An irreplaceable legacy
Nemam Ghafouri: 1968-2021
“Many small brooks make a strong river,” Nemam Ghafouri liked to say. During six years of working in a costly war zone, the 52-year-old cardiothoracic surgeon made a torrent of difference until her death on April 1.
Ghafouri survived close calls from deadly assailants fighting in Iraq, then Syria. She was struck down by the coronavirus.
Born in a cave on Christmas Day to a Kurdish family in northern Iraq, Ghafouri and her family escaped attacks by Saddam Hussein on the Kurds in 1980, became refugees, and resettled in Sweden. She studied medicine, including epidemiology and public health in addition to becoming a surgeon.
Watching the takeover of her homeland by the Islamic State in 2014, Ghafouri left a successful medical practice and returned to Iraq. She got to work among the tens of thousands of Yazidis forced from their homes, killed, or kidnapped by ISIS fighters. She founded a small nongovernmental organization, Joint Help for Kurdistan, while keeping her practice in Sweden to help pay its bills.
In 2014 Ghafouri backpacked medicine into what would become a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the mountains near Dohuk “because it was difficult to reach.” After securing donations from an oil company, she built a clinic in the camp, which has expanded into two sectors and has about 10,000 Yazidi IDPs today.
When I met Dr. Nemam, as everyone called her, she ran six mobile medical teams, the clinic, and a bakery that was supplying bread for 18,000 displaced people a day. More refugees were coming across the mountains from Syria as ISIS and other militant groups emptied towns of Yazidis, Christians, and Kurds. She would take teams into Syria, facing live-fire situations. And in the small fraternity of aid groups willing to work under such stress, Ghafouri found common cause with Muslim doctors, Christian and Mormon NGOs, and Kurdish officials.
At one point I helped connect her to an American group that had medicine while she was pinned down in Syria with wounded Yazidi families and no supplies. Notably fierce in her devotion, she was disarmingly warm. She’d drop what she was doing, leave the camp, and spend two hours in a coffee shop with a reporter like me just to be helpful.
With the fall of ISIS, Ghafouri worked to rescue young Yazidi women the militants enslaved. In early March she returned with nine of them to the Iraq-Syria border. The women were reunited with young children they had birthed in forced marriages—“an unprecedented mission,” said New York Times reporter Jane Arraf, who covered the reunion. It was two years in the making: Ghafouri worked for their release then made repeated trips to an orphanage in Syria to secure their children’s release. During the reunion she contracted COVID-19.
American doctor Kirk Milhoan was leading a team into Syria at the time and spoke to the Kurdish surgeon by phone. “Her lungs were horrible, just horrible,” he said.
She refused to go to the hospital, having seen many around her contract the virus and recover. She was guarding her movement because she had received multiple threats, plus she had work to do. As she worsened, another surgeon, Iraqi Fitoon Yaldo, had delivered to her medicine and oxygen. Members of Milhoan’s team stayed with Ghafouri, prayed, and sang for her. Finally she was hospitalized in Kurdistan, then flown to Sweden, where she died in a Stockholm hospital with her family surrounding her.
It’s so common to see front-line health workers succumbing to COVID-19 that we look away—until it is someone you know. Someone who leaves an enormous gap.
“She is truly irreplaceable,” Milhoan told me, “someone selfless enough to do what she did, with the cultural background of the East and the resources of the West.”
“It is not me who lost Dr. Nemam,” Yaldo told me. “The whole world did, and it’s terribly painful.”
The global death toll from COVID-19 topped 3 million worldwide in April, many of them front-line health workers like Ghafouri, and each likely irreplaceable to those who knew them.
Ghafouri for many, particularly the Yazidi victims of ISIS, fulfilled the Kurdish proverb: “A good companion shortens the longest road.”
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