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September 20, 2017

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Far from front line, Syrian doctor prepares for the end of war

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island -- Khaled Almilaji coordinated a campaign that vaccinated 1.4 million Syrian children and risked his life to provide medical care during the country's civil war. Now he's in the Ivy League, learning about how to rebuild Syria's health system when the war finally ends.

He is one of three Syrian scholars studying at Brown University, which said last year it would welcome Syrians after dozens of governors attempted to block refugees. Almilaji, 35, received a scholarship to earn a master's degree in public health and moved to Rhode Island in August on a student visa with his wife.

He said he feels lucky because many other Syrian doctors have had to give up their work after sacrificing for five years, watching their families suffer and seeing their children go without an education.

"Every time I go inside Syria, I see the smile on the face of families and people. They say, 'We will stay here. We will never go out, and we will still fight this regime,'" he said. "You cannot go out with less energy, just to continue supporting those people."

Almilaji was born in Aleppo, now the epicenter of Syria's conflict. He studied in the coastal city of Latakia to treat disorders of the ear, nose and throat. He was preparing to go to Stuttgart, Germany, for a residency in March 2011 when anti-government protests sparked the conflict.

He treated protesters who likely would have been arrested or killed if they went to government-run hospitals, he said, and he set up field hospitals.

"They accept to be killed if this is the way to show the world we are in a revolution here," he said. "But I cannot accept that those people will never go to a protest because they don't have any hospitals to receive them in case they are injured."

Almilaji said he was arrested in September 2011 in Damascus, interrogated and tortured. The savagery he witnessed during six months in prison convinced him he was "one thousand percent correct" in opposing the regime, he added.

Almilaji returned to Aleppo after his release and cared for protesters' families, considered a crime. A friend who was helping those families was arrested in April 2012. Almilaji escaped to Gaziantep, Turkey, and his parents soon followed.

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