Dr. Shadi Battah is an American doctor, Palestine refugee, and former UNRWA beneficiary. He is a contributing guest writer to the Voices of UNRWA blog, where he shared the role UNRWA played in his and his family’s lives.
My name is Shadi Battah, and this is my UNRWA refugee story. It’s a story that both represents the unsettlingly common narrative of Palestinian displacement, loss, and reconstruction, but also my family’s unique journey from our homeland in Palestine.
Like many Palestine refugees, UNRWA has been a part of my life and the life of my parents. Both of my parents are UNRWA students and beneficiaries. My dad was born in Ein Karem (Southwest of Jerusalem) in 1941. During the Nakba, my grandparents and family were forced to flee to Jordan in 1948. My dad lived in a refugee camp until 1957 when he left to pursue an education and hope for a better life. It was his education that gave him the foundation and confidence to take this step. All his elementary and middle school education were at UNRWA schools. Through hard work, he ultimately became an electrical engineer.
My mother was born in Deir El Balah refugee camp in Gaza in 1951. Gaza was a very different place then. She was an UNRWA student and beneficiary from birth until she left to Egypt to pursue her education in the late 60s. Ultimately, she became a sociologist. I remember while growing up, she would repeatedly tell me about the UNRWA preventive health services and the daily milk, vitamins, and meals that she had received during her years at UNRWA schools. At this point, they were very poor, and as a result, the nutritional support she’d received at UNRWA schools was vital to her physical and mental growth.
Flash forward to 1978. I was born in Lebanon at the height of the civil war and we fled the country to Jordan where I spent my early childhood. We spent a couple of years in Kuwait and we were vacationing in Jordan for the summer when Iraq occupied Kuwait. This was a severe blow to my dad’s career. In the aftermath, my family faced severe economic hardships. Despite being a middle class family in terms of level of education and aspirations, we lived at the poverty line (and frequently slipped below it) through my teenage years.
I was enrolled in UNRWA’s Al Jofeh elementary school, in southeast Amman from the 7th through 10th grade. I can’t emphasize the importance of what UNRWA has provided me during those formative years: despite over-crowded conditions (40 students or more per teacher) and limited resources, I received an excellent education that prepared me for an uncertain future.
I have fond memories to this day of my math teacher Sameeh, English teacher Sami, and many other very dedicated staff that managed to steer the ship and deliver good results, despite all the odds. This staff, refugees themselves, was exceptional and received employment opportunities through UNRWA. Some of the experiences I had during those formative years included correspondence with a twin school in Sweden that sponsored a science day at the modest lab we had then. This dramatically helped and positively impacted me and my fellow students. This relationship became very important for my personal story down the line. I finished the 10th grade with top scores, and I was instructed by UNRWA staff to keep up the good work and come back at the end of high school (12th grade) to apply for a scholarship to help with my college expenses.
shadi’s family + childhood
I completed my 11th and 12th grades at a public school supported by the government in Jordan. Jordan has been my home and a country that has supported Palestinians immensely and with unwavering commitment throughout the years. Again I scored high, but I have to say that I was very frustrated and sad at the end of high school, as I didn’t see how I’ll be able to cover any tuition expenses considering the lack of resources.
In this moment of need, my UNRWA sister school in Sweden made a one time financial contribution that allowed me to register for medical school in the fall semester of 1996. The cost of tuition for the entire year was about $1500, which is negligible compared to costs in the United States, but nonetheless, it was an insurmountable amount for me and my family at that point. That contribution allowed me to get my foot in the door and gave me time to circle back with the UNRWA education division and apply for a tuition scholarship. When the grants were announced early in 1997, I was very happy to learn that I was a recipient of the scholarship. It was this scholarship that carried me through medical school. There was no way I could have attended medical school without UNRWA’s financial support.
One thing lead to another and I ended up moving to the United States in 2004 to pursue training in internal medicine. I further specialized in pulmonary and critical care, which has allowed me to enjoy a very rewarding relationship with my patients and community.
I feel fortunate to have continued to develop and prosper in my personal and professional life, and my successes helped me support many people in my circle, whether in my immediate community or thousands of miles away. I've recently decided to become an American citizen as I've always believed in the core values including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and how those notions apply to individuals and nations alike.
I believe that the most vulnerable Palestinians deserve to live in freedom and have the chance to pursue their dreams and hopes, as well. UNRWA's work and support makes this possible, and I'm a living example of how UNRWA's work not only benefits Palestinians but also Americans and people around the world. With the opportunity and support that UNRWA provides, UNRWA alumni are more likely to become productive world citizens. UNRWA’s work is vital on so many levels but above all it gives Palestinian kids education and hope for a better future. In my opinion, hope is as important as water and food and is pivotal to maintaining stability and peace.
Though I’ve worked hard, I definitely hit a lucky streak. I don’t believe that the education, healthcare, dreams and hopes of the most vulnerable Palestinians should depend on the luck factor. That's why UNRWA's work is so important. I'm forever indebted to UNRWA. UNRWA changed my life and the lives of many people around me.
More about Shadi
I spent most of my life in Jordan where I attended UNRWA’s Al Jofeh school from 7th to 10th grade. I finished high school with honors from Al-Hussein College High School in Amman, and enrolled in medical school at Jordan University of Science and Technology in Irbid. My tuition was mostly paid for by an UNRWA scholarship, without which I would not been able to attend college. I graduated in 2002, and shortly afterwards, I decided to come to the US to pursue higher medical education. I finished my residency in internal medicine from Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati in 2007, and then I went to University of New Mexico Hospitals in Albuquerque where I did a fellowship in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. Afterwards, I moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where I joined a private practice as an Intensivist. I've been providing critical medical care to Alaskans for the past 8 years or so both at the bedside and via telemedicine platforms. I'm currently enrolled in the Certificate of Physician Leadership program and will be starting work on my MBA from the University of Massachusetts in 2019.
I got married to my wonderful wife Carisa in 2013, and we have two boys and are expecting another baby soon. We live in Alaska and spend a significant amount of time in Northern California, where my wife's family lives. In my free time I read, play chess, and join local pick-up soccer games. I have a keen interest in startups, especially in the healthcare space and in high tech.