Former refugee, now Emory cardiologist, works toward better health for all

By Michelle Hiskey | Emory Magazine | Dec. 9, 2015

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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.

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.

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