“We applied to United Nations, and we just wanted any place to resettle and to be safe,” she said.
It wasn’t safe for her in Iraq, where there was violence in the streets. Still, she served as a primary care OB/GYN for 17 years before she left in 2007. She now lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, with her husband and the youngest of their three daughters.
In this country, her medical license is no longer valid.
“I miss being a doctor. I miss it so much,” said 51-year-old Sulaiman. “I (was) never meant to be a housewife.”
Sulaiman is one of many refugees — though no one knows exactly how many — who practiced medicine in their home countries. Many are now in low-skilled jobs, driving taxis and working in grocery stores.
“These are individuals who could be taking care of children with asthma and instead are working at a car wash,” he said.
But she ended up in the United States, where she must start her training from scratch.
“It’s a complete waste of people’s experience, talent and expertise,” Fernandez-Peña said.
Back to step one
Things began to turn around for Sulaiman starting in 2011 when her daughter’s principal suggested that she volunteer at school. She occasionally helped the school nurse take care of sick students, and other times, she toiled away in the cafeteria.
No longer idling at home, Sulaiman emerged from her depressed state and decided it was time to go back into medicine.
To do that, Sulaiman would have to apply to residency again — just like a medical student who has never practiced. Even if she gets into a program, it could require her to move across the country, away from the home she has re-established.
She would now be competing with thousands of newly minted doctors. She would also spend more than $5,000 preparing for and taking the exams.
To apply, foreign doctors must take a series of hours-long exams, studying for weeks or months in English, which may or may not be their first language.
Refugees may have additional struggles, advocates say. For example, many must leave their home countries on short notice, making it difficult for longtime doctors to track down old transcripts and records.
Sulaiman passed these exams and applied to residency in 2015 and 2016. She hasn’t even gotten an interview.
The rest of these positions were filled largely by foreign graduates and US citizens who studied abroad, many in Caribbean medical schools. But they have a much lower acceptance rate: just over 50%. For American-trained MDs, that rate jumps to 94%.
“I hear all the time there is shortage in doctors,” Sulaiman said. “We are just ready to help. We are ready to serve. Just give us a chance.”
Fernandez-Peña said that putting foreign-trained doctors to work in America is a no-brainer.
“Why not invest in this freebie?” he asked. “They’ve already been trained. We would be reaping the benefits that (another) country has spent money in training their work force.”
Ready to serve
Some experts have defended the long road to medicine in the US, saying that the process is necessary to ensure the best quality care.
Currently, he said, foreign-educated doctors in the United States come from nearly 2,000 medical schools in 160 countries.
“It is through this process that the public can be assured of a consistent level of health care,” Chaudhry said.
Other experts say that foreign-trained doctors may actually outperform their American peers in some ways.
“The majority is working in literally — I kid you not — in the McDonald’s and driving taxis,” Fernandez-Peña said of the doctors he has met through the Welcome Back Initiative.
Sulaiman, however, said she has no plans to back down.
“I’m so hopeful that one day I will be able to serve at least my community here,” Sulaiman said. “They did a lot for me, and I’d like to serve them.”