Chicago pediatrician ‘bears witness’ to atrocities in Syria

Kahler at Umayyad Mosque
Chicago doctors John Kahler, right, and Zaher Sahloul walk through the ruins of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, Syria, a historical cite that was destroyed in years of fighting. (Photo courtesy of John Kahler)

By Maryam Saleh

You would never guess that he was a stranger to Syria only three years ago.

He speaks of Syria’s towns with familiarity, of its people with great fervor, of America’s need to do more with righteous indignation.

He traveled to three countries to help Syrian refugees, and, at age 69, he risked his life – quite literally – to “bear witness” to Syrians’ tragedy, and their resilience.

John Kahler is a Chicago pediatrician who, for the last several months, has become a champion of the Syrian cause, raising awareness about events in the war-torn country and calling for a change from a “feckless” American foreign policy.

“What better person to bear witness to what was going on in Syria?” Kahler asked rhetorically on a recent afternoon. “What better picture than of a bald, grandfatherly American there to bear witness, and more importantly, to stand in solidarity, to see what evil looks like, as well as to stand hand-in-hand with my colleagues?”

His concern is in marked contrast with most Americans, who, according to a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, do not favor admitting Syrian refugees and are wary of U.S. involvement in Syria, which descended into war after President Bashar Al-Assad responded to anti-government protests with brutality in 2011.

Kahler’s relationship with the embattled country goes back three years, to Aug. 21, 2013 to be exact – the day Syria’s dictatorship launched a chemical weapons attack on the Ghouta area of Damascus, Syria’s capital, that killed more than 1,400 people, according to the U.S. Department of State.

From Chicago, Kahler was haunted by the images of lifeless children killed in the attack, and he decided he could not look away.

“The pictures of the little kids lined up in rows touched me at a place in my soul that had never been touched,” he recounted. “To this day, I’ll wake up, and I’ll still have those pictures in my mind.”

A few months later, he contacted the Syrian American Medical Society, a national organization that provides medical relief to the people of Syria, and asked what he could do to help. Since 2014, he has joined SAMS on aid missions in Jordan, Lebanon and Greece, helping Syrian refugees, following two decades of medical missions around the globe.

He was on a mission to Greece’s Idomeni refugee camp, near the Macedonian border, in April when he heard the news that was the impetus for his travel to Aleppo, Syria: Mohammad Wassim Maaz, one of the last pediatricians left in rebel-held Syria, was killed in a regime airstrike on a hospital backed by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

A pediatrician himself, Kahler felt an instant connection to Maaz and was outraged by the targeting of medical personnel, a norm in Syria’s war. As of June 2016, parties to the Syrian conflict had carried out 382 attacks on 269 medical facilities since March 2011; 344 of those attacks were carried out by the Syrian government and its allies, according to Physicians for Human Rights.

Kahler told leaders at SAMS that he wanted to work alongside doctors in Syria. It took him some time to convince them that he truly understood the risks, and that his insistence on going was more than a “romantic gesture.”

“Anyone can go to the camps, but I was the first one who volunteered and pushed [to go to Syria with SAMS] without a blood bond [to the country],” he said.

It was eventually decided that Kahler would join Zaher Sahloul and Samer Attar, Syrian-American doctors from Chicago who have been to Aleppo on medical missions in the past, on a trip that summer.

“I feel personally indebted to him, because at one point I was hesitant whether to go or not,” said Sahloul, a critical care specialist who has made more than a dozen medical trips to Aleppo. “When I saw [Kahler’s] courage and he urged me to help him get to Aleppo, I got encouraged myself.”

They traveled from Chicago to Turkey, and then into Syria, in late June. Although the trio initially went to a trauma center in Aleppo, Kahler spent most of his time at a pediatric clinic, where he saw more than 100 patients daily during a five-day trip.

Kahler in Aleppo
Kahler stands outside the M10 hospital, an underground trauma center in Aleppo, Syria, supported by the Syrian American Medical Society. The hospital was “bombed out of existence” by the Syrian military last month, according to Kahler. (Photo courtesy of John Kahler)

The doctors Kahler worked with and is still in contact with “are the most heroic people that you will ever meet in your life,” he said.

Although the mission left Kahler emotionally drained, one of the highlights was visiting Al-Quds Hospital, where Maaz, the Syrian pediatrician, was killed in the spring. On the third floor of the hospital is a memorial wall, which Kahler felt “blessed” to be able to leave a message on.

“Peace through love,” he wrote.

Although the Aleppo trip was Kahler’s first experience in a war zone, he has a long history of using medicine in aid of underserved communities. He doesn’t doubt that his Catholic upbringing in a single-parent home in Joliet, a working-class town southwest of Chicago, pushed him toward this path.

He got married after graduating from high school and worked in a steel mill for a few years. He planned to go to college to become a teacher, but he read a book titled “The Other America: Poverty in the United States” that moved him toward the medical field.

He was the first person in his family to go to college, and he was admitted to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s medical school. He came of age as a doctor in the civil rights era, an experience that led him to practice medicine on Chicago’s South Side for 45 years.

His first medical mission to Ecuador 25 years ago prompted decades of travel across Africa and Latin America to serve marginalized communities. Post-earthquake Haiti was particularly moving, he remembers. He’s back in Haiti this week, leading a SAMS Global Response team in the organization’s effort to help those in need beyond the Middle East. The Caribbean island is recovering from Hurricane Matthew, a violent storm that struck last month.

He describes himself as a “pretty reserved man,” and over the years, he carried out his medical missions quietly.

But Aleppo was different.  Since returning from Syria, Kahler has penned columns in national publications, given interviews to global news outlets and spoken at hospitals and community events, recounting his experiences and urging public empathy and action.

John Kahler at vigil
Chicago pediatrician John Kahler speaks at a candlelight vigil that was held at Loyola University, where dozens gathered to express solidarity with the people of Aleppo, Syria. Sept. 29, 2016. (Maryam Saleh/MEDILL)

“[I’m] doing things that are two steps out of my comfort zone, that I’m forcing myself to do, because that’s why I went,” he said.

And Kahler’s profile makes his advocacy more effective than that of a Syrian-American doctor, Sahloul said.

“People are engaged when he speaks. Clearly he had many people who were not interested in what is going on in Syria getting more engaged,” said Sahloul, who also regularly speaks publicly about the situation in his native country.

Kahler, who will be 70 in February, works a few days a week at a medical practice in Blue Island. He plans to retire at the end of this year and focus his energy entirely on Syria relief efforts. He has yet to finalize his plans, but he imagines he will work primarily with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where he “likes the energy.”

His wife, six children and 12 grandkids worry about his hopes to return to Syria, but “they realize that I’ll probably do what I want to do,” he said, laughing.

Returning to Aleppo is off the table, for now, because Turkey is erecting a border wall with Syria, but Kahler wants to return to the city, where he hopes he will be treated more like a colleague than a guest.

“I want to be an integral part,” he said.

Chicago doctors John Kahler, right, and Zaher Sahloul walk through the ruins of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, Syria, a historical site that was destroyed in years of fighting. (Photo courtesy of John Kahler)