Healing Hearts, Changing Minds

Syrian Refugee Heval Mohamed Kelli was a Clarkston teenager with dreams of becoming a doctor. Now his patient care helps immigrants in his old neighborhood and his research connects them to better heart health

By Michelle Hiskey

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Photos by Bryan Meltz

During the fall of 2001, in a small restaurant kitchen near Emory, Heval Mohamed Kelli 15MR faced a stainless steel contraption knowing that his family’s survival depended on him figuring out how to work it. His manager gave him a hairnet and told him in Arabic, “You have to wear it. It’s required here even if you are only washing dishes.” It was a busy Friday night at the Mediterranean Grill. Mohamed Kelli heard the Emory students and others place their orders in a language he did not understand, and soon the dishes started coming in. Six miles separated him from his family in Clarkston, where the clock was ticking. The US government would pay for rent for a few months, and then they were on their own in a country where they knew no one. They were more than six thousand miles from Kobane, Syria, where his father’s law practice had made life comfortable enough for his mother to care for him and his younger brother. But they are Kurds, a persecuted minority, and after Syrian police beat up his dad one night in front of the family then put him in prison for three months, the family paid a smuggler to get them out. 

They left almost everything they owned behind. Germany took them in on temporary status, where they lived at the poverty line. In the US, Mohamed Kelli saw people living on the street and knew that it could get worse for his family. His father was too injured to work, his mother had never worked, and his brother was too young to work. They were counting on him, a seventeen-year-old, to make ends meet by washing dishes for five dollars an hour. 

“You’ll start from the bottom up,” restaurant manager Essa Yazbak told him. “You’re going to clean the bathrooms, too.” 

If taking care of yourself is simply a matter of personal choice, many Americans are lousy at getting the foods and exercise that are best for them—and many low-income people and disadvantaged groups have few good choices at all. On a bustling Tuesday at Emory’s Preventive Cardiology Clinic, located near Emory University Hospital’s emergency room, cardiologists Larry Sperling and Arshed Quyyumi are busy trying to prevent the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. The American Heart Association reports that about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack each year; while 610,000 people die of heart disease (1 in 4 deaths), and coronary heart disease alone costs the country $108.9 billion in health care, medications, and lost productivity. Cardiometabolic diseases, such as diabetes, are on the rise. 

In this tsunami of need, simply telling people to bootstrap healthier habits isn’t “moving the needle,” says Quyyumi, codirector of the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute. His team’s data, gathered across socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups in Atlanta, show that heart problems improve when fresh food, safe places to walk, and other opportunities for healthy living are close by. 

One pair of eyes on this data belongs to that former dishwasher. Doctor Mohamed Kelli, as he has been known since graduating from Morehouse School of Medicine in 2012, ended up a mile from the Mediterranean Grill for his residency in internal medicine at Emory School of Medicine. Last summer he was named a Katz Fellow in Preventive Cardiology, a prestigious award that covers two years of generous salary, benefits, and expenses for research and related travel in anticipation of a career in academic cardiovascular prevention. “These are young, brilliant cardiovascular specialists, and our goal is to train them as future leaders who will then train others here and globally,” Sperling says. 

“The essence of innovation is time,” Mohamed Kelli says. “The Katz Fellowship gives me time for research and funding for my American dream.”

One Atlanta neighborhood at highest risk for cardiovascular problems is where Mohamed Kelli and his family landed in the US, along with thousands of refugees from around the world. Clarkston is, according to the federal map promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama, a food desert, where people—often with limited incomes and transportation options—live more than a mile from fresh, affordable food. Mohamed Kelli is testing ideas to help people from all walks of life make better choices. One is a phone app that helps them keep track of their medical information and sends reminders of nearby assistance that is cheap or free. 

“We should create the Candy Crush of medicine,” he says. “People already have relationships with their phones; they are like babies to them. How can we do more with that, to help their smoking cravings go down, or their blood sugar? What if we can remind people to check their blood pressure as often as their car’s tire pressure?” 

Simple connections made over and over can change someone’s life. That’s how Mohamed Kelli made it this far.  

In September 2015, Mohamed Kelli tucked into a plate of hummus, pita, and falafel at Mediterranean Grill. A week before, UN Ambassador Samantha Power (who grew up near Emory) announced that more than ten thousand Syrian refugees are expected to enter the US next year. Everyone has seen the iconic image of the crisis—a toddler who washed up on a beach in Turkey. The little boy was from Kobane, Mohamed Kelli’s hometown, now shattered by ISIS attacks. As Mohamed Kelli talks about coming to America, you can get an idea of what these next refugees will need, and how a small gesture of kindness can make a difference.   

That first weekend washing dishes, Mohamed Kelli’s hands and forearms turned from smooth brown to a prunish white. “No one told me about gloves,” he says, laughing. There was so much to soak in about this new country, and strangers were helping his family do just that. Volunteers from All Saints’ Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta, some of them from Emory, furnished the family’s apartment and helped stock their cupboards. Every Thursday for a year, a volunteer showed up to teach them English. “The only week they missed was Thanksgiving,” Mohamed Kelli recalled. “They were a prime example of what America stands for.” After he and his brother shared their struggles, anonymous church members paid the family’s rent for six months, helped them get a car, and paid the brothers to cut their lawns and babysit their kids. 

