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Dr. Sabri Shuker and family
November 12th, 2012
03:30 PM ET

An aging immigrant rebuilds life, career in U.S.

Editor’s note: CNN's Azadeh Ansari wrote this article as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

By Azadeh Ansari, CNN

West Bloomfield, Michigan (CNN) – At 3 a.m., the ring of the phone jolts Sabri Shuker out of bed.

It’s not a typical wake-up call for most, but he’s come to expect them. His gut tells him the news he’s about to receive will keep him up for days. Shuker’s heart beats faster. Short of breath, he answers anxiously.

The voice on the other end is familiar, calling from overseas, but the message is disheartening: Yet another member of his family is “missing.” This time, it’s his cousin.

Back in Iraq, he slept through artillery and bombs. But since he came to the United States in 2002, a ring of the phone can feel like an explosion.

Whenever a call comes late at night, Shuker's mind races back to the people he knew back home and the people who disappeared or died. Many were professors or doctors, educated people who made good homes for their families.

He paces his house in suburban Detroit, runs his hands through his thinning white hair, overwhelmed by memories and emotion, the helpless feeling that comes from being far away.

During the past couple decades, Iraqis escaped conflicts in their homeland and settled in America to start over. They joined a burgeoning Arab community that has grown to 500,000 strong in the Detroit area, according to ACCESS, the most prominent help center for Arabs in Dearborn, Michigan.

As many as 3.5 million people of Arab descent live in the United States, according to the Arab American Institute, a nonprofit organization that encourages Arab-American participation in political and civic life. Some have lived in the United States for generations, some arrived as refugees, and some, like the Shuker family, emigrated here.

Older Iraqis like Shuker, 76, come to this country with a life’s worth of memories. The number of older refugees living in the United States is uncertain, but their struggles are clear. Often, they find themselves living in two worlds, community activists say.

For them, the transition and culture shock are difficult to bear. Shuker represents thousands of well-educated Iraqi immigrants who not only left their belongings behind but lost their identities in the process.

“The sense of loss and grieving runs deep, the more traumatic the resettlement process is,” said Sylvia Nassar-McMillan, a professor at North Carolina State University who focuses on the psychological impacts of immigration.

In Iraq, Shuker was a doctor who made a living saving lives. Now, he can’t practice the trade he had spent his life perfecting. To work as a doctor in the United States, he would have to start medical school all over again.

It would be a daunting task, especially at his age.

So Shuker, like others, had to find ways to reinvent himself so he can preserve his identity and move forward.

It can be a degrading experience. Aside from the trauma and pain experienced in Iraq, some of the major challenges for older immigrants include making friends, navigating an unfamiliar social space and overcoming a language barrier, community activists say.

So Shuker struggles to find a new purpose in what he thinks of as the “land of opportunity.”

Life on the front lines

In another life, Shuker built his medical career suturing fine lines between life and death. He was a surgeon who practiced his craft in the worst of circumstances: on the battlefield. He wasn’t in the military, but the shortage of doctors during the onset of the war forced him to the front lines.

During the brutal Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, rockets rained on villages, chemical weapons disfigured civilians, and families were torn apart. Shuker witnessed it all.

Shuker, an oral-maxillofacial reconstructive surgeon, treated one facial blast injury after another. The injuries were so severe that blood and flesh often masked the identities of his patients.

“There were hundreds, at times thousands, of wounded bodies everywhere,” he said.

That little-discussed conflict took the lives of nearly 1 million Iranians and 500,000 Iraqis while leaving countless others wounded, displaced and in despair.

“People were dying left and right. I couldn’t leave. I had to help them. Sometimes, I used to work until I fainted because the second I sat down, I knew someone would die,” Shuker said.

In 2002, another war was looming as U.S. leaders suspected that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Life was already becoming unbearable for Shuker and his family, who are Chaldean. At that time, minority communities like the Chaldeans and other Christian Iraqis became targets of religious and ethnic persecution.

It was then that Shuker made the painful decision to flee his homeland.

Iraq was the last country Shuker thought would betray him. For decades, Shuker recalls, people of all colors and creeds lived peacefully with each other. Now, the winds were changing. He started to sense that the future would be bleak for religious minorities like himself.

In their last hours in Baghdad, he and his wife, Najiba, took their final steps down the marble staircase in their house, stood in the grand room and gazed from one room to the next, from one item to another.

“To see the house you built, in each corner, each item of the house carried with it a memory,” Shuker said. “You don’t know what to take and what to leave behind.

“It was one of the most difficult hours of my life. We didn’t even have time to say goodbye to our neighbors.”

He remembers slamming the iron door shut, but he didn’t bother to lock it. He was sure he would return one day.

They pulled out of their three-car garage, glanced back one more time and left.

