I was shocked by President Trump’s executive order that severely restricts immigration from seven largely Muslim countries and indefinitely bars all Syrian refugees from coming to the United States. I am particularly pained by the latter because I am a Syrian refugee who found support and peace in the United States, and who has already begun giving back to the country that welcomed me.
I grew up in Aleppo. You may know it from news images showing the horrific devastation caused by Syria’s civil war. But when I was growing up, it was a peaceful ancient city of art and culture.
My family and I never expected that the armed conflict convulsing Syria would hit our beloved city. But it did: There were tanks in the streets, air strikes, and people being shot and killed. Sleep often eluded me, and I routinely thought about death, wondering who would be the next to die. Would it be me, a family member, a neighbor or friend?
Somehow in the midst of this chaotic civil war I was able to finish my medical studies in 2012, and began working at Aleppo University Hospital. I helped treat people who had been injured in the war. Most of them, particularly the women and children, didn’t choose to live in a war zone and couldn’t escape it.
I will never forget the day I found myself treating patients who had been attacked with chemical weapons. Many others died before reaching the hospital.
I made the difficult decision to leave my family, my people, and my country to go to America. My intention was to get the clinical training and skills that I needed so I could return to Syria and serve my country. My parents, who constantly worried about my safety, strongly supported that decision. My father encouraged me to flee, and promised to support me financially as much as he could.
My goal was to reach the Turkish border, and from there fly to the US. The day I left Syria in 2014, my parents and I had to travel from the western part of Aleppo to the eastern part. That meant taking the “death path,” a 300-meter stretch of open road where people were randomly targeted by snipers. As we approached it, we heard shooting and felt that with each step we would be targets. After what felt like miles, we found ourselves safely on the other side.
Then we had to pass through many ISIS and Syrian Army checkpoints, which again put us in grave danger.
At the border, I had to say goodbye to my mom and dad very quickly so they could retrace their steps through the death path before sunset. It was a terribly sad parting because I didn’t know when, or even if, I would see them again.
After I arrived in the US, it took me several months to adjust to normal life. I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. My dreams were filled with frightening images of being arrested in Syria. I would duck down whenever I heard an airplane fly overhead, convinced that it was about to drop bombs. Each time that happened, it took me a few seconds to realize that I was safe here in America.
I was fortunate to get a full scholarship to Brandeis University, where I earned a master’s degree in international health policy and management. Part of the scholarship came from the university. A more significant part came from the Open Society Foundations, an organization that aims to build alliances across borders and continents.
Studying at Brandeis was a wonderful opportunity for me. I made many American and international friends. It was somewhat ironic that I learned more about the Syrian health system while studying global health issues in a suburb of Boston than I did while living in Syria.
In April 2016, I participated in the Zika Hackathon organized by Massachusetts General Hospital to develop novel ways to respond to the Zika epidemic. With other team members, I helped create a “Larvicide Automatic Dispenser” that we are prototyping. I now have the privilege of working at Massachusetts General Hospital on clinical research projects related to cardiac arrhythmias.
I am grateful to the United States and its people for opening their doors to me. I am passionate about giving back to America and to the people and institutions that looked at me as a man with energy and skills, not as a Muslim or Syrian, including Brandeis, the Open Society Foundations, and Mass. General. I am equally passionate about getting additional medical training in internal medicine in a US residency program so I can help the people of Syria heal and rebuild their health system.
I’m not alone. I know many Syrian doctors who have been working hard for years to come to America and advance their clinical training. I also know many smart Syrians who see the United States as a place in which they can become successful and eventually serve this country, their home country, and people around the world. The new executive order is dashing those hopes.
Today, I look at where I’m standing compared to where I was in 2014 and find it hard to fathom that just a few years ago I was routinely petrified by air strikes and often envisioned myself being killed by a sniper’s bullet. And I was one of the lucky ones — I can’t imagine the trauma that is still being experienced by the kids I often saw running in the streets, kids who now live in tents, freezing to death in the cold of winter.
I am a Muslim, and I am from Syria. I came here fleeing a brutal war that has killed more than 400,000 men, women, and children. I have the features that make me look like what some people think of as terrorist. But I am not a terrorist. In fact, I’m the opposite — I am a patriot for America and for Syria. I want to serve the country that opened its doors to me and also help my home country.
I tell my story in hopes that leaders and politicians around the world reconsider any plans to ban refugees who seek to escape brutal wars and other human tragedies.
M. Ihsan Kaadan, MD, is a clinical researcher in the cardiology division at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.