Married couple Dr. Khaled Almilaji and Dr. Jehan Mouhsen thought their dreams of peace and safety were finally within reach. Both had escaped the war in Syria and moved to the United States in the hopes of completing their medical university education. Both dreamed of one day returning to Syria and using knowledge gained from university to rebuild their country’s future.
But Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban” has kept them apart for many months now. Jehan is preparing to start her medical residency and is also pregnant with their child, while Khaled is trapped across the ocean in Turkey after his visa was revoked without reason during a humanitarian mission which was only supposed to last one week.
The future together is now uncertain, but their resilience and dedication to humanity has brought about the creation of an amazing new project called the Avicenna Women and Children’s Hospital – a medical facility being built underground in Idlib, Syria.
Julie Larah of Muslim Girl was able to interview both Jehan and Khaled separately about their lives and work. Both hope that increased publicity of their situation can only help improve the quality of life for those affected by the war in Syria.
Muslim Girl: Please introduce yourselves and a little bit about the kind of school and work you both have done.
Jehan Mouhsen: My name is Jehan Mouhsen, I’m a Syrian citizen from the city of Aleppo. As a physician, I graduated from the Faculty of Medicine in Montenegro after I had to move from Syria due to fear for my life.
Khaled Almilaji: My name is Khaled Almilaji and I graduated from the Aleppo University’s school of Medicine, 2006. I spent from 2008 to 2010 doing residency for ENT diseases and surgery. I worked from 2006 to 2010 during my residency for pharmaceutical companies and marketing. In 2011, I started working in a variety of Syrian field hospitals and became the health coordinator for The Saudi National Campaign to support Syrians in Syria and Turkey. In 2013, I made and ran the health department of ‘ACU’ for the Syrian Opposition Coalition and shortly after that, I launched the Early Warning Alert & Response Network which aimed to detect and monitor disease outbreaks in areas of Syria where the health systems had deteriorated or collapsed completely.
Later that year, I became the external coordinator of the CBRN task force which worked to strengthen the medical response to regime chemical attacks – like chlorine, Sarin, etc. In 2014, I became the administrative director of the Polio Vaccination campaigns in Northern Syria and launched an initiative to establish more secure health facilities in Syria. In 2015, I co-founded the Syrian-Canadian NGO, Canadian International Medical Relief Organizations and launched a Needs and Population Monitoring Program in 13 governorates of Syria to assess their humanitarian needs. In 2016, right before I left for America, I started a Continuous Medical Education program to help train and educate more medical staff in Syria. I had a lot of help and support from a variety of organizations to achieve all these things that work to improve the lives of Syrians.
“The [Assad] regime was arresting and torturing and killing everyone opposed to and protesting against them. So we left the country. For me, I left the country because I had been arrested and tortured for 6 months.”
Please tell us about what life was like in your respective home countries before you both met. If you left your home countries before coming to America together, why did you leave?
JM: I was born in Montenegro, and raised in Syria. I was living with my family in the Northwest side of Aleppo where I finished, elementary, junior high and high school in Aleppo. Then I enrolled in the University of Aleppo, Faculty of Medicine in 2008, but had to leave the country in 2013 permanently due to the war and horrible situation of not being able to live safely in my house any more.
KA: We left Aleppo because of the situation. The Syrian Assad regime was arresting and torturing and killing everyone opposed to and protesting against them. So we left the country. For me, I left the country because I had been arrested and tortured for six months. I did not want it to happen again, so I escaped from the country — from Aleppo — because my house, until now, is under the control of the regime — like most all the neighborhoods of Aleppo now. Same for my wife. She left the country because the situation deteriorated.
If it’s not too personal to ask, how did you both meet each other?
JM: A cousin introduced me and Khaled to each other. He was working in Turkey and I was studying in Montenegro at the time. Then he came to pay me a visit and since then, we got engaged then married 22 months later.
What brought you both to America?
JM: The U.S. was one of Khaled’s first choices. He applied for a scholarship to Brown University and got it. We were super happy to come and make our dreams in education come true.
KA: We came to the U.S. because we decided in the next 2 or 3 years, we would focus on our education so we can come back to Turkey and very soon to Syria to start working on rebuilding our country. So our focus and priority was education — which took us actually to the U.S.
What was life like in America for you both before current complicating events?
JM: We enjoyed the time we spent together in the U.S. and all the wonderful people that we met and the friends that we had.
KM: In the U.S., I learned a lot of things. It was an amazing life in Providence, RI in the University and in the society. Definitely people were supportive and we learned a lot from that society. I think that the people also learned a little bit from us also, which I feel is important for them to know what is happening in Syria now.
Recently, you’ve both drawn some more attention due, in part, to President Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban.” Can you tell us about what happened?
JM: Khaled was one of the first victims of the travel ban. He left to Turkey on a humanitarian mission in January and he was supposed to spend only a week there. But unfortunately, he was informed at the airport that he can not leave [to return back to the U.S.] since his visa was revoked with no given reason. And now he’s been there for almost four months.
KA: For the Muslim ban, we think it is just a political game between parties. Not just in the U.S. — you can see it in Europe now too. But we rely on the honest and good nature of the American people and their tendencies to do good and right and practice inclusiveness.
