Editor’s note: The following commentary article written by Syrian-born cardiologist Heval Kelli, an ethnic Kurdish former refugee who now practices medicine in metro Atlanta, was provided to Global Atlanta by New American Economy, a bipartisan organization that advocates for immigration policies that will broadly benefit the U.S. economy. It represents Dr. Kelli’s opinion and is presented with only light editing and formatting.
When my family first arrived in Clarkston, Ga., after spending seven years in a rural German refugee camp, we were terrified to leave the house. It was September 2001—decades before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe. But we were facing another threat that kept us in quarantine. We are Kurdish Muslims from Syria and my mom wears a hijab. On the news, we watched in horror as people who looked like us were attacked by their fellow Americans. What if we faced the same?
Finally, one Sunday, there was a knock at our door. We peeked out the window and saw a bunch of old white people. In our minds, these were CIA agents coming to get us. In reality, they were volunteers from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, coming to welcome a Syrian refugee family into their community. It was a defining moment. I’d allowed my fear to blind me. Finally, I saw America for what it was: a place we could settle and build a new life without being afraid.
Thanks to the support of those kind Americans, as well as the teachers, mentors and neighbors who believed in me over the years, I was able to go to college, then medical school. Today I’m a senior cardiology fellow in Atlanta. Now it’s my turn to give back—fighting on the frontlines against coronavirus.
Working in a hospital might put me at increased risk for getting sick. But that doesn’t stop me from doing my job. As a refugee, I’ve lived through trauma and learned how to adapt in a crisis. I’m proud to serve the country that gave me a home. It’s a gratitude I share with thousands of other refugees and immigrant health care professionals.
There are 2.8 million immigrants working in the U.S. health care industry, according to the immigration nonprofit New American Economy. Like me, many foreign-born Americans and U.S. residents work in high-skilled positions; 28.2 percent of the doctors and surgeons in this country are foreign-born. Immigrants also account for 15.3 percent of nurses, 12.6 percent of respiratory therapists and 5.1 percent of emergency medicine technicians, all particularly crucial roles at this moment. We also fill manual labor jobs within the industry, like the janitors and cleaners who keep our hospitals sanitized and safe.
Many people don’t realize that immigrants are helping fill a dangerous workforce gap that existed even before the Coronavirus crisis hit. In 2018, there were 12.3 open health care jobs for every one unemployed worker nationally. In Georgia that same year, 50,121 immigrants were working in the industry, and yet our shortage was even more pronounced—15.8 open jobs for every one unemployed health care worker. Right now, it’s all hands on deck, which makes the need for more health care professionals all the more glaring. This shortage will only increase once this pandemic is behind us. The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortfall of nearly 122,000 physicians by 2023.
What’s the solution? Make it easier for more immigrants to work in health care. Right now the Conrad 30 Waiver is the only federal program that offers a pathway for foreign-born doctors who complete a medical residency in the U.S. to stay here to practice medicine, but it’s extremely limited: just 30 doctors per state per year. And there are other policies—like earlier this week when President Trump announced he would block new green cards, or when he reduced the refugee cap to a historic low of 18,000 for 2020—that impact the industry by cutting off potential worker pipelines. After all, health care is the second most common industry for refugees already in the U.S.—15.6 percent work in it, according to NAE. That includes those frontline positions we’ve come to rely on, including personal care aides, nurses, physicians and lab technicians.
[pullquote]It’s an honor to care for the people who took care of us when we most needed it.[/pullquote]
Some people say the American Dream is building something from nothing. But that can happen anywhere. America is unique precisely because you don’t have to build alone. The investment of my community—both Americans and refugees alike—helped me achieve my dream of becoming a cardiologist. Their support gave me a deep passion to serve others. My wife, who comes from the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, feels the same. She’s a cardiologist. So does my brother, who’s completing his general surgery residency next year. It’s an honor to care for the people who took care of us when we most needed it.
As a refugee, I know fear. But I’ve learned not to be afraid of appearances and to look beyond stereotypes. When you open your heart and extend a listening ear, you can receive tremendous gifts—like the courage to persevere. If we want to overcome this crisis, we must pull together. Put fear aside and invest in our health care workforce no matter where they are from. It’s not just the right thing for now, it’s the right thing for our future.
Heval Kelli, M.D., is a Syrian Kurdish-born senior cardiology fellow in Atlanta and a recipient of the Katz Foundation fellowship in preventive cardiology.
See Dr. Kelli share more of his personal story in a TEDx Peachtree talk: