On Syrian Doctors and Borders: America’s Loss is Canada’s Gain

TORONTO, ON - JUNE 16 - Khaled Almilaji hugs his wife Jehan Mouhsen after landing at Pearson Airport in Toronto. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In January, 2017 — before Trump’s inauguration — physician Khaled Almilaji spent a week in Syria to check on his many humanitarian projects, leaving his pregnant wife Jehan behind in the United States. Expecting to return well before Trump’s inauguration, Khaled discovered that his visa — along with those of 40 other medical students, mostly from the Middle East — had been revoked in the month before Trump took office.

The dean of Brown University called schools outside the U.S. on Khaled’s behalf to help him continue his studies. Toronto University answered the call with a scholarship, and Khaled and Jehan look forward to welcoming their baby daughter in Canada. Khaled relates the harrowing story of how Trump’s politics and travel ban have affected him and his family at Toronto Life.

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.

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.

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.

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