HJ - Dr Arif Afridi Visits Clarinda

Returning to Clarinda recently were Dr. Arif Afridi and his wife Zeeni. Dr. Afridi served as a psychiatrist at the Clarinda Mental Health Institute, pictured behind the couple, from 1969 to 1972. (Herald-Journal photo by John Van Nostrand)

Dr. Arif Afridi and wife Zeeni drove by the same Shore Motors where they once purchased a car and saw Weil’s Clothing Store was still open.

They wondered what happened to the Rexall Pharmacy on the square and the A&W restaurant.

The couple still has strong feelings for the good experiences they had in Clarinda some 50 years ago. With one of their three sons, the family recently visited Clarinda. Arif was a psychiatrist at the Mental Health Institute from 1969 to 1972.

Since 1972 the couple has lived in Waterloo.

Arif, 80, and Zeeni are both from Pakistan, the south Asia country bordered by India, Afghanistan, Iran and China. The two each had relatives who worked in health care which inspired them to enroll at the medical school in Lahore, Pakistan, which has been creating health-care providers since 1862. Arif and Zeeni were educated in Catholic schools.

Zeeni said she was one of seven women who entered the medical school the year they started. Arif was one of 80 male students.

Zeeni speculates the country’s strong Muslim influence, which limits women in various roles, was the reason why few women were allowed.

Times have changed.

“Now, it’s the other way around,” she smiled as many more women have since been enrolled in the school. Their degrees took five years to acquire.

The two finished school in 1962 and married the next year. Both interned in the United Kingdom and lived in London.

“Our next step was the states,” Arif said about an interest in working in the United States. “Everyone looked up to the states,” he said about coworkers and America. “We were influenced by American pop culture, from the comic strips to the movies.”

The Fridis were reading a copy of the British Medical Journal which had pages of help wanted ads from health-care facilities around the world, but most from the United Kingdom. One ad was from the Mental Health Institute in Clarinda. Arif began corresponding with MHI officials about the position.

“I was very interested,” he remembered about being told of the position and the town. “In two weeks, we decided to come to Clarinda. I didn’t apply anywhere else.”

With two children in tow, the Fridi family arrived in Clarinda on July 9, 1969. Because of the children, Zeeni said she stopped working to stay at home, a decision both Arif and Zeeni agreed. They lived in a duplex on the MHI complex that still stands today.

During his work at MHI, Arif estimated there were, at most, 300 patients, in the institute. He was assigned to patients from Polk County or the greater Des Moines area. Those patients were typically referred to MHI from Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines.

Other physicians were assigned to residents from other regions in the state.Arif remembers working with Dr. J.R. Gambill.

“He was a great man,” Arif said.

Arif was not the only foreign-born provider as he worked with others from Scotland and Egypt.

Arif said his patients were at least 14 years old and treated a variety of mental-health issues.

While Arif was working, Zeeni was raising the children and learning more about Clarinda.

“The town was open,” she said, implying it had a welcoming spirit. “And the people. That’s the first thing you remember – the attitude of the people.”

The Afridis would acquire citizenship in 1976. The process included having someone as personal reference. That person was Deana Van Fosson formerly of Shenandoah. She was a medical secretary at MHI.

“We still kept in touch with her after we left,” Arif said.

Van Fosson, who grew up in Coin, died in 2017 in Nebraska at the age of 77.

Arif would use his Clarinda experience later on for a project at Wartburg College in Waverly. The project was about people’s experiences in America. Arif was one source.

“I told them a simple story about walking out of the Clarinda Post Office and a person walking up the stairs to the post office just said ‘hi’ to me. You don’t get that in London,” he said.

The family also experienced other parts of Southwest Iowa. One summer included tickets to the Sidney Rodeo. The year they saw actor Michael Landon from the popular western-themed television show “Bonanza” was in attendance.

Arif also created some sentimental moments for the family.

“We would drive east on Highway 2 from Clarinda,” he explained. “We would drive far enough east, then turn around and go back to watch the sunset.”

Zeeni interrupted.

“It was wide open,” she said, referring to the unobstructed views of the sunset.

Others influenced them to live elsewhere to have new experiences. They chose Baltimore, Maryland, and left in March 1972. Zeeni was expecting their third child who was born in Baltimore. But that may have been the only bright spot for the family as they were not comfortable living in the Maryland city.

“We missed Iowa,” Arif said. “We wanted to come back.”

It was only a matter of months the family decided to leave. Arif said he considered returning to Clarinda, but there was no vacant position to fill. He found a job in a private practice in Waterloo. They returned to the Hawkeye State in October.

“At least it’s Iowa,” he said about Waterloo, the city in Black Hawk County.

They have been there ever since.

During his career, which he still sees patients three days a week, he has paid attention to Iowa’s MHI facilities. In 2015, state budget cuts closed the MHI in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant. Two others remain in Cherokee and Independence.

Closing two does not help, the doctor said.

“There is a desperate need for psychiatrists,” he said.

Samir, who goes by Sam,was with his parents while touring Clarinda and works for the United Nations. He lives in New York City. He graduated from Grinnell College and worked for now retired Iowa. Sen. Tom Harkin and President Bill Clinton’s administration.One of his brothers lives in Chicago and the other is in Istanbul, Turkey.

Sam said when others ask about his and his family’s history they are surprised to hear his parentsleft the lights, amenities and history of London for small-town, rural Iowa.

“Iowa values drew us here and have kept us here,” Arif said.

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