A little more than two months ago, Dr. Laura Culley, the associate dean for community engagement at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, received a phone call from Tami Bruno, the Nevada state refugee health coordinator. Bruno needed assistance for a refugee family arriving from Syria, particularly for the son in the family with chronic renal failure who had missed his dialysis treatment during the transfer to Las Vegas.
When Bruno mentioned the family spoke only Arabic, Culley, who makes it her business to stay abreast of what’s happening in UNLV’s professional schools of nursing, integrated health, community healthcare, dentistry, and allopathic medicine, remembered that several students in the university’s healthcare programs spoke the language and she put out a request for help. Three School of Medicine students, Fadi Azar, Elena Salmon, and Aziza Dhalai, were part of a six-member group that volunteered to help the young man known as “Baz'' navigate medical interactions in Las Vegas.
Dhalai, a third-year medical student who began her life in the Middle East country of Yemen, sat with Baz for several hours at University Medical Center as he waited to receive dialysis. She said the shy young man revealed during their conversations that his family initially escaped to Iraq five years ago from Syria, which was in the midst of a civil war.
“He was exhausted and one time he asked to leave,” Dhalai recalled. “I’m glad I was there to talk with him. If he had left his health situation could have gotten worse.”
Culley said Dhalai’s quick response to her request was indicative of all six of the students who worked with Baz. “They’re very busy and very caring,” she said. “They organized a group chat and worked as a team over the next few weeks to be sure that Baz would always be accompanied by a student for any medical interaction. We were able to get Baz his Medicaid immediately and get him into an outpatient dialysis center within days of his arrival, which is practically underheard of.”
It wasn’t the first time Dhalai had played a role in helping people get settled in the United States and she says it won’t be the last. “I wasn’t a refugee. I was an immigrant. But I know what it’s like to be new. It can be frightening. It isn’t easy. Our family got some help that I’ll never forget. It's the kind of thing you want to pass on.” In the past, she’s also volunteered to work with the homeless through the CARE and HOPE CLINIC in downtown Las Vegas.
“No one is immune to ending up on the street when everything goes wrong,” she said. “You meet someone who’s been working for a restaurant for five years and now they’re staying at a shelter. Most people I met were just grateful for the sandwiches we provided, but mostly for acknowledging them and listening. I asked one gentleman what the hardest part is about being on the street and he said not having anyone to talk to. It had been months since he had talked to another person since most people avoid having eye contact with him.”
That Dhalai is now on the verge of entering one of the world’s most respected professions seems more amazing the more you think about it.
She was born 39 years ago in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Lacking basic resources, such as education and health care, it had been split into North and South Yemen after gaining independence from Britain. In her rural village in South Yemen, which was a communist state, most of the women were illiterate.
“I’m sure I would be just like those women today if it weren’t for my father getting to the U.S., working hard, and taking advantage of opportunities,” said Dhalai.
Dhalai said her father got to the U.S. in the 70s by agreeing to be a farm worker in California. “It was what he knew,” she said. “We had a cow, goats, chickens and some sheep where we lived in Yemen. I would help herd the goats and sheep.”
By the 80s, her father had saved enough money to help an uncle open a small grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and then bring his family to the U.S. Dhalai was then 5. “We first arrived in Buffalo in winter and it was the first time I had ever seen snow. I’m not a big fan of the cold, but there’s nothing more beautiful than everything covered in fresh snow.”
Dhalai learned English quickly. “The teachers were amazing. They gave us extra help that they didn’t have to do. I can never forget that.”
By the age of 10, Dhalai, who has two older brothers and two younger sisters, was accompanying her parents to medical appointments, often translating for them, especially her mother. “I thought about being a doctor then because they seemed to know everything, how to make people well. But I really thought it was impossible, that I wasn’t smart enough, that I didn’t have the money.”
Before her senior year of high school, Dhalai’s father got the opportunity to open a convenience store in Las Vegas and the family moved to the city in the late 90s. Dhalai, who describes herself at that time as an average student, graduated from Eldorado High School in 2000.
A Variety of Jobs
Over the next 13 years, she would work at more than a half dozen jobs, including as a teacher’s aide and with an airline call center. Time spent at each job made her think she should be doing something more intellectually stimulating, maybe become a doctor. But becoming a single mother of two children after a marriage soured made that seem like a dream that would never be realized.
A funny thing happened on her way to living an unsatisfied life, however. She was receiving A’s in classes she took part-time at the College of Southern Nevada while she was working. Family, seeing her wanting to make a better future for her kids, helped out with the children while she was at school. She received grants and scholarships and tutored other students so she could attend UNLV, where she was nearly an all-A student. After she graduated, '18 BS Biology, and did well on the medical school entrance exam even medical school, through loans, seemed doable.
Set to graduate in 2023, Dhalai plans to become an ophthalmologist. She remembers how her grandmother lost her sight in Yemen because there wasn’t the medical care to take of cataracts. “She just saw it as a normal part of aging.” And Dhalai also remembers how her own mother was able to keep her sight after a cataract operation in the U.S. that took only minutes.
“I want to help people around the world like that someday,” said Dhalai, who points out that her age — she was 36 when she started medical school — hasn’t been a detriment to making friends at the school. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of classmates. Some of them are incredibly young, but they’re amazing people.”
Today, Dhalai says her future never looked brighter.
“I equate immigrating to the United States to winning the lottery, and the prize came in the form of an education and the opportunity to pursue my ultimate passion, a career in medicine.”