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Syria needs his help, but doctor fears he won't return

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Allowing only his initials and a portrait in silhouette be used for fear of the current Syrian regime, a Mayo Clinic physician speaks out about his ability to help in Syria being restricted by the U.S. travel ban.

Dr. M.A. has been in the U.S. for five years — coming to Rochester to do clinical research at Mayo Clinic in 2013. He still is wary of the reach of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and prefers we not print his full name out of fear the current regime in Syria could harm his family who still live in Damascus.

M.A. said he became a physician because he wanted to help people, eventually becoming a primary care physician and epidemiologist.

"I couldn’t find a better profession," he said.

However, the Trump administration’s recently upheld travel ban keeps him from traveling to use his medical skills to help Syrians displaced by the civil war there. He hasn’t seen his family since 2013.

"Theoretically, I can still leave the country," he said.

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Getting back in isn’t so certain.

The travel ban prevents his family from traveling to the U.S. He fears the Assad regime could detain him if he tries to enter Syria. And, as a Syrian national, being allowed back into the U.S. isn’t guaranteed, either.

"I missed my nephew’s birth, my sister’s wedding, and my youngest sister’s wedding is next month," he said.

As Syria descended into civil war in 2011, M.A. initially supported what he saw as a push for reforms, democracy and the release of political prisoners.

"Unfortunately, others got involved and brought their own political agendas," he said.

Three years ago, he visited family in Syria and used his medical skills to help people inside rebel-held areas through the Syrian American Medical Society. Initially founded in the 1990s as a professional and networking organization, SAMS has taken on a more direct and humanitarian role during the Syrian conflict.

Looking for a way to help his native country, SAMS gave him that opportunity, M.A. said.

"It was good to just feel you’re providing some kind of help," he said.

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About 18 months ago, a Minnesota chapter of SAMS was established. However, when the chapter sent volunteers to Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon in April, M.A. was reluctant to go because he wasn’t sure he could return.

"It’s harder for (Syrians) to go there," he said, adding the Assad regime might not let him return to the U.S. either.

Hassan Ismail, an Aleppo native who is now an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, has the same reservations. His U.S. citizen status wouldn’t keep him from returning to the U.S. However, he isn’t so sure the he would be allowed to leave Syria if he visited now.

"I think the agents there will have a certain perception because I have a U.S. passport," he said. "Some of it is true — I do support freedom in Syria."

He used to visit family every year. Now, Ismail’s 3-year-old daughter has never met her grandparents.

For now, he does what he can to help his family and organizations helping victims of the war. Ismail, also a member of SAMS, provides financial and material support to the organization.

Ismail recently went abroad to volunteer his services in Jamaica.

"It helped vent my need to help," he said. "That’s what I can do for now."

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