The family resettled, as most refugees do, in low-income housing and low-performing schools. “Unless they are surrounded by a support group, most often from a faith community, their lives can literally be a nightmare,” says Barbara Thompson, a close family friend whose Atlanta nonprofit, Solutions for Interrupted Education, helps child survivors of war thrive in the classroom. “Refugees, like the ones coming in from Syria, need small and big strategic interventions. And if you give them that inch, they will make five hundred miles from it for themselves. They will rock their corner of the world.” 

Thompson helped connect Mohamed Kelli’s younger brother with a full scholarship to Pace Academy, where he starred on the soccer team and mentioned to a classmate that his brother wanted to be a doctor. The classmate told her dad, Omar Lattouf, a cardiothoracic surgeon and Emory School of Medicine professor with roots in Jordan and Lebanon. Lattouf took an interest in the young man and became a close mentor as Mohamed Kelli graduated with honors in a premed curriculum at Georgia State, helping him get into Morehouse School of Medicine. 

“Anything short of being president of the World Health Organization would be a disappointment to me,” Lattouf says. “He is that caliber of guy. He has a heart of gold, a brain of fire, and a never-ending commitment and energy and excitement and positivity.”

The dishwashing finally stopped in medical school, a bittersweet moment for Mohamed Kelli. “For many weekends, my motivation was to read a page for every plate I washed,” he said. “Three hundred plates, three hundred pages.” The steam that condensed on the dishwasher’s stainless steel had served as his whiteboard as he traced, with his fingertip, molecular structures for organic chemistry. The Mediterranean Grill had connected him to many other Emory doctors. When they came in for gyro and falafel, and especially if they spoke Arabic, Mohamed Kelli would grab a coffee and chat them up for career advice. 

During medical school, he found another Emory mentor, the adopted father of an Ethiopian boy who had learned English as a second language with him. Allen Dollar is the chief of cardiology at Grady Memorial Hospital, and Mohamed Kelli’s energy and drive match what the field requires. “Cardiology is the fastest pace in all of medicine,” Dollar said. “For people who are tech savvy, like Heval, cardiology is a very, very appealing field.”

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THE CANDY CRUSH OF MEDICINE: Mohamed Kelli is creating a smartphone app that he hopes will put better health in patients’ pockets.

On a Sunday in mid-October, refugees cram into the Clarkston Health Clinic. Quyyumi and other Emory doctors helped establish it earlier this year, and volunteer doctors, nurses, medical students, and undergraduates from Emory’s Prehealth Club help provide free screenings and basic health care. The front door opens every few minutes, and the clinic quickly runs out of chairs and floor space. 

Mohamed Kelli is trying to give each patient enough attention, and repeats medical advice at least three times to each of them and their family members who act as translators. He uses images on his phone screen for emphasis. A woman from Nepal has gingivitis, so he pulls up a photo of hydrogen peroxide and explains how to dilute it. “It’s always in a brown bottle, and you don’t need much,” he says. “It’s going to burn a little bit but it’s good.” 

A man from Thailand has diabetes and wants a narcotic prescription to ease the nerve pain in his feet. Mohamed Kelli refuses; he doesn’t want the man to become addicted, and writes a script for a $4 neuropathy drug. “Diabetes is like a dog,” Mohamed Kelli tells the man’s daughter, who translates. “If you don’t control it, it’s going to destroy your whole house.” 

Heval means friend in Kurdish, and he inspires others to give as well. In the next room his partner, Saskia Handschin, is fitting refugees with compression stockings that her company usually sells for eighty dollars a pair. Here they are free. “Really, he’s always loved helping people,” says his mom, Saadia Mohamed Kelli, who helped him keep going in college and med school by packing two Kurdish meals for him daily so he would have fresh food to stay healthy. His brother followed a similar path and is training as a general surgery resident at East Tennessee State. 

A couple of blocks away from the free clinic is the family’s first home in the US, an apartment that offered a few chairs and bare beds, cupboards empty save for a jar of peanut butter and a refrigerator with a lone carton of milk. In his fourteen years in this country (he became a citizen in 2006), Mohamed Kelli has steadily followed the Middle Eastern saying, “Whoever taught you a letter, you owe him a book.” 

As a senior at Clarkston High School, he began tutoring at the International Community School. He and Lattouf founded a nonprofit, UBeyond, for mentoring young people from underserved backgrounds, and four hundred people showed up at their recent gala. At the Clarkston clinic, he was too busy to notice an Emory senior studying him. “He has great people interactions and really helps people understand,” said Ravila Bhima 14OX 16C, a biology and political science major from Miami. Those skills are important to her dream of building a clinic like this one in her mother’s hometown of Pune, India.

Mohamed Kelli always sees more that can be done, more that he can do. The Clarkston clinic, for instance, could serve more people more efficiently on a cloud-based electronic medical record system. “It’s free, and it runs great,” he said. All it takes is deciding to make the connection to the opportunity, finding and accepting the help if needed. 

“Having someone show you what the opportunity is, how to approach it, and how to get it with confidence, someone who is always pushing you to the next level and thinking about your pathway—it takes someone greater than you to hold your hand,” he says. “It’s not all about hard work. You need direction. All the opportunities that were available to me were made available because of people in the church, mentors, and the Katz Foundation. Someone like me becoming a cardiologist could only happen in America.”  

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