PAAIA interviewed Dr. Arash Alaei and Dr. Kamiar Alaei to discuss their imprisonment in Iran, their ambitions to provide medical education to displaced Syrian refugee students, as well as their aspirations to inspire the next generation of students to become doctors.
Dr. Arash Alaei and Dr. Kamiar Alaei, both members of the IA-100, are brothers who grew up in Kermanshah City, Iran. The Alaei brothers began developing comprehensive projects on HIV/AIDS and harm reduction in their hometown, and later expanded their efforts into Tehran — but their worked sparked major controversy. The brothers, accused of conspiring against the Iranian government, spent three years in Tehran’s Evin prison from 2008 to 2011. Even through their imprisonment, the doctors worked diligently to establish health practices amongst their fellow prisoners.
In 2012, the Alaei brothers established the Global Institute for Health and Human Rights (GIHHR) on the University at Albany campus, aiming to bridge the gap between health and human rights access across the world. They also established the Global Multilingual Online College (GMOC), offering accessible academic programs in multiple languages. GMOC targets displaced individuals and refugees around the world who desire to continue their education.
Recently, a Times Union article highlighted their most recent achievement in providing accessible online academic courses to Syrian refugees, and PAAIA had the opportunity to discuss their experiences and latest accomplishments.
PAAIA: Life as a student is challenging, life as a medical student is even more daunting, and life as a medical student fleeing a war-torn country seems impossible. What first inspired you to make the lives of these students easier?
AA: We were in medical school years ago. When students want to continue their education, they have passion to change their society and improve quality of life. When you look at students who are displaced in Syria or around the world, you ask how can they continue to follow their passion when they live in a village, don’t have access to school, or there isn’t even hope for tonight? We thought maybe we could deliver them academic courses, and in doing so we are saying “we are with you, we don’t forget you.” We can connect them with our students and faculty members. Maybe their lives will be easier and maybe their hope and passion will come back. Technology gives us this opportunity. Even if we are far from each other, we can still remain close.
KA: As a medical doctor who was once a medical student, I understand how difficult it is to be a medical student in Iran. Those who want to go to medical school have a passion to serve the community, but now those students are facing challenges. The responsibility of society is to support them. This was the reason we were motivated to help them. I believe in academic institutions, in contributing to science, and in my responsibility to make the environment safe for the next generation so they can continue to contribute to society. More than 90% of Syrian doctors left their country. A huge shortage of medical providers exists in Syria. We need a new generation of doctors who can help people in Syria.
PAAIA: The online science courses, some of which are taught in Arabic, are available via mobile phone. How has the fact that courses can be accessed via smart phone impacted the success of the program?
AA: When we began, a survey found that 85% of our target group does not have access to computers or laptops because they are displaced refugee students. Another survey found that 97% of them had a smart phone. We discussed with our colleagues in computer science how we could deliver courses via smartphones. Then, we created an application using smartphones as the platform. We could deliver higher education in a useful manner to them. When we evaluated it, we saw it worked very well.
KA: There are a lot of online courses, but most of them are in English and the few courses in Arabic are not provided by academic institutions. We wanted to use U.S. – standard courses, taught in English, and still remove the language barriers. Most of our students do not know English. Syria is one of the few countries in the Middle East where all medical textbooks and education is in Arabic. One of the indicators for success is the fact that we have a high retention rate. The students are also very engaged and excited about taking these courses.
PAAIA: Many of the program’s students find themselves in conflict zones. Have any of the lectures focused primarily on emergency first-aid training or trauma treatment?
AA: Next semester we want to deliver more than just academic courses. We want to incorporate classes which can also be used to help them control trauma. We also want to increase courses for non-health students and small businesses that could be beneficial to their personal lives as well.
KA: There are core courses required for academic competencies, but in the future we want to have some applied courses that can help their lives. We also want to provide mental health or social entrepreneurship courses. Some of these students may go to border countries where they experience a cultural shock.
PAAIA: You are currently working with UAlbany computer programmers to further develop the mobile application. Can you tell us about any new ideas you are planning to implement?
