First Do No Harm:
A Young Syrian Doctor Seeks Asylum

Marwan* was in the sixth month of his radiology residency in a hospital emergency room near the coast of Syria.  He was treating trauma patients; urgent cases requiring both swiftness and great steadiness. He loved the work. He was saving lives.

It was a civilian hospital; government soldiers were usually treated elsewhere. But as the conflict in Syria increased during the summer of 2014, hospital staff began seeing army patients more frequently. It was then that Marwan began noticing something strange.

“Whenever I would examine a soldier and the report had my name on it,” he says, “they would send the soldier back to radiology and ask for a re-examination.” Was he doing something wrong, he wondered? Was it because he wasn’t very experienced? Why weren’t any of the other residents having this issue?

“It was only me, “says Marwan. “But why only me?”

"Medical Care is Not a Weapon." www.physiciansforhumanrights.org
“Medical Care is Not a Weapon.” Courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights

The mystery was solved a few days later when the chief resident called him into his office. “I know who you are,” his supervisor told him.  “I’ve been getting information about what you were doing at the university. You are anti-government. You are a traitor. I know you are harming our soldiers.”

Marwan was stunned at the accusation. The chief resident referred to Marwan’s Facebook page, to his posts and his list of friends. Many of those friends had been caught by the Syrian government and tortured. Some had been killed.

"I am a doctor, not soldier." Courtesy of www.physiciansforhumanrights.org
“I am a doctor, not soldier.” Courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights. 

“The thing is,” says Marwan, ‘I am a doctor. I treat everybody the same way. I treat my mother, my father, the soldier, the ones I agree with, the ones I don’t agree with, the same. I took an oath for that.”

Yet now his supervisor was accusing him of deliberately giving his patients an “all-clear” and thus denying them needed treatment.  “From now on,” he told Marwan, “you won’t be treating any soldiers.”

Marwan struggled to stay calm. He had grown up dealing with hostility and suspicion.  He had learned to handle it by not fighting it. Okay, he thought, if that’s what they want, no soldiers.

He turned to leave just as the chief resident hit Marwan with his final demand—to hand over his national identification card.  “You can get it back tomorrow from military intelligence,” he said ominously.  “They want to ask you some questions.”

It was if someone had thrust the heel of a combat boot—hard—into Marwan’s chest.

“Look, I’m a Syrian,” he says. “I know what it means to go to military intelligence.”

Syrian doctors testify to persecution. Courtesy of Doctors without Borders.
Syrian doctors testify to persecution. Courtesy of Doctors without Borders.

He left the hospital and made his way to his parent’s house, using his hospital identification to talk his way through the several military checkpoints.  He stayed with his parents for three days, thinking, worrying, and weighing his options. There was only one available to him.

In his last year of medical school, Marwan had applied for—and received—a U.S. visa. He was planning to further pursue his medical studies here once he finished his Syrian residency. He hadn’t yet finished, of course, and he didn’t have enough money for the trip, but now…his parents gave them all they could.

Marwan bribed his way through the border with Lebanon. Meanwhile, a patrol was at his parents’ house looking for him, screaming at his mother as they ransacked the rooms. They went to his father’s textile shop and angrily demanded to know where he was.

Marwan was on his way to Chicago.

Once in the United States, Marwan was able to get Temporary Protected Status. While that provided him with no permanent status, he could now get a work permit and a driver’s license. Marwan set out to improve his English—he now speaks it with near colloquial perfection—and to study for the three tests needed to become a medical resident in the U.S. After seven months of intensive study, he has already passed two of them.

Jenny Ansay, attorney for Justice For Our Neighbors Northern Illinois.
Jenny Ansay, attorney for Justice For Our Neighbors Northern Illinois.

Marwan came to a legal clinic run by Northern Illinois Justice For Our Neighbors looking for help obtaining asylum.  Applying for asylum is both an extremely complex and exhaustingly long process.  With the current backlog of asylum cases fast approaching 100,000, it can take years before asylum seekers have their cases assessed.

Jenny Ansay, site attorney for Northern Illinois JFON, took Marwan’s case immediately. Jenny is a fierce advocate for her Syrian clients.  She was also, Marwan says with true gratitude, very understanding right from the start. She didn’t make him repeat details of his experiences.

“Whenever I tried to tell her my story, I would get…” he falters. “I think I have some kind of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]” he says, with a rueful half-laugh. “The things you see…people slaughtered in the street…when you are a doctor,” he explains, his voice mirroring his struggle for composure, “you just can’t accept that.”

It’s been over a year since Marwan has seen his parents. He is slowly meeting people and finding a new life for himself in Chicago. But starting from scratch, as he says, has been difficult.  He spends a lot of time in the library studying for his final test—the one which will finally allow him to be able to practice medicine here in the United States.  He is eagerly looking forward to working in his chosen field again.

Would he go back to be a doctor in Syria, if it were possible? If things were different?

“Yes,” he says. “Sure.”

Is there hope things will be different someday?

“No,” he answers sadly. “I don’t think so.”

JFON clinic Aurora

*Names are changed to protect our client’s privacy and safety.