LOCKPORT – Last spring, ready to leave for a medical mission to Greece to help Syrian refugees who had survived crossing the Mediterranean Sea, Dr. John Khaler heard about the death of the last pediatrician in East Aleppo in an airstrike on al-Quds Hospital in the war-torn and divided city.
“I contacted the head of [the Syrian American Medical Society] and I said, ‘Send me, I’ll go,’” recounted Khaler, a 70-year old pediatrician who just retired on Jan.1.
Khaler lives in Palos Park with his second wife, Cecelia McClellan, but was born and raised in Lockport.
McClellan, a social worker, said it was agreed early on that “he’ll ‘save the world’ and I’ll take care of the family.”
He’s “had the itch” to travel all his life, Kahler said, and has spent the last 20 years traveling to places like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as well as Haiti, Africa and Latin America on short-term medical missions.
But Syria was to be unlike any other mission, in a number of ways.
East Aleppo is one of the most dangerous places in the world, with daily airstrikes by the government of President Bashar al-Assad on the rebel-held area.
Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a critical care specialist from Burr Ridge who is also with SAMS, said Kahler repeated that request to him in Greece.
“I told him, ‘It’s very risky, especially for an American physician,’” Sahloul said. “Physicians in general are targeted by the Assad regime.”
Sahloul, a Syrian-American who volunteered in Syria 14 times – five of them in East Aleppo – since the beginning of the civil war six years ago, knew firsthand the dangers Khaler would face.
The Road to Aleppo
At the end of last June, Kahler, Sahloul and an American surgeon at Northwestern Medical, Samer Attar, having crossed the Turkey-Syria border, found themselves on Castello Road, an open road bombed frequently and the only road left into East Aleppo.
Khaler had helped with Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan and Lebanon. In Haiti, he traveled with armed guards because of the threat of kidnapping by gangs.
Kahler said he imagined Aleppo would be “something akin” to that. He was wrong.
During a pause in bombings, in separate SUVs Khaler and his companions and drivers made their way past shells of bombed-out cars and trucks.
“When we got into the city we could smell burnt flesh…the smell of death was in the air, no doubt about that,” he said.
Kahler and Sahloul’s trip back out four days later was more terrifying, they said.
At the M10 and M2 hospitals (which now have been bombed out) Khaler saw at least 150 patients, he said. Many of them needed general care, but a number of children also had psychological problems. Many suffered from bed-wetting, anxiety, headaches and insomnia.
One child was so afraid to sleep inside the family’s home because of the bombings that the father had to set up a tent in the courtyard, Kahler remembered.
Sahloul said that every day they heard explosions, but people continued to work.
“John was very cool; he took it very well,” Sahloul said.
Attar met Kahler on that mission, his own second one which would last two weeks, but they became friends during that harrowing trip in.
“John has been going on medical missions throughout the world,” Attar said. “There is no place he wouldn’t go…I think he is a remarkable, selfless human. He sees the humanity in all of us.”
A Life Lived in Service
Khaler said he has devoted most of his life to providing medical care to underserved areas, not only as a medical missionary but also in the 34 years he worked at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.
He credits the Carmelite Catholic education – which stresses “service as well as spirituality” –he received at the former St. Joseph Elementary School and Joliet Catholic High School (now Joliet Catholic Academy).
But in the last four years, after a bout with cancer, “something changed in him” and he began to view his purpose differently.
“There was too much ‘of me, for me’ involved in those [previous] missions,” Khaler said, adding that seeing the world was a part of those missions.
Now, he was looking for something “to leave in the world.”
In April 2015, Kahler saw a “60 Minutes” segment on the sarin gas attack on the Ghouta region of suburban Damascus. More than a thousand civilians were reported to have been killed. Syrian rebels blamed Assad for the attack.
“The gassing and the sight of hundreds of children laid out in that warehouse haunted me,” Kahler said. “I would wake up two to three nights a week with that nightmare.”
Soon after Kahler joined SAMS.
A Witness and a Cause to Die For
About his desire to go to Aleppo, Kahler said that it was less about sharing his medical expertise as wanting to bring awareness, especially in the United States, to the plight of the Syrian people.
Kahler felt more attention was paid in media and by the United States to the threat of ISIS and not the Syrian victims of Assad’s bombings. He added that more attention is on civilians now since the sarin gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 and the subsequent U.S. airstrikes on a Syrian airfield.
Kahler said he wanted “to be a witness to what was going on” and support the local health care workers who “are the real heroes.”
Both Kahler and Sahloul recounted a conversation last fall in which Kahler said he was willing to die to get attention for the Syrian people.
“I said, ‘If the concept of an American martyr would [stimulate the U.S. to help stop the bombing of the Syrian people], – I would do that,’” Khaler said. “Not in an orange jumpsuit on your knees but as an American killed at the hospital.”
Sahloul said Kahler wanted to go back into East Aleppo. Since the two left on June 30, the city has been besieged by the government with Castello Road closed off.
They will not go to Aleppo yet, but in May Kahler and Sahloul are planning to go to another war-torn country – Yemen, as part of a SAMS Global Response Team medical mission.
As for Syria, Kahler said he wants “to walk in a peaceful Damascus.” However, he is not optimistic about the future of the Syrian children who have experienced “a cultural disruption” or a unified Syria.
One night Kahler said he climbed to the top of M10.
“It was pitch black because there is no electricity in East Aleppo,” Kahler said. “You look one way towards the desert and you see rockets being dropped. You look the other way [towards West Aleppo] and all the lights are on.”
Khaler and McClellan have been married almost 30 years and have a blended family of six children and 12 grandchildren.