I worked as a doctor during the Syrian Civil War, treating wounded protesters and vaccinating children. When I moved to the U.S. to get my master’s, my future seemed clear. Then Trump’s travel ban left me stranded in Turkey, 5,000 miles away from my pregnant wife
Photograph by Daniel Ehrenworth
I always knew I’d become a doctor. I grew up in a family of physicians—three of my uncles were doctors, and one ran a big hospital in Aleppo. It was like a second home for my sisters and me when we were growing up. We would do our homework in the waiting rooms and follow my uncle on his rounds, a gang of little kids carefully washing our hands before we visited patients. When I finished medical school in 2005, I started working for a pharmaceutical company while completing my residency as an ear, nose and throat specialist. In 2011, I planned to move to Germany to train as a head and neck surgeon. Just as I was about to leave, the Syrian revolution started.
Like everyone who grew up in Syria, I knew people who had suffered under Assad’s regime. I have an uncle who was imprisoned for 15 years. He died two years after he was released, mentally and physically destroyed by his time in jail. My father, who taught Arab literature, was forced to check in with the intelligence service every month so they could make sure he wasn’t becoming politically active.
When the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya spread to Syria, I joined the movement in the streets. One morning in early 2011, I met some friends and drove to Homs, where the largest protests were taking place. We made our way to the site of the demonstration and heard the roar of thousands of people chanting and yelling. In that moment, I began to cry. I thought about my uncle and my father. I thought about all the sorrow brought on by this regime. It was the first time I had grieved. We returned every weekend, protesting with our people.
The government’s response was bloody and terrible. They shot activists in the street. Doctors set up secret hospitals to treat people who had been hurt in the protests, and my friends and I joined them. We ran field hospitals in ground-floor apartments. We saw soldiers who had defected and were shot in the back by their own comrades. One man had been shot by a tank. His leg was a mess of shattered bones and bloody flesh. We knew what would happen if we were caught, but we didn’t care.
In September 2011, I went to Damascus to meet with friends who were active in the protests. I stopped at an ATM and noticed a man looking at me intently. He asked for my ID. Terrified, I gave it to him and hurried outside. Within seconds, men appeared with machine guns. They shoved me into a car, and we sped off.
A few minutes later, we arrived at the Air Force Intelligence Doctorate headquarters, where I was questioned for two hours, then sent to an interrogation prison. For two weeks, I was detained in a tiny room with 18 other men. There was no running water, no toilet. In the mornings, the guards would take a prisoner or two out of the room. When they returned, the men would be bloody, their hands broken, their skin burned with cigarettes, nails ripped off their fingers. I treated them as best I could, cleaning their wounds. The guards were experts at torturing people without killing them. They electrocuted us and hit us with cables. They hung me by my wrists, my toes just touching the ground, and left me in the heat of the sun for 24 hours. The thirst was indescribable. But the worst part was the helplessness. You never knew if this was the moment they were going to kill you.
After two weeks, I was transferred to solitary confinement in another prison. As strange as it sounds, I felt triumphant. If the regime was afraid of us, then we were doing something right. In March 2012, after I had been in jail for six months, the door opened. By then the protests had become a civil war. I suspect they only released me because they needed the space. Suddenly, I was back on the streets of Damascus again, wearing my summer clothes in the winter cold. The first thing I did was call my parents. When I got my mother on the phone, we both burst into tears. I couldn’t hear a word she said, she was crying so hard.
When I got back to Aleppo, I spent a month helping displaced families, trying to find them housing and medical care. But even helping protesters was a crime. One night a colleague was arrested. That’s when I knew it was time to get out.
In April 2012, I crossed the Turkish border and made my way to a city called Gaziantep, where I had relatives. I rented a small apartment and soon sent for my parents. Gaziantep is just 65 kilometres from the border, and Syrians were slowly making their way to the city. Every day we would see injured refugees coming across the border—confused families and children, soldiers who had defected, people who didn’t know the language. They were often alone, injured and terrified.
I wasn’t an aid worker, but I had an education and connections. When Syrians crossed the border, they started calling me. Soon I was working in Turkish hospitals, connecting refugees with their families. After six months, an old friend called me from Jordan. He was working with a charity for Syrian refugees, and he asked me to run the office in Turkey.