They arrived in the United States in 2002 with just two small bags. And memories.

A new calling

“When I first came to America, I was lost,” Shuker said. “I didn’t know what to do, and every time I would turn on the TV and see scores of people injured, I just wanted to fly back to my country to help them.”

Shuker and his wife, who is also a doctor, were the last members of their immediate family to leave Iraq. Upon arriving to America, they were reunited with their children, who had arrived a few years earlier.

The doctor didn’t want to leave Iraq, but the situation was growing ever more hostile.

He was part of a wave of Iraqis who were forced to leave home due to the unrest. That group was far different from those that left voluntarily for economic growth opportunities before 1980 or the group that left in response to conflict and political tensions because of the Iran-Iraq War, Nassar-McMillan says.

“The wave of Iraqis who fled recently left against their will, for fear of their safety due to increasing social, religious and political persecutions,” Nassar-McMillan said.

Far from Iraq in time and distance, Shuker feels guilt. He feels helpless.

“When you lose everything - your roots, your friends, your old life - sometimes I can’t find the right words to describe the feeling,” he said.

“There is so much that I still want to do and contribute to this world. But my problem is that I’m getting old.”

Shuker feels guilt that he is no longer able to practice medicine. His family even hid his passport, lest he try to fly back to Iraq.

“When I see people dying on TV now or read about war casualty figures from conflicts around the world, I feel like I’m not doing my job,” Shuker said.

“It is very hard to see people dying and I then ask myself, ‘Why am I not there?’ Someone with my experience should be out there helping them, but at this age and time in my life, I feel as if there is nothing I can do.”

Many elderly Iraqi immigrants have a difficult time recreating their life experiences in their new host country.

“Their native identities both professional and personal are often not transferable,” Nassar-McMillan said.

Like many Iraqi elders, the Shukers live off of what’s left from their years of hard work and in the close company of their immediate family, including four children and 11 grandchildren.

“Without my children and grandchildren, I would be a mess,” Shuker said.

The front lines for his new battle lie in the local public library, a mile up the street from his house. The surgeon once renowned by his colleagues has found a new purpose in life: He has begun to write about surgery techniques he used, an attempt to document his decades of service. He says he draws from the past to protect the future.

Each afternoon, Shuker prepares for his walk to the library as though he is still a young doctor going to the clinic: He puts on a neatly pressed suit, shines his shoes and grabs his leather briefcase before heading to his new refuge. His afternoons are spent lost in books.

Since coming to America in 2003, Shuker has written more than 16 medical studies in the area of reconstructive surgery and emergency medicine, works that have been published in medical journals.

“I see my life’s work through my articles. This is my legacy,” he said.

It wasn’t easy for a man who had to learn how to click a mouse and navigate the Internet.

Even if he can’t meet the patients, knowing that he made a contribution to their care brings him joy.

He relishes life now through the laughter of his grandchildren. And when that stops echoing in his ear and the moon’s light casts a shadow on his bedroom window, Shuker puts his head on his pillow and closes his eyes.

On some nights, he is awakened by the phone calls from Iraq. Other nights, he dreams of the day when Iraq will find peace. Then, he believes, he will walk up his driveway to the iron front door, turn the doorknob and enter the place he still calls home.

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Filed under: Age • Immigration • Who we are
soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. Abdullah

    actually, it is really sad story makes me cry when i remember that our countries chase their sons for weak reasons like discrimination or religious dividing .. but i notice that the comments from the readers was focusing on that Islam is the main reason while the real reason some bad people named muslims.. we should seperate between them.. Greetings

    November 18, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jack

    LOL, Detroit sure needs doctors anywhere it can get them, to treat all those tetanus infections, stab and gunshot wounds...

    November 16, 2012 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
  3. Brian

    Dr. Shuker. Thank you for contributing your knowledge and experience through medical journals. Your experience will be a huge asset to many doctors and medical students in the U.S. I hope you have a nice life in Detroit and buck up!

    November 15, 2012 at 3:35 am | Report abuse |
  4. JeramieH

    So you're coming to America, and you can choose anywhere in 50 states to live. Hawaii's beautiful beaches, Colorado's majestic mountains, the deep woods of Oregon...
    ... and you choose Detroit?

    November 14, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tarro Fildo

      Well, the diaspora helps him get settled

      November 14, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Othman

    Mr Shuker didn't leave his country Iraq due to Islam but rather due to previous administration policies that field the sectarian violence in Iraq. It's sad to see generalization about Islam. Islam is a relegion of respect and tolerance . Islam gave the women and minorities like Jews ,Christians, black..etc their feedom and rights 1400 years ago while the west was living in the dark ages and persecuting those minorities until (50 years ago !). I hope that people to learn to coexist, be more tolerant and respect each other

    November 14, 2012 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Jack 2

      He said, the future was bleak for religious minorities like himself. i do believe that's why he left. read it! he's christian.

