As a child in Iraq, Dhuha Ali dreamed of conducting medical research. Her father was a researcher, studying Hepatitis B and advancing treatment medications in her home country.
“I’ve always wanted to be in research to follow the footsteps of my father,” Ali said. “Research has been my life since I was a little girl. (My father) kept talking about research and how it improves peoples’ lives and how we can make a huge change and help people that run out of options and solutions for treatment.”
Ali is now a clinical research coordinator at St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute in Boise, fulfilling that lifelong vision. Her path to getting there, however, was filled with tragedies, a transatlantic relocation as a refugee with her family and even a trip to the White House.
Ali was born in Iraq but spent much of her childhood in England. She returned to Iraq to attend medical school, graduating in 2003 and becoming a pediatrician. The harrowing effects of war in Iraq began to affect her and her family.
In 2005, Ali’s father-in-law was kidnapped, tortured and killed by soldiers from the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, as reported by the Idaho Statesman in 2015.
“We kept on getting the threatening phone calls that they will kidnap my newly born kid and they will do the same thing,” Ali said. She and her family quickly fled to Amman, Jordan, leaving everything behind in Iraq.
“Fleeing from Baghdad, it was a horrible experience. I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through that experience,” Ali said.
In Jordan, Ali and her husband, Salwan Swidan (a cardiologist) were able to practice medicine. Ali even had her own clinic. But, it was short-lived. Jordan quickly became overcrowded, as more Iraqis escaped Baghdad and moved in. Ali and Swidan had two options: return to Iraq or become refugees and find a new home, again.
“We were lucky and we got accepted into the refugee system to the United States and we ended up in Idaho,” said Ali.
When Ali and her family arrived in Idaho in 2009, they knew no one. Her brother-in-law, another physician, had also become a refugee but resettled in California’s Bay Area.
“We didn’t have any relatives here,” Ali said. “In fact, no one knew where Idaho was.”
Ali kept thinking about the challenges of leaving everything behind again—and how much harder it would be a second time around. When Ali and her family moved from Iraq to Jordan, it was a mostly seamless transition because of the similarities in culture and language. She figured coming to the U.S. would be a much harder change. She did not, however, factor in the warm welcome she and her family would receive in Boise.
“We only see the United States over the news and the movies,” Ali said. “I won’t lie; I was a bit scared to take such a huge jump. When I arrived, I was really surprised with the welcoming community that we had. Everyone just was super friendly, opened their arms (and) opened their homes to us. It really helped.”
When Ali and Swidan landed in Idaho, they looked forward to resuming their careers in the medical field. As international medical graduates—or IMGs as they are often called—Ali and Swidan, however, had limited options when it came to medical practice.
“We tried to be as close to the medical field as possible and the closest thing that was available at that time was the medical interpretation, to be close to medical terms and patients and that setting,” Ali said.
Ali and Swidan joined St. Luke’s in 2009 as certified medical interpreters, facilitating communication between Arabic-speaking patients and medical providers, while also assisting health care education and cultural awareness training. Ali also evaluated new Arabic interpreters seeking certification.
Swidan transitioned to the St. Luke’s clinical research team before joining St. Luke’s Health Partners. Ali, in 2016, followed a similar path and is now a key member of St. Luke’s clinical research department, coordinating in-depth breast cancer research as part of an eight-year study.
“We are counting on Dhuha’s wonderful communication skills, high degree of competencies and the warmth that Dhuha naturally exudes to help hundreds of our women patients undergoing routine breast imaging to determine whether they would like to participate as research subjects in this study,” said Dr. Mark Roberts, medical director for research and medical education at St. Luke’s.
Global Talent Idaho, a local, nonprofit organization, helps connect refugees and immigrants who have advanced skills and education to potential employers. Ali and Swidan joined Global Talent Idaho as volunteers in 2015.
Ali and Swidan’s medical degrees weren’t recognized in the United States. Seeing the need to connect refugees who have international medical degrees with the pathway to practice in the U.S., Ali, Swidan and Swidan’s brother, Marwan Swidan, who moved to Boise after initially being settled in San Francisco, created GTI Docs. As part of Global Talent Idaho, the program helps refugee doctors—IMGs—navigate the training and licensing process to practice medicine.
“After no one recognized our medical degrees, we wanted to be part of a program that incorporated Global Talent Idaho to help all the medical graduates that come from overseas,” Ali said. “This is to help all IMGs to go back to as close as possible to the medical field or if they would like to actually practice, there is an entire process, to start from zero.”
For its humanitarian effort amid the global refugee crisis, GTI Docs garnered the attention of President Obama’s administration, earning a Champions of Change designation in 2015. The honor included a trip to the White House for the trio.
“You can tell you are making a difference when you get recognized by the White House,” Ali said. “Just walking inside was a totally different experience. We were excited like kids, saying, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ We couldn’t believe where we were.”
Earlier this month, Ali and Swidan attended the Global Talent Idaho’s annual Careers for Change event, which helps raise money to advance the organization’s mission. St. Luke’s sponsored the event, held at the Albertsons headquarters.
Despite the challenges to continue her medical career, Ali said she is happy her family made the choice to seek refuge in Boise.
“This is home. I am very glad that my husband and I both made this huge decision. Yes, we had to sacrifice,” Ali said, “but at least we secured the future for our kids.” Their son is now 12 and they have a 6-year-old daughter who was born in Boise.
Joining St. Luke’s, Ali said, was the “best step” for her and her husband after arriving in Boise, calling her colleagues and department a “family.”“I look forward to the future. I am just grateful to this community. They have opened their arms,” Ali said. “Hopefully, I will get back to practicing medicine one day.”
Daniel Mediate works in St. Luke’s Community Relations department.