AA: We want to utilize user-friendly platforms for online courses. Our target now is Syrian refugees, but our goal is to deliver long-distance education for displaced refugee students worldwide. Our cohort of students from Syria do not have access to personal computers, but maybe other students do elsewhere. How can we develop a user-friendly platform delivering courses in other languages? The program for displaced Syrian students was developed by the GMOC and GIHHR, both located at UAlbany. With support of UAlbany faculty members, the UAlbany provost, and the Dean of International Education, we are delivering courses in the native language to our Arabic target group. In addition to the Intensive English Language Program, we think after two years we have to improve their English proficiency and connect them to a worldwide network. We established the GMOC, and the vision is that millions of people around the world who want access to an education but are not proficient in English can take courses or connect to other universities that deliver courses in English.
PAAIA: You were treated harshly and unfairly in the Iranian prison, Evin. How did you maintain your optimism, your drive to inspire others, and your determination to teach while imprisoned?
AA: When we were in Evin prison in solitary cells, it is up to each person to determine how they think about their future. You can be sad and lose hope, or you can think the future will come soon and this is not my entire lifetime; this will finish. When you think positively, you can survive and use time in a solitary cell to develop your plans for the future.
KA: We have been working in our field of HIV/AIDS and drug use for a while. Since that was our passion, nothing stopped us. Not even imprisonment could deter us. Our main goal was to serve the community. We believe all people need help. Even prisoners need special attention, so we continued our work for disadvantaged populations.
PAAIA: Since being released from Evin prison in 2010 and 2011, you have been giving back to those who helped with your release. How rewarding is it to provide hope, inspiration, and opportunity to Syrian medical students through this program?
AA: Thousands of people including doctors, faculty, and many others around the world supported us when we were in prison. Now, this is our time. We are faculty members in the largest higher education system in the United States, and as a member of SUNY it is our job to help people who need to receive higher education. This is our time to share our happiness and our time to give hope to hundreds of students in that situation.
KA: It is not that we are doing something special, I think this is anybody’s job to pay back. We have worked for over 15 years with the homeless as well as prisoners and now we are very happy to help medical students become the new generation of doctors who care for disadvantaged populations. Our hope is to have a better definition for doctors who care about society. Also, a significant proportion of our online students are women who are excited to learn and that is very rewarding.
PAAIA: The Global Institute for Health and Human Rights strives to bridge the gap between health and human rights. Focusing on your experience in Iran, what is the greatest obstacle you feel must be overcame to help narrow the gap between health and human rights issues?
AA: The GIHHR is an institute we established with UAlbany, and along with the GMOC part of the goal is to close the gap language barriers create. The GIHHR focuses on improving the rights of people to have access to health. To improve the quality of health, we must pay attention to equity and justice and to deliver any program for people around the world, you cannot just focus on medicine. We have to expand the right to health for those living with HIV/AIDS, the right to health for sex workers, and the right to health for displaced people and orphans. There are any number of target groups we must pay attention to.
KA: One of the main gaps we have is that doctors do not know about human rights. Additionally, we have lawyers who do not know about health. We aim to educate using both frameworks. Traditionally, human rights focuses on advocacy, but the field of human rights is much broader than that. There are a lot of applications to policy change, implementation, and research. Very few studies focus on the right to health, which is a fundamental human right. One of the biggest challenges is that these studies don’t focus on key populations like prisoners, injected drug users, and males who have sex with both men and women. There are a lot of cultural barriers in developing countries in the Middle East, so we want to overcome social stigma and increase access to health care services.
PAAIA: What goals do you have for the program’s future? Do you see it expanding to other universities? How can interested individuals get involved?
AA: Our target with this project was Syrian refugees, but there are millions of displaced refugees all over the world. Education is a key part to their future, so we would like to engage with other universities as well as individual faculty members to help deliver courses in a multitude of different languages and locations across the world.
KA: We want to scale up. Because we have hundreds of thousands of displaced students who want to continue their education, academic institutions have a very critical role in helping them do just that. Also, sustainability is another goal for the program’s future. We need a lot of resources. We hope to have not only academic institutions, faculty members, and individuals who are interested in education to be involved, but also funders of national and international organizations to co-sponsor the initiative so we can ensure this project’s sustainability. Any individual can be involved depending on their interest. They can help by volunteering, translating, serving as educators, fundraisers, or recruiters for the program, or helping adapt our technology to a new platform. We have a diverse set of needs and anyone can become involved depending on that person’s interests.