      November 14, 2012 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
      • Hong Tong

        The secterian violence was not caused by the administration. If you look into the root cause of all these problems, you will know that it is this religion of peace that is the culprit.

        November 14, 2012 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
  6. yousef

    Thank you for treating all iraqs wounded soldiers during iraq-iran war . iknow that non those injured soldiers die during the all (8) of years while you wore operating on theme ... thank you for everythink you done to iraq ...god bless you for us .

    November 13, 2012 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Susanne G. Hoegler

    Maybe this doctor can work with the other M.D.'s with the Doctors Without Boarders Organization. I do not know what the requirements are or what the prerequisites are but maybe you can use your surgical skills there.

    November 13, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Pingpaul

    Doctor, I applaud you for doing the right thing – sharing your wealth of knowledge and experience in a way that transcends borders. For us at this time of life, we all should be doing what you are doing – sharing our experience for the good of others.

    November 13, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. AnneSD

    So many of us come from families that have lived in this country for generations so we have lost the cultural and familial history of just how difficult it was for our ancestors to pick up what they could carry, leave their homes, friends, family, language - everything that was familiar to them - and move far away to start over. This kind of move requires strength and courage. Thank you for sharing this story

    November 13, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ohnoyoudidn't

    Why is anybody who is 76 allowed to emmigrate...............no wonder there will be no social security left whe I am ready to retire. Oh and Bill Rushby if you're so keen on him being here and being a drain on this society then why don't you support him

    November 13, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • We're all immigrants

      Please do some research before you post. Immigrants do not get social security unless they have paid into it. By the way, this man is contributing his knowledge by writing for the medical journals. Maybe what he has written will save your life some day. Someone in our families was in his shoes at one time – we are all the children of immigrants.

      November 14, 2012 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
      • Huh

        No they don't have to contribute to get bene's.

        November 14, 2012 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Hong Tong

      It's obvious that this man is contributing to the society much more than many people. That's what they American ethos is about. Rather than focussing on your retirement and whether you will get your social security dollars, you may want to learn from him. He is well past the age of retirement and still working.

      November 14, 2012 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
    • DDM

      Not a burden in USA. They left their belongings, but NOT their funds. It says he & his wife live of money they made through their years as doctors, "Like many Iraqi elders, the Shukers live off of what’s left from their years of hard work and in the close company of their immediate family"

      November 14, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. vince

    I think this is a great testament to man who, even though displaced, can still contribute meaningfully to his craft and society. We need more people like him - that don't look at retirement as sittign on beaches but rather as a way to engage your passion. Perhaps one day Iraq will rediscover the benefits of a strong secular tolerant society and Chaldeans and other minorities will once again be welcomed.

    November 13, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jibran

    Doctor Shuker,

    thank you for all the most valuable help you have given to humanity over the years. God Bless you and your family always and all the Chaldean refugees who have been persecuted by Muslim extremistss!!! There is definitely a place in heaven waiting for you. hope to see you there.

    November 13, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jorge

    Only someone fleeing from suicide bombers, religious fanatical terror and foreign mercenaries in a country like Iraq would consider moving to Detroit a new start, and a lot of cities in the U.S. are beginning to look and feel like Detroit. I'm halfway between staying in the 'states or packing my money and my trade and going back overseas for another 18 years, because if this country keeps backsliding, I'll be better off as an American foreigner with a career and expat experience overseas, than as an unemployed native son living in a grit-and-crumble movie set.

    November 13, 2012 at 7:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Jibran

      Good riddance Jorge,
      Detroit has a ton to offer and is only one city in this great State of Michigan. come by and visit us sometime rather than mouthing off your opinion of decimation in America. all in all, the good ole USA is the greatest country in the World where we are free to worship our faith, free to vote and free to open our own business and create our own opportunities. Capitalism at its best. hope to see you soon. I will be holding the sign that states Welcome to Detroit, Glad you're here.

      November 13, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Alchemist

    I sympathize with him. It must be so hard to leave your country, family and friends behind.
    However, keep in mind that most 76 year old surgeons are retired or ready to retire; so at his age he could not practice medicine even if there were no rules in place to validate his degree in USA.

    November 13, 2012 at 2:03 am | Report abuse |
  15. Hong Tong

    I feel bad for the guy. I hope he took time to reflect on the root cause of the problem he and his people are facing. The conflicts, militancy, subjugation of females are just branches of a tree – the tree known as Islam, whose seed was sown in by Mohammed 1400 years ago.

