Kurdish refugee escapes Saddam Hussein’s wrath to live his dream as an American doctor

Sept. 2, 2020
Dr. Rebin Kader, who is an allergy specialist in central Denver.
Dr. Rebin Kader and his family had to flee their home in the Kurdish region of Iraq when Rebin was only 11. He dreamed of becoming a doctor and is thrilled to be practicing at the new UCHealth Cherry Creek Medical Center (behind him to the right). Photos by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

What would you do if you were given a second chance at life? Rebin Kader knew he had a shot at a new beginning after he heard the words, “going to America.’’

In 1996, Kader, then 11, and his family fled the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq because of political unrest in the region. Saddam Hussein relentlessly attacked the minority Kurds and he was believed to have warrants for the arrest and execution of any individuals and their families who had ties to the U.S. At the time, Kader’s father worked for a U.S.-funded humanitarian organization.

An allergy specialist in Denver came to the U.S. as a Kurdish refugee.
Rebin Kader, third from the left, fled with his family from the Kurdish region of Iraq when Saddam Hussein threatened to kill Kader’s father. U.S. rescuers brought his family to Guam, then to Arizona. Photo courtesy of Dr. Rebin Kader.

That year, the U.S. Department of State and the Air Force launched Operation Quick Transit and Operation Pacific Haven. Their actions saved more than 7,000 Kurdish people, including Kader and his mom, dad, two brothers, three sisters, aunt, uncle and grandmother.

“Our family had to leave in secret,’’ he said. “We were told not to tell anyone of our departure.’’

Read more stories about providers, patients and services at the UCHealth Cherry Creek Medical Center

More than 20 years later, the story of this young boy, his family’s harrowing escape from persecution, the narrow misses of a grenade and a sniper’s bullet, and adjusting to newfound life in the United States is a story of hope, second chances and “the angel.’’

An immunology and allergy specialist in central Denver

Kader is now Dr. Rebin Kader, an internal medicine doctor who specializes in allergy and immunology and practices at the UCHealth Allergy and Immunology Clinic in the newly opened UCHealth Cherry Creek Medical Center in central Denver.

“I have such energy,’’ he said.  “When you are given a second chance, it’s hard to explain, but how could you not take full advantage of it and make the best of every single day?’’

allergy specialist central denver. Dr. Rebin Kader loves mountains. Here he poses on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Dr. Rebin Kader loves mountains. Here he poses on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado’s mountains remind Kader of the snow-covered peaks near his home city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Photo courtesy of Dr. Rebin Kader.

Fleeing in secret, dodging a grenade

In early 1996, Kader’s father, an accountant, and his uncle, a civil engineer, were squarely in Hussein’s crosshairs because they worked with U.S.-backed organizations. At the same time, political tension between two Kurdish political factions was brewing. Hussein backed one faction and ultimately, civil war ensued. Sulaymaniyah, previously run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), was overtaken and thousands of people fled the city, seeking shelter in Iran and Turkey. Kader’s family fled to the Iranian border.

Dr. Rebin Kader, an allergy specialist in central Denver.
Dr. Rebin Kader had to leave his home country with nothing. He always keeps an American flag with him because it’s a reminder of the second chance he got at life..

“It was very sudden …. We didn’t have much time when my family decided to leave the city for our safety,’’ Kader said. “One neighbor had a large utility semi-truck with space in the back. Most of our neighborhood jammed into it to head toward the Iranian border.’’

The trip, which usually takes a few hours by car, took one week along back-country roads dotted with land mines, broken-down vehicles and people fleeing on foot. Along the way, the family’s luck was tested, to say the least. On one occasion, for instance, a PUK soldier unknowingly dropped a grenade, which landed precariously under Kader’s blanket as he slept on the truck.

“When I woke up the next morning, I thought I had felt a cold rock, but instead saw the grenade with the clip still in – luckily. Let’s just say there was a lot of commotion and a nearby soldier removed it quickly. My luck, fortunately, did not end that day and life had more in store for me.’’

A ‘second or so’ away from death

By the time the family reached their campsite, thousands of people were already at the border but they were not allowed to pass into Iran for reasons Kader cannot recall.

“It seemed like hell on earth,’’ he said. “People would die right and left. I remember cars whizzing by and crashing into makeshift tents, killing whole families. We heard constant gunfire in the distance, the closer the sound of the bullets, the more alert we became.’’

Their campsite was spare. Since the Kaders left with only the clothes on their backs, they used a rug they found as a makeshift tent. Later, his father secured a larger tent from a family who had left the area.

“I felt much safer being inside a tent with thicker fabric. At least flying bullets could be slowed down and lessen the impact. There was a small opening for a window in the tent that no one was allowed to be near in case something was to fall through. We tried our best to stay safe but we knew our fate was in God’s hand.”

allergy specialist center Denver. Members of the Kader family when they arrived as refugees in Guam
The Kader family when they arrived as refugees at the airport in Guam. Rebin is on the right. Photo courtesy of Dr. Rebin Kader.

Periodically, people would leave their campsites and walk toward the border, hopeful they would be allowed in Iran. Gunfire rang out from all directions as hundreds of people tried to cross the border. The Kader family was among them.

“I was walking with my family during one of those border crossing attempts and one of those times I was the last one in line with my family walking along the street. My older brother was a few feet ahead of me when I heard a loud THUNK behind me. People were screaming. When I turned around, I saw this gaping hole on the side of a car within a few feet behind me that I had just passed.

“I was missed by a bullet a second or so … You could say that I am very lucky by now.’’

Help and hope thanks to ‘the angel’

After three weeks at the campsite, with no sign that they’d be allowed into Iran, hopes dimmed for the Kaders.  With spirits low, they could not have foreseen how their fortunes would change. Years later, they still call the man who came to them “the angel.’’

He walked up to Kader’s father, said he was from one of the aid organizations, and inquired about the whereabouts of the Kader family. The “angel’’ relayed the message: The Kaders were going to the U.S.

allergy specialist central Denver. Dr. Rebin Kader holds a picture dictionary. It helped him learn English.
Without access to a Kurdish-English dictionary, Rebin Kader had to use this picture dictionary and a lot of sign language to communicate and learn English. Kader is incredibly grateful to his first teachers who had faith that he could succeed in school. Kader went on to became the first in his family to graduate from college.

“I called him the angel,’’ Kader said. “I don’t know what else you would call someone who gives you news that you and your family are going to the United States. When any glimpse of hope seemed like a world away, there had to be divine intervention,’’ Kader said.

The family kept the news a secret, climbed aboard a tractor trailer, the only transportation available, and made their way back to Sulaymaniyah.

“My sisters, my mom and myself, we each threw seven rocks behind us when we embarked on our journey back to the city. The throwing of rocks behind you symbolized the passage of bad times, and leaving it behind. Leaving it behind, we sure did!’’

Headed to the U.S., first stop Guam

Back in Sulaymaniyah, much was different. Colors of flags showed how the city had changed – from green representing the PUK to all yellow, illustrating support for the opposition. Kader was just starting the sixth grade when his mother told him the family would leave in the morning for the U.S.

“I told my parents, ‘I have school tomorrow,’ but my mom said, ‘no more school for now, we are leaving tomorrow.’”

The day arrived for Kader and his family to go to America. They wore the clothes on their backs and packed one extra change of clothes. Still dark, in the wee hours of the morning, a van came to pick them up and they drove north to Duhok, where they were handed over to the U.S. military. They were then airlifted, along with other families, to Guam for further processing and quarantine.

Dr. Rebin Kader, who is an allergy specialists in central denver.
As age 11, Rebin Kader had to flee with his family from his home in the Kurdish region of Iraq. He arrived in the U.S., speaking no English. Now, he’s found his dream job as an allergy specialist at the new UCHealth Cherry Creek Medical Center (behind him).

“I don’t know what I was thinking or how I was supposed to feel. Again, what my family and I were going through were stories only experienced in dreams … this could not be reality. But here we were, seeing U.S. flags on military vehicles, people speaking English who were smiling and greeting us. It was incredible. For the first time in our lives, we saw military personnel and we were not afraid of them. We were happy to see them. They were happy to see us. It was an incredible feeling.’’

