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Immigrant Health Care Worker Fights The Coronavirus – And For His Asylum

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to hear now from two people who fled wars in their home countries and came to the U.S. with something particularly appreciated right now - medical skills. They're not the only ones. Some 200,000 immigrants and refugees in the United States have degrees in health care, that according to a group that tracks them. NPR's Deborah Amos spoke with two of them.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Twenty-eight-year-old Sheeba Shafiq (ph) graduated from medical school in Kabul, Afghanistan. She's not yet licensed to practice medicine in the U.S. That process is costly, and it can take years. But she's working on it. The first step - she went back to school on a scholarship. She's now a certified medical assistant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE REINGING)

AMOS: When I called her in Sacramento, Calif., she says she's volunteered to lead a COVID testing team.

SHEEBA SHAFIQ: At the moment, I am testing patients for COVID-19 all day long, Monday through Friday.

AMOS: Excited to be contributing in her field again, she was also a little scared. Testing is perilous work.

SHAFIQ: As I started doing it, and I saw the happy faces, people's faces. When they get their results and it's negative, it's so worth it.

AMOS: Shafiq says she's used to risk, growing up in a war zone. A female doctor in Afghanistan, she was an advocate for women's rights, and that was another risk. And it brought her death threats.

SHAFIQ: So that got me in trouble (laughter) - birth control, which didn't go well (laughter).

AMOS: Granted asylum here in 2019, she's also part of a program that supports medical professionals run by the International Rescue Committee, based in Washington, D.C. Now, the IRC runs an online platform where refugees and immigrants can register their skills and their professional backgrounds. Hundreds have signed on, says the IRC's president, David Miliband.

DAVID MILIBAND: Let's use their skills. Some are doctors, some are nurses. There's lots for them to do, and they want to make a contribution to their new country.

AMOS: That's why a doctor trained in Syria joined the fight against the coronavirus. He's Dr. Hazem (ph). He doesn't want his last name broadcast because he still has family in Damascus.

HAZEM: I came to this country with the mentality of, I have to help the community. I have to do my best. This crisis - it's the best thing to prove myself.

AMOS: He applied for asylum in the U.S. after fleeing Syria. He was arrested for treating protesters, he says, and tortured in prison. He left the country, but he snuck back in to take his final exams, and he got his medical degree. Ask him about risk, and he says, I know all about it.

HAZEM: Yeah, exactly. So the risk - that didn't start now.

AMOS: He's worked hard to become a licensed doctor again, he says. He's now working as a medical researcher in Boston. He's studying the coronavirus. In July, he'll finally see that virus up close when he starts a residency in a New Jersey hospital.

HAZEM: I'm really excited to start practicing in a hospital and going to a place like New Jersey, where it's hit hard with this pandemic.

AMOS: But there's another risk for Dr. Hazem. In early March, right before the lockdown, his asylum claim was denied. He could be sent back to Syria if he loses his appeal.

HAZEM: I think I have a good chance to get accepted. But yeah, nothing is guaranteed, and I'm taking my chances because I don't have a lot of option.

AMOS: He hopes his skills as a doctor on the frontlines of a pandemic will count for something in his case.

Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.