    November 12, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Angela Birch

      Hmm... his wife is also a doctor. Iraq was a liberal Islamic country where she could pracitce medicine freely. They had a nasty president, true but we have turned a moderate country into a echo of IRan. The people who supported this war were warned this would happen but ignored experts on the middle eas.
      Islam comes in many flavors, just like Chritianity and Judaism. And the conservative branch of all these faiths dump on wormen.

      November 12, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Report abuse |
      • Desert Dweller

        Angela: The flavors of Islam run to an extreme that can be breath taking. Seen any stoning by Jews or Christians lately?

        November 12, 2012 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
      • Hong Tong

        I am not denying that he is a good man. The way he has built his life and his contributions are exemplary. So as an intelligent man that he is, I hope he reflects on the true reason for the sufferings in his country as well as other middle eastern country. As for your comments about jews and Christians, how many terrorist incidents worldwide are committed under the tenets of Christianity or Judiasm. How many terrorists blow up saying Hail Jesus as opposed to Allah Akbar? Also, it's a myth that the extremists in Islam are a minority. If you Google for pictures of any of the recent controversies including the innocence of Muslims, South Park controversy, Mohammed cartoon controversy, Quran burning protests, you will see thousands and thousands of violent men out on the streets all over the world. They belong to different races amy nationalities, speak different languages but have one common denominator – they all follow Islam.

        November 12, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
      • Jack 2

        Your comparison is weak. Islam is far more harsh on women and their rights. they blame the victim in rapes, they still have many honor killings from every day muslims in the US. Open your eyes and ears.

        November 14, 2012 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
  16. voyagergirl

    What a moving story! I am sad to learn that he had to leave everything behind, but what a great legacy he is leaving in the form of writing articles for medical journals: passing on his invaluable knowledge. Thank you for telling this story.

    November 12, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  17. Rules, rules, rules

    " Now, he can’t practice the trade he had spent his life perfecting. To work as a doctor in the United States, he would have to start medical school all over again."

    Pretty dumb.

    November 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Spider

      Why is that dumb? So we qualify any foreigner who says they were a "doctor" in their native land? We don't know what kind of training he/she had at all... something tells me I wouldn't trust a middle eastern medical training anymore than I would trust a medical school from the Caribbean. Not saying he isn't good, but there has to be some sort of baseline for this.

      November 12, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
      • mmi16

        Several years ago I contracted Colon Cancer – The medical team that treated me consisted of a Armeanian surgeon, a Egyptian internist, a Sudanese Oncologist and a Russian radiologist. They knew their stuff and I have been C Free for well over the 5 year period.

        November 13, 2012 at 4:02 am | Report abuse |
      • AEW

        No one should get a free pass to practice immediately upon arrival, but if an immigrant from another country who already completed medical training in his or her own country to be a physician can pass all the testing that is required to certify one as a physician in a particular specialty in this country, then they should be allowed to practice. With the shortage of doctors in this country to make an educated, talented physician become a janitor or clerk at a McDonalds is a waste of resources.

        November 14, 2012 at 7:48 am | Report abuse |
      • Jack 2

        mm16...Where were they schooled? The US.

        November 14, 2012 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
      • ed

        by the way this man was educated in the uk

        November 14, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      So, why did we honor Werner Von Braun, Enrico Fermi and Hubertus Strughold? Ever heard of Operation Paperclip??? Jeez, it seems like morality is a relative thing in the good ole' U.S.A., isn't it????

      November 13, 2012 at 8:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Bill Rushby

      Give the doctor a break. At 76, he deserves some relief from the relentless turmoil and cruelty he witnessed in Iraq. May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be upon him!

      November 13, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • RetLaEnvEmp

      The problems this doctor faces are speaking english and being able to report/write in english. Medical terms and words are very difficult for an American medical student to learn. A foreign, non-english speaking doctor would have a very, difficult time in the United States. A non-english speaking surgeon would not be able to work in a US hospital. Foreign trained doctors (graduates of foreign medical schools) usually go through a residency program in the US and show their mastery of english and medical terms before they are allowed to practice medicine in the US. Surgical practices in the US do have some differences than Iraq in war time. There is much that is left out of this article as the US welcomes doctors from all countries with open arms.

      November 13, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
  18. tami james

    bless you doctor. and your family. and your new life. bless you.
    and thank you for sharing your story.

    November 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  19. allenwoll

    Another tradegy of organized religion and of politics.

    November 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • crazyvermont

      Bet you needed several days to come up with that brilliant post

      November 12, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jibran

      there are No Atheists in foxholes!!!

      November 13, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
      • dhkeith

        Oh, yes there are. They just do their job and don't waste time bragging about it. I know. I was one.

        November 13, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
      • Badly-Bent

        I resent that too. I served in the Army over 40 years ago.

        November 14, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |