It is incredible to come across people who are not only inspiring and have an uplifting story, but are humble in the work they do, regardless of their numerous accomplishments. I had the honor of speaking with Dr. Heval Kelli, who has quite an amazing story of being a Syrian refugee who overcame all the challenges that have happened in his life to become a physician. He not only serves in his role providing health care as a cardiologist, he uses his free time to give back to the community by volunteering in clinics for underserved populations, working with refugees, immigrants, minorities, and other marginalized populations. He is an example of a humble servant and spreads the beauty and peace of Islam through his life of service. In addition to his patient care and volunteer work, he gives lectures to help empower those who are in medical school or considering going into medicine.
MM: Tell me more about what life was like growing up for you and what are some of the struggles you had to overcome?
Dr. Kelli: My family is Kurdish, and my brother and I were born in Syria. We had to leave when I was 11 years old and my brother was 7. From Syria, we went to Germany and lived in refugee camps for the next 6 years. It was a difficult time, living in different camps, having no promise for a better future there, and feeling like no matter what, we were outsiders and only there on temporary asylum. After living there for 6 years, we were able to seek asylum and ended up in Clarkston, Georgia.
It was difficult for us when we first moved because my father had health problems and could not work, and it was hard for my mother to find work as a Muslim woman. So, I had to work as a dishwasher for 30-40 hours per week in order to make money to support my family. I was 18 years old when we first came to America and had hopes and dreams for a better life than the life we lived so far.
When we first moved here, my brother was in high school. He was picked on because the kids considered him to be different. He was a very smart kid and had high grades, so he was offered a scholarship to a private academy, where he was able to excel in his educational pursuits. He went on to study at Wofford and played soccer in college, on a scholarship, and now he is a surgery resident. He did not let those initial experiences discourage him from making a better life. Now both of us are serving our communities as doctors.
“Being a refugee, I lost everything every time we moved…no matter what happens, I will never lose my knowledge.”
What was the motivation that kept you going during that time?
The restaurant was one block from Emory University, where I currently train as a cardiology fellow. Being a refugee, I lost everything every time we moved, so I pursued higher education because I knew that no matter what happens, I will never lose my knowledge. Medicine was a like a language to me and gives me the power to communicate with people while healing them. Being around Emory University was a constant reminder to keep working hard until I achieved my goal.
Who do you consider to be your role model?
I reflect back on the lives of the prophets and those who are true leaders. They serve others and lead by example. Prophets changed the world and created religions that changed mankind. They did it though service to the underserved. I think we need more of service to communities than lectures to change hearts and inspire minds. People are more influenced by what they see and their opinions of others are changed for the better when they see positive actions rather than just through rhetoric.
Tell us more about the inspiration for the ground work you do and the impact you want to have.
While volunteering at local high schools, I returned to the town where my family resettled as refugees in 2001. I volunteer my medical services at a local clinic called Clarkston Community Health Center which provides free medical care to uninsured patients. The clinic is located one block away from the apartment we lived in when we arrived as refugees in Clarkston. I feel blessed to be able to provide support and services to the same place where I started. I see the challenges that my family faced 15 years ago due to lack of access to quality care and now I can be part of the solution of fixing it.
“My most valued accomplishment is being able to inspire someone to believe in their dreams…”
What success have you seen that encourages you to keep moving forward with the work you do?
I feel inspired that I gained the skills and platform to be able to serve my community. I started a pilot program that provides pre-medical education to high school seniors with the motivation to inspire them to choose a career in medicine. I was inspired when I returned to speak at the STEM conference at my former high school. I realized the power of being present in underserved communities. It motivated me to start the Young Physicians Initiative. Our pilot was successful and now we are at three separate high schools. The program is taught by medical students. We provide interactive programs on the essence of medicine by solving medical cases, having discussions with medical speakers, and teaching about the pre-medical pathways.
Any final thoughts you want to share?
My most valued accomplishment is being able to inspire someone to believe in their dreams while motivating someone else to invest in the dreams of others. I share my journey with the public so they can see refugees as investment rather than burden. I work in the community to advance health and education for the underserved so that others can see the success of investing in refugees like me. My hope is that people see refugees, minorities, and underserved individuals as an opportunity to invest in America and its success.
People always tell me that I achieved the American Dream. I respond by telling them that I achieved my dream of becoming a doctor after washing dishes for years. What makes it American is the ability to replicate my dreams for others in America.