm welcome from the members. There was no looking back now and I threw myself, wholeheartedly, into improving all aspects of the club despite the restrictions of covid. I met with several Serbian people, from many different walks of life, with whom our club could collaborate in various ways, and never encountered rejection. We invented ways of carrying on, successfully, with the club’s charity efforts to help less fortunate communities within Serbia. With a strong team at the head of the club, we made great strides in re-establishing the clubs significance within the city. It was a lot of hard work and effort for zero salary but the inner satisfaction was fulfilling enough for me.

I made several lifelong friendships during this time, with strong willed, determined, successful and beautiful women from all walks of life. I listened to their journeys and felt my struggles diminish in comparison. But they made me realise my own strengths and resilience in the face of such an odd personal and professional life contrast. In the company of these loving friends, after a very long time, I felt secure, supported, encouraged and empowered, surrounded by positive energy. Finally, after travelling to so many countries, it was in Serbia that ‘Imam srce lavice’. Maybe I always had the heart of a lioness but it was Serbia that taught me how to roar.


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