PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Khaled Almilaji co-ordinated a campaign that vaccinated 1.4 million Syrian children and risked his life to provide medical care during the country’s civil war. Now he’s in the Ivy League, learning about how to rebuild Syria’s health system when the war finally ends.
He is one of three Syrian scholars studying at Brown University, which said last year it would welcome Syrians after dozens of governors attempted to block refugees. Almilaji, 35, received a scholarship to earn a master’s degree in public health and moved to Rhode Island in August on a student visa with his wife.
He said he feels lucky because many other Syrian doctors have had to give up their work after sacrificing for five years, watching their families suffer and seeing their children go without an education.
“Every time I go inside Syria, I see the smile on the face of families and people. They say, ‘We will stay here. We will never go out, and we will still fight this regime,’” he said. “You cannot go out with less energy, just to continue supporting those people.”
Almilaji was born in Aleppo, now the epicenter of Syria’s conflict. He studied in the coastal city of Latakia to treat disorders of the ear, nose and throat. He was preparing to go to Stuttgart, Germany, for a residency in March 2011 when anti-government protests sparked the conflict.
He treated protesters who likely would have been arrested or killed if they went to government-run hospitals, he said, and he set up field hospitals.
“They accept to be killed if this is the way to show the world we are in a revolution here,” he said. “But I cannot accept that those people will never go to a protest because they don’t have any hospitals to receive them in case they are injured.”
Almilaji said he was arrested in September 2011 in Damascus, interrogated and tortured. The savagery he witnessed during six months in prison convinced him he was “one thousand per cent correct” in opposing the regime, he added.
Almilaji returned to Aleppo after his release and cared for protesters’ families, considered a crime. A friend who was helping those families was arrested in April 2012. Almilaji escaped to Gaziantep, Turkey, and his parents soon followed.
A U.N. commission found government forces in Syria deliberately target medical personnel to gain a military advantage, by depriving the opposition and those perceived to support them of medical assistance. The commission called the targeting of medical personnel one of the most insidious trends of the war.
Almilaji translated for Syrians in Turkish hospitals and worked to equip Turkey with ambulances to transfer Syrians from the border. He made trips into Syria to work in a medical clinic in Aleppo and deliver medical supplies. He successfully pushed for the building of underground hospitals because he expected health facilities to come under increasing attack, a fear that proved true.
He said he joined the humanitarian arm of the opposition and began monitoring the spread of communicable diseases in northern Syria by setting up an early warning response and alert network.
The first case of polio was discovered through the network in October 2013 in eastern Syria, he said. Almilaji planned the vaccination campaign as the administrative director. Teams went house to house and vaccinated 1.4 million Syrian children.
He is working with Canadian doctors to establish safe health facilities in Syria, train medical workers and connect hospitals. The group formed the Canadian International Medical Relief Organization, and Almilaji reviews the projects from Providence.
If insurgents are still fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces when he graduates in two years, Almilaji plans to work from Turkey on relief efforts that can later facilitate redevelopment. When Syria is stable enough, he wants to return and work on preventing diseases and other health problems, since resources for treating ailments will continue to be scarce.
More than 60 U.S. and international colleges provide scholarships for Syrian students to complete their degrees in North America and Europe. The consortium, led by the Institute of International Education, has supported more than 300 Syrian students to date.
Brown is a consortium member. Almilaji was recommended to the university by an alumnus, while the institute helped connect the other two Syrian scholars with Brown.
Brown Provost Richard Locke said it was a humanitarian statement, not a political one. School administrators wanted to help and show how a school could successfully host Syrians so other colleges would, too, he said.
Locke said it’s important to “lead through our values, so that other people would at least have an alternative narrative to the one that was being disseminated by some of those governors.”