For the next few months, I sent ambulances to the border so they could bring people to hospitals. Although I was helping refugees, what I really wanted to do was provide relief for Syrians who were still trapped in my country. About a year into my aid work, the Syrian National Coalition asked me to establish a humanitarian medical office in Turkey. It would be my job to try to organize care for people in the parts of Syria controlled by rebels. It was an opportunity to put my training to good use and leave the politics to other people. I could never make sense of politics. With humanitarian work, at least there’s logic. There is always a clear objective: you simply do your best to help people.
Along with a colleague, I developed an early warning system to catch possible disease outbreaks. In 2013, we saw our first cases of polio in eastern Syria. At that point, the disease existed only in parts of Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. We reported the case to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control. They wanted to start a mass vaccination, but in that part of Syria there was no single group that could organize such a massive operation. So we did it ourselves.
We put together 8,500 volunteers in just under three weeks. We planned all the logistics, determined to show the WHO that we could handle the job. The vaccine needed to be refrigerated at all times, so we had to figure out how to get refrigerated trucks out to rural towns. We needed to go village to village, house to house, in areas that were being barrel bombed.
Once we showed the WHO our plan, they agreed to give us the polio vaccine. In Turkey, the government helped us distribute the inoculations, but we had to smuggle the vaccine across the front lines to reach certain parts of Syria. That first week, I was in Gaziantep, getting daily updates from the people in the field. In Aleppo, a volunteer had just finished vaccinating the children in an apartment block when the entire building was destroyed by a barrel bomb, killing him. One of my friends, a doctor managing the regional vaccinations at a health centre, was killed by an air strike. The losses were heartbreaking, but our mission was a success: in eight days we managed to vaccinate 1.2 million kids under five.
At the beginning, no one would fund us. I had to convince my boss to use $1 million earmarked for food on the project. A month later we did another round, and donors started to take notice. By the fourth round, we had full funding from the Gates Foundation.
Our work was all-consuming. Everyone would go home to sleep for a few hours before coming back to the office. We took on more ambitious projects—testing water in northern Syria, training doctors and nurses. When Assad began deploying chemical weapons, I went across the border myself to collect samples so we could prove that he was using Sarin. In 2014, I met two humanitarian doctors, Jay Dahman and Mark Cameron, who had come to Turkey to train Syrian nurses and doctors. I convinced them that we could be much more effective if, instead of bringing a handful of Syrians to Turkey, we crossed the border and trained people there. Eventually, the three of us formed our own NGO, the Canadian International Medical Relief Organization.
For years, all I did was work. I barely had time to eat or sleep; I definitely didn’t have time to date. But in 2014, an old high school friend and colleague introduced me to his wife’s cousin, a 24-year-old medical student named Jehan Mouhsen. She was born in Montenegro and escaped to Aleppo as a child during the Balkan War. When the fighting started in Aleppo, she fled back to Montenegro. At first, the three of us chatted on Facebook. Soon, Jehan and I were privately messaging and chatting on Skype. Slowly, we got to know one another. Jehan was beautiful. She was serious when she needed to be serious, but she could also be incredibly funny. I hadn’t realized it, but for three years, an essential part of me had been frozen. Jehan made me feel human again. She made me feel like myself. Meeting her was a beautiful gift.
In late 2014, I went to Geneva for work. On my way home, I visited Jehan in Montenegro for a week—a tiny, precious window of time to get to know one another before we were thrown back into our chaotic lives. That week, we walked along the shore, bundling up against the winter cold. We ate in restaurants overlooking the Adriatic Sea. I met her family, and we shared stories from Aleppo. Mostly we just talked—for hours and hours, about the mundane details of life, about our plans for the future, as if we were just two regular people getting to know one another, not two people stuck in a civil war. By the time I left, I knew she was the woman I wanted to spend my life with. When I returned to Turkey, we kept talking, and I visited her when I could. On one of those trips, in February 2015, I asked her to marry me, and she said yes. We decided to have the wedding a year later, when she had finished medical school.
In Turkey, my NGO was taking on more demanding projects. All this time I had been doing public health work, but I had no real training for any of it, no credentials. Even when projects succeeded, a small part of me believed that it was all just a matter of luck and sheer will. In 2016, I applied for a master’s in public health at Brown University in Rhode Island. It was a fantastic opportunity to better myself and improve my work in Syria. During my interview over Skype, I explained the fieldwork I had been doing to the dean. When they offered me a full scholarship, I was overjoyed.