On Guam, the Kaders completed paperwork, learned basic English, had medical exams and were slowly introduced to their new lives.

allergy specialist central Denver
Rebin Kader, right, with his older brother soon after they arrived as refugees in Guam. Rebin loved the beautiful views of the ocean. Photo courtesy of Dr. Rebin Kader.

“We were placed on this island, Guam, and thought it was heaven. There were palm trees, ocean, green spaces. We had never seen anything like it. Not even in the movies. Here we were, living it. I kept staring at that ocean for hours on end.’’

After four months on Guam, the Kaders left for the mainland. Kader knew only a few English words and the English alphabet.

“We were asked if we knew anyone whom we could go and live within the USA. We had no one there and honestly, we were still in shock from what just happened to our lives. We had heard about Virginia and told it was green and nice, so we said we would like to go to Virginia. Ultimately, it seemed like a lottery drawing, and we got Phoenix, Arizona.’’

First in his family to go to college

When they arrived in Phoenix, it was very hot. Kader remembers his mom crying; the whirlwind of their escape, the realization that life had changed forever, and not knowing how to speak English, brought tears. But like the angel who came when they waited to cross the border to Iran, more angels came. Families from local churches helped the Kaders learn the language and settle in.

“It felt as if we were reborn. Well, sort of. For us, it was a completely new environment, new people, new culture, new life, new language, new everything that the same way a child is born into this world. Everything would be new.’’

allergy specialist central Denver
Dr. Rebin Kader, right, with his siblings, from left to right: Sara, Acu, Arey (seated), Hero and Kazhan. Photo courtesy of Rebin Kader.

His uncle, aunt and grandmother were among the refugees and also made their home in Phoenix.

“To this day, after 20-plus years of living my newfound life, not a single week passes where I don’t remind myself that, ‘Oh my God, I am really living in the USA!’ I jokingly tell people that our family and I fell asleep in 1997 and have not woken up since. Please don’t wake us up,’’ he says.

allergist central denver - Dr. Rebin Kader's parents
Dr. Rebin Kader’s parents: Mohammed Ali and Badre Kader. Photo courtesy of Dr. Rebin Kader.

The fifth of the six children, Kader focused on his education with help from the family. Kader mastered English by the end of his high school years. He became the first member of his family to attend college. He chose Arizona State University, majoring in microbiology with an emphasis in molecular biology.

“I had always wanted to become a physician but after moving here and not knowing English, I thought my chances would be slim. But as I reminded myself, being one of the luckiest persons alive, I thought, ‘Nothing is stopping me. I am living the dream, right?’’’

Medical dream becomes reality

After college, Kader did “bench’’ research at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State, but he missed interacting with people.

“Medicine seemed like a natural fit and I decided to go for it. I studied, took the entrance exam, did well, and I’m going to say it again: I got lucky. I was accepted into medical school in Missouri.’’

He received his medical degree from A.T. Still University in Kirksville, Missouri and later returned to Arizona to complete a 3-year internal medicine residency at the University of Arizona. Then, he completed two additional years of specialized training in allergy and immunology at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, Missouri. Kader then took a job in Washington, D.C., and he lived in Arlington, Virginia. In a circuitous way, it fulfilled the prophecy that Virginia would one day be home.

allergy specialist in central Denver. Dr. Rebin Kader, second from right, with his friends during his residency.
Dr. Rebin Kader, second from the right, with his friends during his medical residency. Photo courtesy of Dr. Rebin Kader.

When recruited to join UCHealth, the prospect of returning to the West and to the mountains – and being closer to family – energized him.

Kader says he finds great satisfaction when he gets “the sensation that you’re doing something great for that person. As simple as that might sound, for me, medicine is really about improving a patient’s quality of life. If you go back centuries and millennia, medicine was practiced in churches to comfort and heal the sick.’’

Today, Kader is joyful that he has returned to the mountains. He lives in Cherry Creek, about 300 feet from his office in the Cherry Creek Medical Center, where he has, again, begun anew.

“I’ll be treating and helping my neighbors of the same community that I call home. I very much look forward to getting to know them and becoming part of the community,’’ he said.

For this move, he brings all that he is. A man with a passion for life, health, and the gift of a second chance.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.