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Journey of Perseverance: From Palestinian Refugee Camp to Head of Hudson Regional Hospital

He was only 4 years old when his family started calling him doctor. And the nickname stuck although it was acquired in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

He was the 10th of 14 children, born in the al-Amari Palestinian refugee camp in Ramallah on the West Bank of the Jordan River to a mother who’d never learned to read or write and a father who not only worked to support his wife and youngsters, but grandparents and several cousins, as well — all the while acting as informal mayor of their crowded, impoverished block of jumbled flats.

As a result of the 1946 creation of the state of Israel, families who lived on land given by the United Nations to the new nation lost their homes and livelihoods and were sent to hastily set up camps where thousands had to find a new way of life. The Kifaiehs and most of their fellow villagers were among them.

Young Nizar Kifaieh observed everything, learning manual labor from his dad and older brothers, learning patience and household skills from his mother and sisters, and learning how to respect everyone from sitting at his father’s feet when he spent every evening as the camp’s problem solver.

“My father respected everyone’s point of view,” he said, “then ruled in a tough but fair way. Everyone did as he suggested, and I strive to make decisions the same way. After listening, I’m tough but fair.”

The camp had no recreational facilities. Only a single soccer ball the boys treasured like gold. No library. Only books passed down from family to family or begged from visiting journalists. A single school to eighth grade. And twice-a-month visits from a UN clinical team, equipped with only aspirin, penicillin and basic advice.

The Palestinian refugee camp where Dr. Nizar Kifaieh grew up, seen here a few years ago. Courtesy of Dr. Nizar KifaiehCourtesy of Dr. Nizar Kifaieh

But among the camp-dwellers lived a man who’d once worked as an orderly in a hospital in Jerusalem and knew a little medicine. When Nizar’s mother spiked a fever one night, the man came to give her an injection. The next day she was fine.

When Nizar asked who the man was and how he’d worked that miracle, his father explained the man was a sort-of doctor. Then and there Nizar vowed someday he’d be a doctor, too. And that’s when everyone started to refer to him fondly as “the doctor.”

It was more than a nickname to him.

He was determined to become a physician. He watched everything, read everything he could get his hands on, studied every chance he got. He earned the highest marks in his school and scored outstandingly on area-wide tests. His proud family was offered the opportunity to send him to high school an hour-and-a-half away.

They accepted eagerly although it meant his rising at 4 a.m. to catch several buses and often being unable to return at night when there were random curfews. Again, he ranked not only the highest in the school, but got marks higher than the school had ever seen.

He was offered scholarships to colleges in countries Israeli officials wouldn’t approve. He could go, they said, but if he did, they’d never allow him to return.

Some years earlier he’d visited an office in Jerusalem set up to help students who wanted to study abroad. Not kids from the camps, they told him, but they gave him a poster of Fordham University to hang on his bedroom wall.

The last thing he saw every night, Fordham became his dream. But it seemed impossible.

First he’d have to take a TOEFL test, a really tough exam to demonstrate proficiency in English. But at that point, he had none.

Nizar had learned a little English in school and picked up a few words from the journalists he’d followed around as a youngster, but now he had to seriously learn a new language. Old books and the radio were his only sources, but he used them to best advantage.

The test was seldom given and that year officials had chosen a curfew day, meaning there was no transportation in or out of al-Amari. He went to bed early, rose at midnight and began walking, knowing it could take eight hours to get to the 8 a.m. start in Jerusalem.

The day was hot and he had to take several detours, but he dared not run because that would attract negative attention from Israeli troops along the road.

He arrived at the test center at 8:15 and because he was late, the proctor refused him entry. A few other students pleaded on his behalf, and grudgingly the proctor let him in at 8:30, warning he’d already lost a half hour test time and there’d be no make-up time and no second chance.

Sweating with stress, hunger and the results of exertion, he did the best he could, handed in his exam, and started the long slog home.

He wasn’t sure he’d done as well as he wanted, but he felt it all might have been in vain anyway. There was no way he could learn whether he passed. There was no mail delivery to the refugee camps and he had no idea when test results would be announced.

Then one morning one of his brothers came rushing in the door, shouting, “Nizar, you’re in the newspaper.”

He had scored so high on the test, it became a newspaper story. He could be accepted to college in the United States.

Then the real troubles began.

Few displaced persons were permitted to leave the country and even fewer to go to the U.S. The first thing he had to do was to bring all documents, including his test marks and college entry papers, to the U.S. Embassy.

Fordham, it turned out, would be too expensive for his family, but he’d been accepted to the City University of New York.

Each morning, he said, there were literally hundreds of people on a line that formed before sunrise. Around noon, embassy officials would shoo away people still outside and tell them to return another day. Nizar returned day after day.

Finally, he made it inside the embassy, and officials refused to give him a visa. Again and again. For months.

One day, one of them abruptly told him, “OK, you can go. But you must leave tomorrow morning.”

He agreed and was told to board a bus to Jordan and he’d be on his own from there. The bus left early so the Jewish driver need not work after sunset. By afternoon, Nizar had made it to Jordan, but some stamp was missing from his exit papers, so Jordanian officials wouldn’t let him in.

However, Israeli officials refused to take him back. That would mean even more paperwork and the driver was in a rush to get home, so the bus left. Nizar was alone in a new country with no identification, no friends, little money and no place to stay. And the Jordanians had taken all his papers.

After a few days, Jordan must have decided it was best to be rid of him, so they returned his papers and let him board a plane with a one-way ticket to New York.

He landed at JFK on Jan. 16, 1990, ready to start the next leg of his journey to become a physician.

One of his older brothers who was living in Chicago helped him find a small studio in New York, and he vowed to make all his family’s hardships and his own worthwhile. He was going to be the very best doctor he could be.

But first he needed a job. He became a stock boy in a supermarket, later he worked in restaurants, and eventually was invited to tutor slower students for money.

With sponsorship from a family member, he was able to apply to become a U.S. citizen. He obtained his Green Card in four years, just in time to enter medical school.

He graduated from City College in Manhattan in 1994 and went on to SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn for his medical degree and a residency in emergency medicine. He was encouraged by his favorite professor to focus on emergency medicine, which was a good fit for him, he said, as he’d seen so much violent injury and death in clashes among Israelis and Palestinians in the years he spent in the refugee camp.

But still it wasn’t enough.

Hudson County COVID-19 testing center

Dr. Nizar Kifaieh, President and CEO of Hudson Regional Hospital, announces that the hospital will serve as a Hudson County COVID-19 designated testing center starting tomorrow.

Kifaieh wanted to treat more than one patient at a time. So he also specialized in public health, receiving a Master’s in public health administration from SUNY Downstate and an MBA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Today he’s the CEO of Hudson Regional Hospital in Secaucus with a comfortable home in the suburbs, a wife and two children, and a continuous thirst for knowledge.

Whenever he faces a problem that seems to have no solution, he reminds himself he’s overcome bigger obstacles than this. And with steely determination and a few scars, he moves ahead.

 

Please note this article originally appeared on NJ.com on December 27, 2021.

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