The next few months were busy. My mother needed heart surgery, so my parents made their way to Germany, taking a boat to Greece and then travelling by land along with thousands of other Syrian refugees. Jehan and I followed them there that summer. Our wedding was set for July 9 in Stuttgart. We didn’t have time for elaborate planning. I spent the entire day before the wedding doing the decorations myself, draping white cloth around the hall and filling the place with flowers and balloons.
The ceremony was beautiful. Both of our families were there. Most moving of all was the fact that some of my old friends were able to attend, people who had ended up in Germany as refugees. They were doctors who had been with me at the beginning, treating protesters in makeshift hospitals and suffering alongside me in prison. After we’d all experienced so many difficult days together, it seemed like a miracle to see them on my happiest day.
A month after the wedding, Jehan and I got our visas. We arrived in New York City on August 15. For five days, we did all the touristy stuff—seeing the Statue of Liberty and Times Square, visiting the Met and Central Park. Then we moved to Providence, where I began my master’s. The university gave us housing in College Hill, a quiet and welcoming neighbourhood. It seemed like the perfect place to settle down, concentrate on our studies and begin our lives together.
The fall semester was exhausting. Every morning, I would wake up at 6 a.m. for a conference with my NGO staff in Turkey (they were seven hours ahead). Then I’d work 14 hours straight on my studies. Jehan was shadowing doctors at the university, studying for the tests that would let her practise medicine in the States. It was a crazy time, but we were happy. We made friends in our classes. The courses were fascinating, and I finished my first semester with strong grades. In December, we got the best news imaginable: Jehan was pregnant.
When the fall semester ended, I decided to go back to Turkey for a short trip. I had a week of meetings with my team and the UN, and I wanted to renew my residency permit. Jehan and I were both nervous about me leaving the country. Trump hadn’t yet been inaugurated, but we knew what he’d promised. Some of my friends—Syrian doctors who had been in the U.S. for years—said they weren’t going to risk leaving the country until they got their green cards. For me, that wasn’t an option. My work helping Syrians is the most important thing in my life. I couldn’t live with myself if I abandoned my team and my people just because I was afraid I might not get back into America.
On New Year’s Day, Jehan drove me to JFK airport to say goodbye. She was anxious, but I told her not to worry. I would be home by January 8; Trump’s inauguration wasn’t until the 20th. After my week in Turkey, I went to the airport in Gaziantep to fly home. At the desk, they told me there had been a snowstorm in Istanbul and my connecting flight had been cancelled. They also said that something was wrong with my visa, telling me to check with the American embassy. I had no idea what they meant. I called a few Americans I knew in Turkey. They were confused, too. A few days later, after the snowstorm was over, I went back to the airport. This time, their message was clear. “My friend, you have a problem,” they told me. “And the problem is with the Americans. Your visa has been revoked.”
I was shocked. I didn’t realize it then, but that month, before Trump’s inauguration, at least 40 visiting students had had their visas revoked when they left the United States. Many of them were from the Middle East. Maybe immigration officials were just being extra cautious. Maybe someone at the airport was flagging Syrians for travelling to Turkey. We still don’t know. On January 18, I got a call from the American Consulate in Istanbul telling me that Jehan’s visa had also been revoked. They didn’t give me a reason but asked me to reapply immediately. Two days later, I had a meeting with the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul.
The officers interviewed me for less than five minutes. It was clear that they were just going through the motions. They had no suspicions, no concerns, no new questions. They knew I had already completed a thorough process to get my visa. And anyone who checked could see I was doing humanitarian work. I left the consulate hopeful that they would just correct the mistake and I would be able to go home in a couple of weeks. Then, on January 27, Trump announced his travel ban. My application was frozen.
When I read the news, I wasn’t angry. Jehan and I have been through a lot. If we lost it whenever we got a piece of bad news, we would be dead by now. I phoned her that day, and we talked through our situation calmly and logically. I didn’t think the travel ban would make it through the courts. High-level administrators at Brown were bringing in powerful advocates to help get me back. Even a Rhode Island senator was pleading my case. “Everything will be okay,” I told Jehan. “I’m sure I’ll be home in a couple of weeks.”
When the new semester started, I tried to continue my studies, watching lectures online and borrowing my classmates’ notes. In the end, I couldn’t keep up. Living in a hotel, I followed the protests that were taking over American airports. I was filled with hope as I watched Americans defending the rights of people like me. After two weeks, I rented a small apartment in Gaziantep and prepared to wait. Separated from my wife and my studies, I threw myself into my NGO, spending the days working on whatever I could. We were in the middle of building the Avicenna women’s and children’s hospital, a massive underground complex in northwest Syria that would be safe from the government’s air strikes. I spent my days fundraising and talking with engineers, figuring out logistics.
