A passionate medical physician who has traveled the world helping others.  An accomplished athlete, who has represented the US in international competitions.  A human rights advocate, who also rallies against violence against women.  You might think we’re discussing three different women doing amazing things in their fields.  But all of these describe one truly incredible woman.

The SkinLess Project is proud to announce Sarah Kureshi as this month’s inspirational woman.  Her work as an advocate, physician, and athlete has touched many across borders.  And it is our honor to share her work, passion, and story with you.



1) You are no ordinary physician. You are fueled with passion. Tell us why you chose medicine and what you specialize in?

I feel so fortunate that I can say ‘I love what I do.’ There are so many different ways that each of us can impact the world around us … I chose medicine & public health as my means to do this.

During high school and college I realized I had a strength in the sciences but I also loved to interact with people and do community work. When I was in college I came across a book titled “Waking Up in America” by Pedro Jose Greer that detailed his work with homeless clinics in Miami. Before reading this I didn’t have much exposure to community health, so while reading it I had this ‘A-ha’ moment where I realized I could combine my fascination with science with my passion for community work.

I specialize in family medicine and community health. Family medicine physicians are trained in all areas of medicine and take care of people of all ages. We focus on preventive care and health promotion while also treating acute illnesses and helping our patients manage their chronic medical medical conditions. My favorite part of being a family medicine physician is getting to know families over time … It’s a wonderful experience to provide prenatal care for a pregnant women, deliver her baby then provide healthcare for the child as it is growing up. I also received my Masters in Public Health so I spend some of my time doing research on social determinants of health and health and human rights while also teaching medical students on these topics.

2) Your medical work has taken you across the world. Tell us the places you have traveled and why?

One of my first global experiences was to the Thai-Burma border during my senior year of college in 2000. I had heard of Dr. Cynthia Maung, a Burmese refugee running a clinic on the border, and I wanted to work there. I traveled with a group of college students involved in the Free Burma Coalition and on our travels to reach the border we met with numerous human rights groups and social activists. Through that trip I realized that fixing broken bones or giving medications was not going to do much to change the situation of the Burmese people. It was during this trip that I realized I wanted to heal not only wounds, but also communities.

In medical school I received the opportunity to attend an ‘International Training on Refugee Health’ in Peshawar, Pakistan. Through the training we visited refugee camps and other sites on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

I also traveled to New Delhi, India to work with STOP India (Stop Trafficking and Oppression of Women and Children) as part of my MPH thesis work on gender-based violence. There I lived with roughly 40 women and girls, some as young as 5-6 years old, who had been rescued from sex trafficking and other abusive situations.  I was there in Jan 2005 and went back in May 2007.

During my last year of medical school in 2007 I traveled to the earth-quake affected regions of Kashmir to work with CDRS (Comprehensive Disaster Response Services). CDRS was helping re-establish the healthcare system of that area and I received the opportunity to provide medical care in Chikar and also help train the Lady Health Workers from the surrounding villages.

I took one year off medical school to study Arabic in Cairo, Egypt. While there I was able to visit some of the local hospitals, clinics and orphanages and learn more about the healthcare system.

In Oct 2010, I went to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to work with JP Haitian Relief Organization (JP/HRO). While there I provided medical care for communities that were still struggling after the earthquake. While there we also provided medical trainings for the local healthcare providers.

A few months ago I was in Pakistan through the State Department’s ‘Visiting Speakers’ Program. I went to Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore to give community health talks/workshops (focused on health & human rights, gender based violence, sports as a tool for empowerment and social entrepreneurship) to medical/public health students, local NGO workers, women in shelters and high school athletes.

3) Which country / experience has been your favorite?

This is an extremely tough question as each of my global experiences has touched me in profound ways. I think the most memorable for me was my time in New Delhi with the girls from the STOP shelter home. Hearing their horrific stories and experiences was heartbreaking, but witnessing the resilience of each of those girls inspired me. Realizing the capacity of human spirit is always life changing and I feel each of those girls, with their strength, courage and hope, left a lifelong mark on me.

4) You have a passion for human rights. Tell us why?

I’m not sure how to put my passion for human rights into words. I feel that it’s driven by my faith, Islam, and the belief that each human being is entitled to fundamental rights just on the basis of being human beings. Suffering mostly comes from someone violating the rights of another person. The Quran makes it clear that not only should we not oppress others, but we should not stand silent while others are being oppressed in front of us. There is so much suffering all around us and I feel that it is our human obligation to do anything we can do to ease that suffering and bring about more social justice in our communities.
5) How are you specifically using your profession to serve human rights?

