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Syrian doctor caught in U.S. immigration ban gives up, moves to Canada

In this Oct. 13, 2016 file photo, Khaled Almilaji stands for a portrait at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Steven Senne/AP

A Syrian doctor says he won't return to the United States to finish his studies at Brown University because of the Trump administration's immigration ban.

Khaled Almilaji said Wednesday there's too much uncertainty, even though he possibly could get a student visa under the scaled-back version of the ban. The administration has given itself a Thursday deadline for implementing it.

Almilaji, 35, moved to Canada this month to pursue his master's degree at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He said it's unfortunate he had to withdraw from Brown, but "bad things happen and you have to adapt."

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He's still working with his mentors at the Ivy League school as he tries to reopen a large underground hospital for women and children in northwest Syria. He plans to get specialists at Brown to train hospital staff online and answer their questions about complicated cases.

Trump says the ban is needed to protect the U.S. from terrorists.

Almilaji was recently awarded the Meritorious Service Medal by the Canadian representative of the Queen.

"Nothing really slows him down including Donald Trump, and including all the many other obstacles that arise along the way in doing this work," said Dr. Adam Levine, who leads the Humanitarian Innovation Initiative at Brown.

Almilaji, a fellow with the initiative, 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. He's 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.

Almilaji received a letter last week from the governor general of Canada stating that he's a recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal. The other co-founders of CIMRO, Mark Cameron and Jay Dahman, are also receiving the medal.

Almilaji was earning a master's degree in public health at Brown University when the immigration ban first went into effect in January. He went to Turkey for a brief trip after the fall semester and got stuck overseas while his pregnant wife remained in the U.S.

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They were reunited in Toronto this month and are expecting a baby girl in August.

This week's Supreme Court order partially reinstated the ban, allowing the administration to block travellers from Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Iran and Yemen unless they can prove a "bona fide relationship" with a person or entity in the United States. The court's guidance said that a student admitted to study at an American university would fit that exception.

Almilaji travels to Turkey to oversee projects in Syria. He said he was told by lawyers that if he did return to the United States, it would be unwise to leave again.

"It would take away my basic rights of movement and seeing my family and the work that I love and commit to, to my people," he said. "It's really unfair."

Canada, he said, affords him guaranteed experience and knowledge to pursue his work in a better way.

Almilaji has launched an advocacy and awareness campaign, Care4SyrianKids, with Brown classmates. When Syria is stable enough, he wants to return and work on preventing diseases and other health problems.

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Video: Canada through the lens of Syrian refugees
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