Niagara Gazette

October 9, 2012

FRIENDS INDEED: Doc returns from war-torn Syria with a little help from his friends

By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The wedding celebration should have had a happy ending. Instead, the day ended in horror when a guest was killed afterthe car she was riding in was shot at by an unknown gunman and she became another victim of the civil war raging in Syria.

Dr. Faraj Touchan was driving that care home from the wedding with his sister and her friend when the woman was killed by gunfire on the streets of his hometown, Aleppo.

Touchan, in Syria waiting for a visa to return to his new job at Mount St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston, was  caught in the midst of a bloody uprising in his country. According to Associated Press reports nearly 30,000 people have been killed in the civil war that began there 18 months ago. Aleppo is one of the hotbeds of the battles.

The doctor had been waiting an unusually long time for the Amerian Embassy to approve a visa to return to the U.S. where he had trained at Sisters Hospital in Buffalo. It had almost been a year since he was offered the position at Mount St. Mary’s new Center for Women. And while he waited, working when he could, the war had spread throughout his home town. It was becoming too dangerous to do much more than grab necessities early in the day at the closest supermarket. 

He had pretty much given up hope of ever getting his visa approved, a process that typically takes about a week. But, behind the scenes at Mount St. Mary’s, the administrators who hired him had begun an unusual campaign to get their doctor back. They contacted every government official they could think of to speed the visa process. In his regular emails and phone calls to the hospital, he kept administrators updated. 

“We felt terrible about what he was going through,” said Adele Berti, physician relations and recruitment director at Mount St. Mary’s Hospital.  “I could actually hear the bombings during a couple of phone calls.”

The conditions of the doctor’s visa — if he could get one — would require he work in an under-served population. Maness and Berti had hired him to work mostly at the hospital’s Neighborhood Health Center on 9th Street.

“We’re very sensitive to making sure the care we provide there is the same that you or I get,” Maness explained about the center. “Not just any person will do.”

“Once we knew him, I could not walk away,” Maness added. “He was the right person to serve those patients.”

Maness and Berti contacted a variety of agencies and politicians including Homeland Security, and the offices of Sen. Louise Slaughter, Sen. Kirstin Gilldebrand, Sen. Chuck Schumer and even Sen. Jay Rockefeller in Virginia.

Then, unexpectedly, for reasons no one really knows and the embassy never explained, the doctor’s visa was granted more than a year after he applied for it.

Last month, another celebration occurred, and this time, it had an ending many had been waiting for. About 30 people gathered with balloons and signs at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport to welcome the doctor to his new home.  Staffers had also found him a temporary home in Lewiston, where he no longer fears gunfire and bombs. But he is deeply concerned for his family and fiance back home in a country he describes as, until recently, safe and beautiful, with rich culture, good schools and a health care system free to the poor.

Media reports say the war in Syria, a country which is 85 percent Muslim, is being stirred and amplified from fighters coming with their own agendas from other Middle East countries, and that the conflicts have been unresponsive to international attempts at mediation.

The doctor, a Christian, expresses sadness for all those he left behind. “Innocent people just want to live their lives. They just want to be able to walk safely in the streets.”

But, he is also grateful for those friends that joined efforts to help him return to his new home, a safe and beautiful apartment in Lewiston, and colleagues that have already shown they will go out of their way to make him feel welcome.

“The people you work with, their love and appreciation is much more important than anything else,” he said. “Anybody is vulnerable ... and if you have nobody to stand up for you, it’s just not worth it.” 

Contact Features Editor Michele DeLuca

at 282-2311, ext 2263.