How has the travel ban changed both your professional and personal plans for the future?
JM: Well, we were hoping to get our degrees here in the U.S. so we could be of more help to the people in Syria. But now things have changed a bit. But we started looking for a plan B. Maybe Canada for example. All we care about is being together at this point. It’s been along journey apart and we are tired already.
KA: As for out personal and professional plans, this all has dramatically stopped everything now. We do our best to continue seeking education — like master’s and residency for my wife as soon as possible — but unfortunately, we are wasting time now. We had decided these years would be for both our education, but everything from our plans to another thing — it will be just a waste of time.
What projects are you both working on now?
JM: Now, our major focus is the new women and infant hospital in Idlib province, Syria. It is a two floor underground hospital that Khaled and the team have been working on since last year. The hospital is crucial to the city as the health facilities are being targeted heavily this last year and constructing underground rises the security level to an acceptable point. This hospital is one of the best and most important projects so far.
KA: For me, I am following up with Brown University and at the same time working in Turkey with my humaniterian team I’ve been working with since 2014 for the our nation project in different areas in Syria. We will be focusing on building health information systems to connect all the different health facilities you hear are being attacked every day. So with this health information system we can identify the gaps [where improvement is needed] in the health services in a more systematic and daily way.
Also, we have been working on making underground hospitals — more secure health facilities where we can protect the patients — women and kids — and we can at the same time protect the health staff. The Syrian crisis has been remarkably affected by attacks on health facilities by the Syrian government. Unfortunately, every day there is an attack on a health facility.
“Maternity hospitals are targeted by the Syrian regime and their allies on daily basis now, kids are dying in the operation theaters, and we are losing the health staff – either because they are leaving the country or they are dying while on duty in the field hospitals.”
Our next project is, I feel, the most important one. SIMRO‘s (my organization in Turkey) dedication for the last three years was building underground hospitals due to the continuous attacks on health facilities and personnel. My team of engineers finished a whole hospital early 2015 in Hama, and we started rehabilitation of bigger underground referral hospital in Idlib city late 2016 called Avicenna Women and Children’s Hospital. The purpose of this hospital is to protect health staff and patients while delivering advanced services to women and children, in addition to provide sophisticated surgeries to these affected people in Syria who decided not to leave their country.
Women and children used to wait weeks till they were allowed to cross the borders into Turkey to receive services. Because of the long wait, they usually don’t make it, develop irreversible complications, or even try to get into turkey illegally — which is even more risky than staying inside Syria. Often they get shot or killed by mines. Maternity hospitals are targeted by the Syrian regime and their allies on daily basis now, kids are dying in the operation theaters, and we are losing the health staff — either because they are leaving the country or they are dying while on duty in the field hospitals.
Because it is underground, Avicenna Hospital is relatively more secure than other hospitals and it will be an educational facility where we can attract the best staff remaining inside Syria to train and mentor their practice . We have great teams of volunteers doctors who are willing to stay there and teach those who couldn’t complete their medical training in the Syrian regime hospitals. I have designed a great training center in the facility which will help us host the educational courses, while performing the real practice in the hospital at the same time.
SIMRO has been rehabilitating the hospital since November 2016 with funds from UNOCHA and foreign governmental agencies at $750K USD. However we need almost $200K more to complete the rehabilitation, $700K more just for equipment in the Women and Children’s Hospital, and $1.2 million to launch and run the Women and Children’s Hospital for a year. I know it’s not a small amount of money, but we believe that this project will give reasons for more health staff staying in Syria to save lives.
Also, Brown Humanitarian Innovation Initiative’s director Dr. Adam Levine is so excited to launch a TeleHealth project with us that will provide training and consultations remotely to support the staff of this facility on regular basis.
Providing health services for women and kids is very important so they still have hope. They had the courage to the country, so our duty is to at least deliver the basic needs to them.
If you could say something to all the world leaders regarding their attitudes towards Syria, what would you tell them? And if you could address the American people, what would you say to them?
JM: We wish that the world leaders would just take the action to stop the blood shed and help the innocent people live. The Syrian government and its allies along with ISIS have done so much harm, death, and massacres that it needs to stop. People there deserve to live normally and in peace like all other people around the globe.
The American people were fantastic, we just have a wonderful impression about them. They are so supportive and welcoming and they’ve been there for us since the very first moment. I just can’t be more thankful to the opportunity we had to meet all the great people and everybody in Brown University was more than supportive. We are just lucky.
KA: Since the first years of the Syrian Revolution, we have always sent the calls and the messages to the people. Do not send messages to governments or leaders. So we have to talk to the people and tell the people they have to act.
After more than six years of bloodshed, Syrians continue to be the main actors leading the way in innovations that will improve and save the lives of their people. However, with more than 500 thousand killed and more than 13 million displaced from the country as refugees, it is well over time for the world to act in ways which will help the Syrian people stop the war and rebuild their country. It takes far more than politicians to change the world – it depends on the will of the people.
Follow this link to find out What YOU Can Do Right Now to Help Syrians.
Follow this link to make a donation for Jehan and Khaled’s Avicenna Women and Children’s Hospital. Please note: You MUST specify that your donation is going to “Avicenna Women and Children’s Hospital.”