OAKLAND — When Mohammad Jamal Deen took a job as an Arabic translator at a Chicago medical center when he was 18 years old, fresh out of high school, he wanted nothing to do with health care and hated the smell of hospitals.
“I was selfish in my thinking,” he said. He admits that his work wasn’t about helping others but about making money.
But then he met a poverty-stricken woman and her 16-year-old daughter from Egypt and listened to how she had to desperately beg doctors to treat her children who were suffering from life-threatening illnesses in her country, only to be rejected repeatedly for medical care.
“That day, she reached in her pocket and handed me these wafers, and said ‘this is all I have — please accept this and please make me a promise that you’ll help people in my situation,'” he said. “And so that day, I made a promise … to help people like her.”
Eight years later, Deen continues to live up to his promise. He has become a voice for the voiceless, for a crisis halfway around the globe, raising awareness for the need for humanitarian action to help Syrian refugees. A paramedic and student at Samuel Merritt University‘s certified registered nurse anesthetist program, he spent four months last year working and leading medical efforts in Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, Northern Greece and Lebanon.
Often serving as the only health care provider at night for up to 3,000 people in those camps, he also helped take the sick and injured to Germany and Switzerland.
A Palestinian-American whose father was a refugee, Deen also emphasizes the duty that everyone has to those who are suffering. He produced and directed a mini film called “A Place Called Hope,” co-authored a book, and will be speaking at a Ted Talk-inspired event in Paris, TEDxIHEParis, this month about his experiences (Ted Talk is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks). For thousands of followers on Instagram and Facebook, he’s put a human face on a global tragedy.
“He amplifies the voice of refugees and makes sure the world knows what’s happening in Syria and other parts of the world,” said Rashad Aldabbagh, executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, which recently gave him an award for his humanitarian achievements. “And it seems a lot of his message has resonated with thousands of people.”
At a talk Deen gave in April to more than 100 other Samuel Merritt University health care students and staff, many were brought to tears by the videos he showed, and not just from his own mini-documentary about the Syrian refugee crisis. He also played a haunting music video called “Ahmed” by Lowkey that served as a call to action.
He recalled the stories of the needy he served during his time there — a man working at the fruit stand who humbly asked for glasses so that he could see; a woman who almost hanged herself as he walked away, thinking he could just talk to her about her medical problems the next day; and a man who begged him for poison to escape his suffering.
And then there was a 5-year-old boy who finally got the lifesaving medical care he needed for him and his family in Switzerland, thanks to the efforts of Deen and other medical volunteers. The boy’s plight was the focus of CNN and other worldwide media.
He also shared stories of how generous and giving so many of the refugees were at the camps, despite having so little to give.
“They would cook for you, they would take their jackets off of their backs for you in the pouring rain,” he said.
“Our school was coming down, and one of the refugees actually stood there holding the poles all night, so the poles would not come down,” he said. “This guy had absolutely nothing, but the only thing he could give was stay up all night, and he did. That’s one of many examples of how amazing so many of them were.”
Ché Abram, Samuel Merritt University’s associate director of diversity, said Deen’s passion and commitment to the Syrian refugee crisis has touched many people at his school and in the medical community.
“He makes you realize that, in fact, it’s closer to the home than you think,” she said.
Deen’s stories to his fellow students also served as a call to action.
“What happens when you don’t take action? What happens when you don’t do anything? … What happens if you don’t give voice to the voiceless?” he told them, as haunting images flashed on the screen of the camps with so many people looking for a home.
“This is our time now,” he said. “This is our time to take action.”