Here at The Kurdish Project, we had the opportunity to connect with Dr. Heval Mohamed Kelli and learn about his remarkable journey toward achieving the “American Dream”. Dr. Kelli started his life as a young Syrian Kurdish refugee and, after fleeing persecution in Syria, he eventually started his life in America as a dishwasher. Dr. Kelli impressively made his way into Morehouse School of Medicine, completed his training at Emory University, and is currently serving as a Katz Foundation Fellow in Preventative Cardiology. As a result of his life experiences, Dr. Kelli is also a steadfast advocate for serving communities in need especially immigrant, refugee and minority communities.
The Kurdish Project: Can you tell us a bit about your background? Your website has the headline “Refugee, Dishwasher, Heart Doctor”—can you tell us a little more about your journey to the U.S.?
Heval Kelli: I am Kurd from the Syria part. My mother is from Qamishli and my father is from Kobane. He was a lawyer in Syria and because of political oppression against him, it was not safe for us to stay. They tortured my father and beat my mother. I was 11 years old. We left Syria and ended up in Germany as refugees. Over the next 6 years, we lived in refugee camps waiting for acceptance of our asylum status. I was in the highest level of secondary school in Germany but I was told that I will not be able to go to college because of my status.
We applied to the US for refugee status. After 2 years of vetting, we arrived 2 weeks after 9/11 tragedy in Clarkston, GA. We did not know anyone in the US and none of us spoke any English. I was 18 years old and in my final year in high school when we arrived. As refugees in America, you only receive 3 months of government assistance. During this difficult time, My mother struggled to find a job, my father suffered from a heart attack, and I was too young to work.
As an 18 year old refugee found a job at a restaurant. I was washing dishes 30-40 hours a week after school and on the weekends. I continued to wash dishes to support myself throughout high school and college. After years of hard work, I was accepted into Morehouse School of Medicine to pursue my medical education and eventually started my internal medicine residency at Emory University. My residency was only one block away from the restaurant where I washed dishes for so many years. Ten years after arriving in the U.S., I started training as a doctor at the university across from this same restaurant.
Today, I am finishing my fellowship in cardiology, and my brother Mohamed is finishing his training in general surgery.
TKP: What has your experience been like, as a Kurd in the U.S.? Do you have a Kurdish network/community around you?
HK: We were the only Kurdish refugee family from Syria when we arrived to Georgia. Americans were wonderful to us—in fact, they have been the main reason for our success. We found a Kurdish community who were from other parts of Kurdistan and they hosted cultural events throughout the year. However, I noticed that there is a lack of organized efforts to inspire more Kurds to pursue higher education. I was one of the first Kurds to finish my medical degree in Georgia, and also on of the only Kurds to finish cardiology training at Emory University. One of my main goals, in addition to my medical career, is advancing education opportunities for Kurdish Americans.
TKP: Did you always want to be a heart doctor? What is the best part of your job?
HK: In my neighborhood in Georgia, you mostly see an ambulance for two main reasons: either someone was wounded during a shooting or someone had a heart attack. My father suffered a heart attack and I also witnessed many Kurdish-Americans and other refugee communities suffer from cardiovascular diseases. But I knew that the majority of heart diseases and risk factors are preventable. Therefore I pursued a specialty to address the number cause of preventable death in America.
I love my job because it is a spiritual and emotional mission of mine to help people in need. I am able to be there for patients and their families. I can also use my medical skills to volunteer at free clinics and provide free care to poor communities. I can also use my medical status and network to inspire young people to become doctors.
While working American society to help provide services to underserved communities, I founded an organization focused on Kurdish Americans along fellow doctors Dr. Taha Jan and Dr. Kajin Abdullah. We created the Kurdish American Medical Associations. http://www.kama-usa.org/. KAMA, is a nonprofit, educational and humanitarian organization of Kurdish medical professionals and their colleagues in the US and Canada. It provides a networking platform for our Kurdish American youth who are inspired to become doctors.
TKP: How are you dealing with the recent news of Turkey’s invasion into Northeast Syria? Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share?
HK: I still have family in Northeast Syria. I lost an uncle in Kobane few years ago while he was defending his city and trying to help his people. He was killed by an ISIS sniper. The current situation brings back memories of the ongoing oppression of Kurds in recent times and throughout history. As an American, I am ashamed that we have abandoned our Kurdish allies who defended American soldiers and helped defeatISIS. As a Kurd, I am deeply hurt that our American allies left us.
Despite the tragedy, many non-Kurds have shown their support across the globe. Even in our city of Clarkson, Georgia, our mayor Ted Terry (current GA senate candidate) signed proclamation recognizing the Kurdish crisis in Syria. I tell people that the Kurdish saying “No friends but the mountains” need to be changed to “Our friends are our mountains.”
Despite the pain we have witnessed, I think the current crisis should motivate Kurdish Americans to be organized in our efforts to educate the American public about Kurdish issues while cultivating meaningful solutions to address them.
You can learn more about Dr. Kelli at http://www.hevalkelli.com/.