A Refugee Physician Discusses Travel Ban's Impact on Rural Health: 'It's Devastating'

Feb 8, 2017

How hard is it for an Iraqi to get a visa to the United States? Ask Dr. Nabil Al-Khalisi, a French-born Iraqi doctor with a track record of working with Americans and British in Baghdad.

Al-Khalisi says he spent over a year trying to get a visa to leave Iraq and had even arranged to be smuggled out of the country in a pickled-cabbage barrel before receiving a Fulbright scholarship to study in the U.S. in 2010. He requested political asylum, which he received after a two-year vetting process. Today he's a diagnostic radiology resident at the University of Missouri — Kansas City. 


In 2011, Al-Khalisi founded the group Iraqi Doctors in USA to connect Iraqi physicians working around the country with one another. He says the group's database contains at least 500 doctors to date. 

About one-quarter of physicians practicing in the United States are foreign-born. Many use the J-1 Visa Waiver program, which enables physicians to apply for a green card in exchange for practicing in an underserved part of the county for three years. That process could become more difficult under President Trump’s travel ban, which is currently hung up in court.

Dr. Al-Khalisi discussed the travel ban and shared his own experience with KBIA. 

Q: You’ve written that out of 34,000 physicians registered in Iraq in 2003, 20,000 of them had left by 2008.

A: The system is devastated. In my experience, all my team that I used to work with in Iraq is gone. Very few people remained that I'm aware of. The situation became so intolerable that we were just forced to leave.

Q: You first came to the United States as a Fulbright scholar, did you consider yourself lucky?

A: In that year, I was practicing in Iraq and at the same time I was a full-time activist. I believed in human rights, I used to collaborate closely with the Americans and I was officially affiliated with the British Council as a Global Changemaker.

I was getting threats by the dozen. No single day would pass without someone considering me an 'infidel' or a 'traitor.' Sometimes they'd call my mom and threaten her. It was endless.

So I was like, "I'm done, I cannot stay here." I ended up applying to multiple scholarships and all this hard work paid off. I got three scholarships at the same time: the Fulbright, the German Academy Exchange Service and the Australian Leadership Awards.

Q: So it seems you had options for ways to get out of the country. For your colleagues, what were their options?

A: I don't think I had a lot of options. I tried at least for one year before getting the Fulbright to leave. I was so desperate that, together with a friend of mine who was an engineer and another friend who was a doctor — we were best friends, and we were so desperate to leave and we were so fed up — we ended up making a deal with a smuggler who was going to put us in pickled-cabbage barrels and ship us to Australia.

The friends that I know that came to the United States, the vast majority are refugees. Very few of them got in using scholarships like the Fulbright. It's really hard to get a visa to the U.S.

Q: Since the executive order was issued have you heard about impacts that it's had on the Iraqi medical community here in the U.S.?

A: The impacts are substantial. It's devastating, actually. Those countries [included in the travel ban] are major exporters of physicians to the United States. The vast majority of them use the J-1 Visa Waiver program to practice in rural Missouri or rural Alabama, etc., so that they can get a green card.

Many of them are now considering going to Canada, or going to Australia. So there will be an exodus [of physicians] from the United States, and rural settings are going to get hit the hardest. 

 

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