Jamaica doctor returns home to treat Afghans

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When Dr. Akram Babury was forced to flee from Afghanistan in 1982, he said it was painful not only because he had to leave behind family and friends, but also because he had to give up a good position as a practicing medical professor at a hospital in Kabul.

After returning to his country three years ago as a volunteer physician for the first time since that exile, Babury said he was shocked at the changes that had taken place but knew his work could move the nation in the right direction.

“The good thing is when you do this kind of job without expectations, there is a lot of meaning,” said Babury, 55, the associate director of pulmonary medicine at Jamaica Hospital. “They treat you like a hero.”

Over the last three years. Babury has been spending one-month stints as a consulting physician for Cure International, a nonprofit that provides medical centers and doctors to third world nations. During his visits, the most recent of which was in October, the Queens physician has been giving lectures to new doctors who work at Cure’s hospital in Kabul.

In addition to his teaching duties, Babury also provided the hospital with help on cases and donated packages of medicine, a laptop and medical notes.

“They are very bright and they are very eager to learn,” he said of the overseas residents.

Babury was familiar with this line of work since he began his career as an instructor. Things changed when the Soviets arrested Babury’s brother, a teacher in 1982. The physician’s family grew concerned over the safety of his wife, also a doctor, and his 3-month-old son.

“At that time, if one family member got arrested, they arrested the entire family,” he said.

He eventually fled with his wife in a week-long trek through Pakistan and India before he was able to immigrate to New York. Three years later their son was brought to the United States.

Babury thought he would never be able to return to the politically unstable country, but all that changed when he received a 2 a.m. phone call from one of his former Jamaica Hospital residents, Dr. Nikhil Siony, an Indian American who had been volunteering for Cure in Kabul and knew that working with the organization was Babury’s calling.

“He said, ‘Why aren’t you coming here to help your people?’” Babury recalled.

Despite initial reservations about his safety, Jamaica Hospital gave the OK for the physician to visit Afghanistan. The long-awaited return to Kabul was bittersweet, according to Babury.

“In a city [Kabul] where I grew up ... I knew each area street by street. When I went there, I could not find one place that wasn’t destroyed,” he recalled.

Babury said he was even more shocked at the medical and cultural changes that had occurred over the last two decades. Education, food and other basic needs were in short supply.

The doctor said he used his time to counter this trend by providing his students with the most up-to-date information on fighting Afghanistan’s most prominent diseases, such as malaria. He went one step further by offering his e-mail address to the overseas doctors and on a regular basis gives his expertise on cases they are handling.

Babury’s work impressed the administrators at Cure, who said the physician inspired countless doctors.

“We as an organization have been moved by his work just in the sense of when he goes there he develops relationships with the people he trains,” said Cure International spokesman Noel Lloyd.

Babury said he will continue to do work in his native land, but wants other U.S. doctors, especially Afghan-American ones, to assist as well.

“I believe that the only way the Afghan situation will change is if educated people from the West go back and make a change,” he said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

Updated 5:42 pm, October 10, 2011
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