I work in a community health center in Northeast DC, an area that has some of the poorest health indicators in the DC area. Through that work I provide medical care to individuals and communities who lack or have limited health insurance and often haven’t seen a healthcare provider in decades. I also provide pro bono medical exams for asylum seekers through Physicians for Human Rights Asylum Program. Through my affiliation at Georgetown University Medical Center, I teach ‘Health & Human Rights’ and ‘Service Learning’ classes to medical students as well as do research on these topics and the ‘Built Environment’ (how local infrastructure, resources and environment affects the health of individuals). Although most of my time is spent in a clinic, I know my influence and impact also lies beyond the clinic walls – in understanding the bigger picture of the community, in educating/empowering the community and in changing policies.

6) People say women are the biggest victims in a human rights crisis. Do you agree? Have you seen up close examples?

This is unfortunately true. Although all people are victims, women and children do seem to disparately bear the brunt of most of the human rights violations around the world. Human trafficking, intimate partner violence, rape, forced marriage, and female genital cutting are just a few examples where this is the case. This is primary due to gender norms granting men control over female behavior, rigidly defines gender roles and views of what a ‘good’ woman is, and notions of masculinity linked to dominance, honor or aggression. Additionally these human rights violations continue via cultural norms that treat domestic violence as a private matter and via women’s lower status in society resulting in limited access to and control over resources, limited decision making power, less education and skill development, and dependency on men
This amazing video sums it up pretty nicely:  “The Girl Effect – The Clock is Ticking”

 7) How do women who are oppressed by their circumstances respond to you? It must be uplifting for them to see women in a powerful role.

Most of them say that they’re inspired by my collaboration with them. I tell them it’s actually the other way around.    I’ve always been careful about my approach in going to different communities and giving workshops/talks. I never want it to feel like I’m only coming to teach them because that’s not what it is at all … it’s actually a collaboration and an exchange where we’re genuinely teaching each other and learning from each other. Some of the most moving workshops I’ve lead have been the ones that veered away from my powerpoint slides, and turned into real discussions that resulted in tears, anger and all types of emotions. Recently when I was in Pakistan I was leading a workshop on ‘health and human rights’ to a group of women workers in Lahore. When we were talking about the roots of why women are primarily affected by human rights issues there came a point in the discussion where a few of the women just starting crying and angrily stated “Life is just hard for us women. Whether we work or don’t work our life is challenging. We can’t stand up for our rights because who do we complain to?  If our husbands are beating us where do we go? We can’t tell the police, we can’t tell our families, we’re just stuck.” We then went on to discuss how we might not see big changes for them but how they had a crucial role in teaching their children respect for all genders and affecting change in the next generation. After that, the women told me it was so powerful to be able to even talk about these issues in a group, something they hadn’t done before. They said they wanted to continue this dialogue to learn, to heal and to effect change in their communities. My heart smiled and I told them I wanted to do the same thing.

8) Looking at your resume it is an understatement that you are an overachiever. Tell us the schools you have attended and what you enjoyed most about them.

I attended college at the University of Central Florida (UCF) where I majored in Biology. Of course everything about college is enjoyable, but it was at UCF where I cultivated a love of learning for myself and not just a desire to get a top grade. It’s so amazing to be able to pick a variety of classes and just go and absorb everything. It was during my college years that I really grew as a student and a leader … it was a playground for education/learning/knowledge… what I wouldn’t give to be back at UCF.
I went to medical school at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine. I remember interviewing there and getting caught in a snowstorm. As a Florida girl I said, “I’d never want to live in a crazy cold place like that.” 6 months later I started medical school there. Even though it’s an excellent school, one of the main reasons I went there was because they offered in state tuition to Florida residents on top of generous scholarships to all their students. I knew I wanted to do family medicine/primary care which doesn’t pay like other specialties so I decided it was the most practical place for me to go. Mayo Clinic was incredible and very supportive of all my global health ideas/initiatives. I especially appreciated getting to know the Somali refugee community in Rochester, Minnesota. It was a special experience to get to know them, learn about their struggles of being refugees in a new place and learn about some of their beautiful cultural practices.

After my 3rd year of medical school I took a year to attend Harvard School of Public Health to get a Masters in Public Health with a focus on International Health. I really appreciated that year because it was like a breath of fresh air to take a step away from basic sciences/clinical medicine and instead look at the big picture of health. The amazing people I met during my time at Harvard have made a huge impact on me and my career and inspired me in many ways.

I did my family medicine residency training at UCSF/SF General Hospital. Those were three of the busiest, but also most rewarding years of my life. It was a crazy schedule, but I felt honored to be a part of that program working alongside brilliant colleagues and teachers to care for the health the underserved, multicultural, multifaceted residents of San Francisco.  Everyday when leaving the hospital I would pass by a heart in front of the hospital which said “my brother, my heart.” Although I’d never want to do another 30+ hour shift, I do miss walking by that heart and reflecting on my patients there.

