When his phone rang this past spring and Nathan Samras, MD, MPH, heard the voice on the other end of the line, it took him by surprise. “Hey,” the caller said. “I’m in Miami.”
by Robin Keats
Miami? “What on earth?” wondered Dr. Samras, assistant professor of pediatrics and internal medicine. Why was the caller in Miami?
The answer stunned him: The caller, a young surgeon from Nicaragua, whom Dr. Samras had met the previous year while on a medical mission, had fled from her politically torn country after a gunman confronted her on the street, pressed a pistol to her chest and threatened that he would return the next day to kill her. Less than 24 hours later, she boarded a plane. Now she was in the United States with little more than a suitcase, a six-month tourist visa and the phone number for Dr. Samras, one of the few people she knew in the country.
“I just saw her the month before when I was there for the Nicaragua Global Health Project” — a non-governmental organization (NGO) that he established in 2016 to help provide medical services to the country’s poor — Dr. Samras says. “I knew there had been protests against the government and the deteriorating economic situation in the country, but it never occurred to me that she might be caught up in the violence.”
Maria — her real name is being withheld out of ongoing concern for her safety — had, indeed, become a target of her country’s leadership after she tended to the injuries of students who were hurt during anti-government protests.
What was Dr. Samras to do? Maria was able to stay for a few weeks with acquaintances in Virginia and Texas, but she soon exhausted her housing options. And, so, Dr. Samras opened his home to her. “’Of course we have to help her,’ my wife said. She and my kids have been amazing. They had no second thoughts about how having such a guest would affect all of our lives. She went from being someone on the run to becoming a welcomed and beloved member of my family. My kids call her ‘Auntie.’”
IT DID NOT START OFF EASY WHEN DR. SAMRAS AND MARIA first met, in 2017. She was suspicious of him and his motives. “I had prejudices,” Maria says. In addition to teaching at a medical school, she ran several clinics, and she had “experienced others who came to Nicaragua wanting to help and then took advantage.” They took pictures of the clinics, made promises, raised money and then, she says, “kept all or most of it.”
“I was not kind,” Maria says. “I said to him, ‘You are a gringo. You have money. Your life is quiet and safe. Why are you here?’ I told him about the bad experiences with other people, but he answered me directly, and I saw his eyes. Little by little, I learned to trust him. And now he is a great friend.”
Nicaragua is not Samras’s first experience in a developing country. After graduating with a degree in biomedical engineering from Duke University, he spent two years with the Peace Corps in Malawi, in southeast Africa. He remained in Malawi after his Peace Corps commitment for another two years to work with several NGOs. It was there, working on a number of community health projects, that he became interested in medicine. After returning to the U.S., he earned his MD from Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
Dr. Samras’s Nicaragua Global Health Project brings teams of medical student volunteers to assist in Nicaraguan clinics and hospitals. His most recent initiative has been to collect and distribute used but still-working ultrasound equipment. He was working with Maria on that project when she was forced to flee.
In addition to providing her with shelter, Dr. Samras, along with colleagues at UCLA, have explored other ways to assist her, including helping her to find legal representation to file a claim for asylum in the U.S. She filed her claim just as the issue of Central American asylum-seekers was boiling over. “It couldn’t have been a worse time to be seeking political asylum,” Dr. Samras says. With time running out on her visa, Maria tried to stay positive that she would be allowed to remain.
“She was very nervous and worried about it,” Dr. Samras says. “But resilience is a quality that she has in spades, and, with the grace of God and her very strong faith, she has been optimistic that she will be able to achieve her goals.”
That faith was borne out in December, when Maria received word that her petition for asylum had been granted. Now that she has legal status, Dr. Samras is trying to assist her to find work and a more permanent living situation. While she cannot practice as a physician in the U.S. until she receives supplemental training and takes additional licensing exams, she could work in other medical capacities.
“When I become a doctor here, I will work to help as many people as I can,” Maria says. “This is the purpose of my life; it is what God wants of me. And when things change in my country, I will go back to help my people there.”
Robin Keats is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.