He Was one of the many whose lives were thrown into chaos by Donald Trump’s travel ban – a Syrian doctor who works with the United Nations and was pursuing an Ivy League education in the United States.
But after months of living in limbo, Khaled Almilaji has put a definitive end to the uncertainty – by moving to Canada.
Almilaji, 35, arrived in Toronto earlier this month, days before the US supreme court paved the way for a limited version of the travel ban, which targets seven Muslim-majority countries, to be implemented. It is due to take effect on Thursday at 8pm ET.
While he might have been able to get student visa under the scaled-back ban, Almilaji said Canada was a safer bet that would allow him to continue to travel to Turkey to carry out humanitarian work.
“This chance to be in Canada, it will allow me to improve my knowledge and keep working for my country – Syria – by going back and forth to Turkey,” he said.
In 2016, Almilaji and his wife, physician Jehan Mouhsen, moved to Rhode Island so that he could pursue a postgraduate degree in public health at Brown University. In January, when Trump’s first attempt at a travel ban went into effect, Almilaji – a renowned doctor who in 2013 risked his life to deliver vaccines to 1.4 million Syrian children to curtail a polio outbreak in a rebel-held area – was on a short aid mission in Turkey.
Almilaji, who was born in Aleppo, was unable to re-enter the US. His wife, who was five weeks pregnant at the time, was in Rhode Island. Days earlier, his visa had been revoked without reason.
Lawyers told him that if he returned to the US, he likely wouldn’t be able to leave, sparking an agonising six months of separation for the couple. “I can’t abandon my dedication to those who are suffering inside Syria just for a degree I’m pursuing,” he said. “If it will not serve me and my people, it’s in vain.”
Khaled Almilaji and his wife Jehan in Toronto where he is now studying at university.
After officials at Brown tried for weeks in vain to get his visa renewed, they reached out to contacts at the University of Toronto, asking them to consider admitting Almilaji.
Officials in Canada welcomed him into the program. “As a recognized humanitarian with extraordinary global public health experience, he will enrich the scholarship of our academic community,” said Howard Hu, dean the University of Toronto’s school of public health, in a statement. Private donors offered to cover the couple’s living expenses, while the university waived his tuition.
The pair – who is expecting a baby girl in August – was reunited earlier this month in Toronto. On Wednesday, Almilaji was able to accompany his wife to the doctor for the first time since she became pregnant. “It was amazing,” he said, his voice rising with excitement. The couple is now settling into life in the city, hoping their new lives will offer a peaceful respite from the turbulence of recent years.
After the war in Syria broke out, Almilaji – a medical resident at the time – began treating injured protestors in improvised hospitals. Doing so provoked the ire of the Assad regime, who jailed and tortured him.
He was released after six months and fled to Turkey where he began building hospitals and setting up networks to replace Syria’s collapsed health systems. In 2013, he joined forces with several Canadians to launch the Canadian International Medical Relief Organization, which supports field hospitals in Syria.
After he was offered a full scholarship from Brown University, Almilaji and his wife moved to the US in 2016. Almilaji was keen to learn all he could to one day help rebuild Syrian’s health care system.
He remains in close contact with many at Brown, having launched an advocacy and awareness campaign called Care4SyrianKids with his classmates. Others are helping him with plans to build a large underground hospital for women and children in northwest Syria.
Months after he was barred from re-entering the US, Almilaji was recognised by Canada’s head of state, alongside the two other founders of the Canadian International Medical Relief Organization. Canada’s governor general, who represents the Queen in Canada, awarded them the Meritorious Service Medal for exceptional individuals.
This week, as Washington geared up to again instate parts of its divisive travel ban, Almilaji expressed gratitude at the second opportunity he had been given. “I’m sure that a lot of people in the US, they had only one chance and they already lost it. Not to mention the families – brothers, sisters and mothers – who are separated because of such orders,” he said. “What I know is that most of the people of those countries included in this list, they have suffered enough.”