After residency I did a 1 year fellowship in Community Health Leadership Development through Georgetown’s Department of Family Medicine. This was an exciting year where I got to further explore a variety of my community health interests. As part of the fellowship I received the opportunity to teach residents and medical students. Before starting the fellowship I hadn’t given much thought to teaching, but I enjoyed this experience so much and I hope to continue teaching students through my career.

9) Many young girls want to attend top schools to fulfill their dreams but are intimidated about applying. What advice would you give them?

I would tell these girls what my parents told me … “You won’t know until you try. If you get in that’s great, and if you don’t it’s okay too.” My parents taught me at a young age that they were proud of me as long as I tried my best. They never stressed the end result, they always focused on the effort.  I think because of that I never felt pressured and I was able to go along my journey without much stress. Also, there’s something about ‘not winning/not getting what you want’ that really builds character and strength.  So either way it’s actually a ‘win-win’ situation.  Lastly, I would tell these young girls that you can fulfill your dreams regardless of what school you go to. If you’re passionate, motivated and dedicated you can do anything you want to.
10) OK, you have excelled at athletics as well. Tell us your athletic experience and achievements and how you became the athlete you are.
I’ve played sports ever since I can remember. I grew up in a small town where there isn’t much to do, so sports was a big part of our life growing up. I was always playing football, basketball or baseball with my brother and his friends in our yard. My sister and I played on the school and local volleyball team and softball team and I also took gymnastics lessons and was a cheerleader in middle school. In high school tennis became our life where we participated in tournaments all over Florida, playing against players like Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick. I first started running competitively my sophomore year of high school. I remember that I won my first high school race and was hooked on running ever since then. I didn’t think I’d play any sports in college, but after not competing my freshman year I felt like something was missing. I decided to walk-on to the cross country & track team and was able to get a scholarship. I went on to earn all-conference third team honors in the 800 meters and was an eight-time Academic All-Conference performer. I was fortunate to be named the NCAA Woman of the Year for the state of Florida in 2001. Competing on the NCAA level remains one of my favorite experiences from college. The team was like family – we practiced together twice daily and on the weekends and we traveled together all over the state and country. My coach and my team were very supportive of my Islamic faith and respected that I wore pants/long tights during races and also accommodated my training so that I could fast during each Ramadan.

After college I continued to train during medical school and competed in a lot of local 5K’s. In 2005 the Islamic Society of North America put out a call for American Muslim female athletes to compete in the Fourth Women’s Islamic Games in Tehran. I ended up being the only American Muslim available to compete. And it wasn’t until I arrived in Tehran that I learned that I would become the first American female to compete in Iran since the Revolution in 1979. It was an incredible experience and I was proud to represent my country there.

I have continued to intermittently train for 5K’s in the years since then. I ran an indoor track meet last year where I ran the mile in 6:01. My fastest mile in college was 5:00, but considering it was 10 years later and I wasn’t training with a team I was pleased with my result. I have competed in local league sports and what’s been really nice is that in DC we have a large group of Muslims who play sports together. We have a few football teams competing in the local league as well as volleyball teams. It’s great that we all come together to play, be healthy and have fun.

11) Was there a specific coach or  professional athlete that kept you motivated to excel in sports?

I was fortunate as I had a lot of incredible coaches along the way. Two that stand out to me are my high school tennis coach, Billy Ball, and my college track coach, Marcia Mansur-Wentworth. They taught me well, guided me, respected my religious beliefs and accommodated them and most importantly believed in me.

Also, my parents, my sister and my brother have been my biggest motivation in sports. They have been my biggest fans as they have encouraged and supported my participation in sports from childhood until now.

12 ) There must have been times that your academic, professional work weighed you down, how did you find the energy to keep going as an athlete?

I think it was actually the energy I got from being an athlete that kept me stimulated in my academic, professional work .  But, as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized it is really hard to find time to train in the same way I did when I was competing more seriously. I’m glad that I got in the habit of exercising/training/working out at an earlier age because it makes it much easier to do now when other parts of my life are weighing me down. Exercising is actually a stress relief for me and knowing it’s healthy for my body and mind keeps me going back to gym/field/park even when I feel weighed down.

13) Tell us your most memorable experience as an athlete?

