08/14/2013 06:21 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

American Dreams Come True

Parwiz Abrahimi is a brilliant, good-humored grad student at Yale who hopes to break new ground in science and medicine. It can be surprising to learn that when he was a toddler, his family was struggling simply to stay alive in Afghanistan. That was in the late '80s, when Afghan rebels were successfully repelling the Soviet presence. It was also back when it was risky to be a native Afghan who wasn't Sunni or looked different from a typical citizen. Abrahimi is Hazara: an Asian-looking minority with a Shiite faith. The Hazara were among the first to settle in Afghanistan, possibly a descendant of the Mongols who invaded centuries ago. How Abrahimi was able to escape the brutality of that culture and find his way into one of the most exclusive educational programs in the world is a story of what America still means as a land of opportunity. It's also a story of how valuable immigration can be to our society.

As a member of a religious and ethnic minority in Kabul, Abrahimi's father was targeted for death by the Taliban, so the family came to the United States, settling in Washington state with only a tenuous link to American life -- his father's acquaintance with a Seattle woman who had come to Afghanistan with the Peace Corps to teach half a century ago. His family literally had nothing, but they all worked feverishly to make enough money to put Abrahimi's mother through nursing school, so that her income could become the cornerstone of a future for her husband and four children. It's a classic story of worth ethic, self-made success, but it relied on a crucial safety net at the start. When they settled near Seattle, the Abrahimi family accepted welfare and relied on food banks to survive. It gave them just enough of a window to become self-sufficient. To support the family, as his mother labored through eight years of schooling to earn a two-year associates degree, Abrahimi and his siblings worked as a team with their father. They bought and resold car parts at local flea markets. They delivered newspapers. The kids kept the household running when their father took jobs as an interpreter and translator, exploiting his knowledge of Persian and Russian. His mother struggled, year after year, taking exams and failing, then taking them again and finally succeeding. "We succeeded and failed along with her," he said, talking by phone from the Yale campus. "After she took a test, she already knew she had failed. When she cried, we all cried. When she succeeded, we all succeeded."

Eventually, thanks to his parents, Parwiz had his own opportunity for college, and chose a low-cost state school that his mother had chosen: the University of Washington. "We experienced education as primarily a tool to achieve social mobility. Back home my mother would literally have been locked away for attending classes. My father wanted me to become an engineer, and my mother wanted me to become a doctor. I kind of did both."

He studied bio-engineering as an undergrad and is now enrolled in a highly selective seven-year degree program at Yale that will grant him both an M.D. and a Ph.D, one to equip him for scientific medical research and the other to enable him to apply it in the world. He had proven himself so thoroughly as an undergrad that Yale offered him a free ride for the full seven years. On top of that, he applied twice to finally win a Soros Fellowship, not simply for the financial assistance, but even more for the networking it would enable him to do. His second application succeeded. The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship singles out exceptional immigrant students who have the ability and desire to handle an advanced education. It chooses those who show the most promise of becoming leaders who will give back to their communities and their nation. The candidates also had to demonstrate an understanding and respect for the principles and values of this unique nation: freedom and individual rights.

Abrahimi's area of research is into genetic manipulation to reduce rejection of donated organs through immune reactions. When a kidney or liver or heart are transplanted, the body knows it's a foreign object and attacks the organ with white blood cells, as it would bacteria. Parwiz want's to prevent that from happening. Now 27 years old, as a researcher, Parwiz is already getting close to understanding how science might be able to turn off certain parts of genes within the transplanted organ that excite this immune response. It's a technique called RNA interference. Another Soros fellow is researching how to deliver RNA to genes in various parts of the body using nano-particles of a biodegradable polymer. Parwiz is eager to talk with him at the next gathering of fellows in October. He wants to know if his life-saving RNA can essentially surf on these nano-particles to their targets in the transplanted organ. The convergence of their disciplines could yield dramatic results.

"More than half the organs used in transplant surgery are rejected through the immune response. If I can make the organs less exciting to the immune system, we can make more of these organs available for transplantation," he said. He hopes, when he reaches his 40s and has enough experience under his belt, he can take his knowledge and practical skills back to Afghanistan and help build a new organ transplant network there to help save lives. "My long-term goal is really to expand the understanding of the immune system. I'm interested in translating my research findings into medical intervention."

Like Parwiz Abrahimi, most immigrants are driven by the same work ethic and yearning to succeed through learning and labor. His story is an inspiring lesson about how important it is to leave our door open to immigrants and welcome the energy and innovation they can bring to the American experiment.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice.

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