In many ways, I was back in my old life, working with the same people, living in a familiar place. But I was devastated to be separated from Jehan. She was having a hard time. She had left her family to be with me in America, and I had left her all alone. She didn’t know many people in Providence, so after two weeks she went to New York to stay with some friends. We spoke several times a day, chatting on WhatsApp and Skype. For the first two months of her pregnancy, she had terrible morning sickness. We messaged constantly. “Protein, it’s crucial. Supplements are not enough,” I wrote her. “I’m trying, but food doesn’t smell good anymore,” she replied. It hurt me to know my wife was suffering an ocean away while I was helpless to do anything.
In early February, when the courts blocked Trump’s travel ban, I spoke with my lawyers again. They told me there was a chance my visa would be accepted, but even if I was allowed back into the United States, there was no way I could keep visiting the Middle East. Because Jehan’s visa had also been revoked, she would need to leave the country and reapply as well. Who knew if she’d be accepted? The situation seemed hopeless. Jehan and I talked about having her join me in Turkey, but that would have meant starting again from scratch. All of our things were in America. We wanted to advance. The idea of leaving those opportunities behind was heartbreaking.
A month later, Trump announced his second travel ban, which paused any visas from Syria for 90 days. For weeks, I’d been telling Jehan that I’d be home soon. Suddenly we realized it would be at least three more months. She was alone when she saw our baby on the ultrasound for the first time, when she heard the heartbeat on the sonogram. One day while I was in the office, she sent me an image of a pair of pink shoes: a sign that we were having a girl. I was elated. For the next few months, whenever I went to the market in Gaziantep, I bought baby clothes, keeping tiny dresses and onesies in my apartment so I could have something to bring my new daughter when I returned.
Brown was doing everything they could to help me continue my studies. The dean called colleagues at schools outside of the U.S. to find me a new home, including the University of Toronto. I hated the idea of leaving my scholarship at Brown and the people I had met in Providence. And yet by that point, Jehan and I couldn’t waste any more time. When U of T offered me a scholarship, I accepted, and we applied for student visas in Canada. In June, my Canadian partners and I received the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General for our humanitarian work. A few days later, Jehan and I got our Canadian visas approved.
In early June, just days before my flight to Toronto, the U.S. Consulate called. Five and a half months after this all began, they told me I could come pick up my visa. For me, it was too late. I know the travel ban is all about politics, not security. It’s a game. But the people on Trump’s list have been suffering for many years, and the ban only increases that suffering. It’s a horrendous violation. It was done carelessly, by people who didn’t consider the consequences—the lives changed forever by their actions. I still think America’s a great country. I also know that if I went back, that violation would recur, over and over again. On June 16, I got on a plane in Turkey and flew to Toronto.
Jehan was waiting for me at the arrivals gate at Pearson. A couple of my Canadian friends had driven down to Rhode Island to pack up our apartment and bring her to Toronto. In January, she’d been so small. When I returned, her belly was round and full. I wrapped my arms around her, and we just held each other and cried.
We’ve been busy since I arrived. We live in U of T’s student housing—a comfortable two-bedroom apartment near Yonge and Bloor. Some evenings we go walking downtown, exploring the city. We’ve eaten in Chinatown. We’ve visited the ROM and taken long walks by the lake. We feel safe here. In Toronto, the notion that everyone should be accepted and respected, regardless of their nationality or background, is something that’s practised on a daily basis. I saw it on my first day. In the airport, I looked around and saw people with different faces, different skin tones, different ethnicities, but the same spirit. To see a stable, established country like Canada using diversity to make itself richer and stronger has inspired me. This was what we were fighting for in Syria in 2011. That’s what I want for the future of my country. That’s the spirit I hope to bring to Syria when I return one day.
For Jehan and me, the long-term plan remains the same: we want to learn everything we can before returning to rebuild the health care system of Syria. But first we’re going to start our family. Jehan is due to deliver at the end of August, and our apartment is full of baby things. Friends in Turkey and Canada held baby showers for us and sent boxes over. There’s a stroller and toys from friends from Providence. There are all of the baby clothes I bought while I was walking around in Turkey, separated from my wife. A few years ago, I never would have imagined having a child in Canada. Now I’m honoured by the fact that my daughter will be a Canadian. Hopefully she can take that with her for the rest of her life.
—As told to Nicholas Hune-Brown