If it’s okay I’ll share two different ones:

At a college conference championship meet, I was favored to win the 1500 meters. In the first 100 meters of the race, one of the competitors accidentally tripped me from behind. I fell and as soon as I fell I had a mix of emotions … defeat, sadness, anger and pain from the fall … but I picked myself up and tried to keep running. I could only run one more lap around the track and my coach pulled me off. But, that meant a lot to me because it showed me what I had within myself to at least be able to get up and try to finish the race. The story is a reminder to me of a few of the beautiful lessons that I have learned from athletics … determination and learning how to not only win with grace but also lose with grace.

It was the most exhilarating feeling to carry the American flag into the stadium in Tehran at the Opening Ceremony of the 4th Women’s Islamic Games. I was so proud to represent America and be standing there with 1,300 other Muslim women athletes from all over the world. These women were professional table tennis players, squash players, volleyball players, golfers, etc and they broke all the stereotypes that many hold about Muslim women & they introduced me to a world of which I was previously ignorant. I also appreciated the opportunity to educate Iranians about being an American Muslim. sarahprofilepic

14) You recently started advocating sports in place of athletics to curb violence against women, please tell us more

“Sport as an embodied practice may liberate girls and women from constraining hegemonic feminine ideals, empower them within their communities, provide positive health and welfare outcomes, and ultimately transform gendered notion leading to a more egalitarian world and unleashing the productive, intellectual and social power of women. This then would contribute to overall development economic, social and political.”  -Martha Saaverda

Many of the root causes of violence against women lies in gender norms and cultural norms in communities. As the quote above states sport can play a powerful role in changing gender roles and empowering women. Sport has been shown to lead to increased cardiovascular endurance and strength, less risky sexual behavior (decreased rates of teen pregnancy and STDs), lower school drop out rates and increased community leadership positions. Additionally, sport leads to higher self-esteem as well as improved self-perception, self worth and self efficacy. In turn it enhances girls’ sense of agency and self empowerment.  Sport activities can allow girls access to safe social spaces where they can exercise control and ownership. For example, in South Africa, young women from different backgrounds use football as a platform to engage with one another, mentor each other, as well as development friendships and strengthen relationships.  Sport can be used as a tool to promote healthy lifestyle choices, to raise awareness of gender based violence and other health issues, to communicate vital health-related info to ‘at risk’ or ‘hard to reach’ groups. At the community level, sport can also be seen to provide a useful way of creating an environment in which people come together to work towards a mutual goal, share space and show respect for others. Another program in South Africa called ‘Bridging Divides’ uses basketball to bring children and communities together. It has been shown that participation in the program has lead to fewer racial stereotypes and less racism. This can hopefully be replicated to lead to fewer gender stereotypes and so forth.
There are many tools that can be used in the fight against gender based violence. Sport is  onlyone of them, but it is definitely an innovative, powerful tool.

15) Many young girls want to excel as athletes but think they can’t use their experience long term, what advice would you give them? In addition, older women want to return to competitive sports, what advice would you give them, what options do they have?

I would tell these young girls that the lessons they learn from athletics and sports will benefit them for the rest of their lives, whether it’s their personal life, professional life or social life. Athletics teaches teamwork, discipline, dedication, leadership and so much more. Involvement in regular physical activity and sport enhances physical and mental health and well-being. Studies also show that female athletes have increased self-esteem, better grades in school, are more likely to go to college and are more likely to aspire to be leaders in their communities as adults.

For the older women, I would give them the same advice as above. You are never too old to compete. There are so many local/community leagues for men and women of all ages (they have men’s only sports, women’s only sports and co-ed also) in all different types of sports. You could also get together a group of your friends and start your own team. When I’ve been to local races in the past I frequently meet older female runners who just started running and competing and it has given them a boost in their life. It’s exciting to see women of any age participating in competitive sports.
16) You have  a lot on your plate. You are newly married, committed to your public service work, and still training to run.  How do you balance?

Judging by how long it too me to answer these questions I’m clearly not doing a very good job of balancing things.  It’s always a work in progress and I’m always trying to find ways to be more efficient and manage my time more wisely. I also feel that at different points in your life different things will take priority and that’s okay.  Currently, I haven’t been training as much because it’s been so busy with a new marriage and moving, but I hope to pick up my training soon. In the end, I think if you love the things you do you will find a way to make time for them. Also, having a very loving, supportive husband and family makes the whole ‘balancing act of life’ much easier!

 17) Lastly, you met President Barack Obama. More than once. Tell us, what did you think? And what advice would you give him in countering health epidemics in this country and abroad?

He is a very polished, intelligent man but on top of that he exudes a warmth that is felt by those in his presence. I barely exchanged a few words with him so I don’t know how much more I can comment on him. As far as advice to him … it’s much too long to write here, but I’d start with having a discussion with him about seeing health/healthcare as a human right … once that is squared away and that concept is implemented as a cornerstone of our health policies then I can think we can move forward in a more positive direction.


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