Dr. Shahda, pancreatic and colon cancer expert, becomes U.S. citizen
By Brian Hartz
Safi Shahda, M.D., is basking in the glow of achieving something that some people might take for granted: U.S. citizenship.
Dr. Shahda, who conducts pancreatic and colon cancer research at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center, immigrated to the States from war-ravaged Syria. He took the U.S. Oath of Allegiance and became a citizen earlier this year, after first completing an extensive background check and an oral exam in October 2016.
Dr. Shahda, 36, first visited the United States in 2003. In 2007, he returned to IU School of Medicine for his residency following the completion of medical school at the Damascus University Faculty of Medicine. He also completed a hematology/oncology fellowship at the IU Simon Cancer Center. In 2013, he joined the IU School of Medicine faculty and currently is an assistant professor of clinical medicine specializing in gastrointestinal oncology.
“Citizenship was my goal from the beginning, even before the war in Syria, which has been going on for six years now,” he said. “I came to the United States with an intention to complete my education and focus on cancer research because I felt that I would not be able to achieve my goals if I went back to Syria.”
““I came to the United States with an intention to complete my education and focus on cancer research because I felt that I would not be able to achieve my goals if I went back to Syria.”Safi Shahda, M.D.
“If I had remained in Syria, I would have had limits on what I could do, and after talking to people and hearing about the opportunities in the United States, I realized it’s a wide open door for people like myself. So, ever since I came here, I had the intention to potentially become a cancer researcher, and I knew if I returned to Syria, there would be no way I could achieve this goal.”
INSPIRED TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Family was another strong reason for Dr. Shahda to forge a new destiny for himself in the United States. Dr. Shahda was a boy of 10 when his mother developed breast cancer and died in 1990 at the age of 33.
“I saw her going through cancer and treatment, and I didn’t understand a thing,” he recalled. “But a big part of me was influenced by that, seeing my mother going through this suffering.”
Dr. Shahda says his lack of understanding at the time was fueled by the stigma and superstitions surrounding cancer in Syria. “Even now, in 2017, people do not, in Syria, mention the word ‘cancer’ when they are referencing cancer,” he said. “If you say it, you're making it so. That type of thing. Back in 1990, for them to speak openly about cancer … was not culturally acceptable.”
Though devastated by the loss of his mother, Dr. Shahda gained a whole new family a few years after arriving in the United States. His wife, Jessica, is a native Hoosier. They met in 2009 while she was working as a nurse practitioner at an Indianapolis hospital. They are the parents of a toddler and a newborn.
Family is important to Dr. Shahda, and he regrets that the political situation in Syria prevents him from being with his parents and siblings. Dr. Shahda’s father wasn’t able to leave Syria to attend his son’s wedding or meet his grandson. Because of the war and his immigration status at the time, Dr. Shahda was not able to return to Syria to attend his sister’s wedding.
“Certainly, I miss my family,” he said. “I haven’t seen them for a long time. Technology, like Skype, makes it a little bit easier, but it’s not a replacement. They see what I’ve achieved so far and what I’ve done, and know this is the right thing for me.”
Dr. Shahda said he also misses Damascus, one of the cultural and historical capitals of the Middle East. “I went to Damascus University for medical school and spent about nine years in the city. I love the historic places in Damascus. I miss walking there in the middle of the night and enjoying the beauty and vibrancy of such a historic city. I wish I could go back and take another walk there, but not now.”
Here, he’s making a profound difference in the lives of his fellow Americans. Since joining the IU medical school faculty, he’s become the medical director for hematology and oncology at Eskenazi Health, and he’s involved in numerous research projects, in addition to treating patients, at IU Health.
“I’m helping to increase opportunities for research at Eskenazi hospital, improve the structure of our oncology clinics, and increase the research staff presence in the hospital to the point where we offer patients the same standards that we offer our patients at the IU Simon Cancer Center,” he said. “I developed several clinical trials in an area of pancreatic cancer and colon cancer with the intention to improve on the standard of care. This involves testing new drugs or new approaches to improve and build on what we already have established.
“Also, I’m collaborating with scientists to develop biomarkers that will lead to more personalized treatment for patients. Another area of my research involves understanding why patients with cancer lose weight and muscle mass.”
Dr. Shahda said he is grateful for the opportunities his new citizenship affords him, and he knows he will never become too busy to stop and reflect on his journey and appreciate his new home country.
“I don’t think I can be any happier,” he said. “As a family, we love our lifestyle here. It has been the right move. It’s a place where I can make a difference, a place of opportunities where doors keep opening for me to do the things that I love doing. I can’t be grateful enough for the country and the people that welcomed me, and for all the opportunities I have had. I am honored to have become a United States citizen and to call Indiana home.”
Brian Hartz, an IU graduate and a Hoosier native, is a seasoned journalist and writer who has lived in Bloomington
as well as Auckland, New Zealand; Toronto, Ontario; and Victoria, British Columbia. Brian now lives in St. Petersburg, Fla.