Catholic Schools Week: Crossroads sits down with Dr. Attar

Ten minutes with an American hero


Megan Brinkman, Regan Harmon, Tori Jozwiak, and Grace May

Before Carmel alum Dr. Sam Attar presented his personal story to all of the students and staff throughout the first day of Catholic Schools Week, he carved out a few minutes to sit down with the editors of Crossroads to chat about some of the things that weren’t necessarily in his powerful and moving presentation.

Dr. Attar and his sister-in-law, Lina Sergei Attar, both presented their very personal stories to the students–some of whom were learning about these topics for the very first time. Both were perfect examples of not just recognizing that a problem exists, but going to do something about that problem.

Did you always know you wanted to be a doctor?

No, it just kind of happened. Mom and dad were doctors, so I had a sense of what being a doctor would be so I headed up to med school and I knew I wanted to be a surgeon because I liked the procedures. One day I got put into an operating room where two orthopedic surgeons were fixing a man’s broken arm, and I just said I could see myself doing this for the next 30 or 50 years. I got hooked.

How did Carmel prepare you for your future?

Courtesy: Dr. Attar
The ramp that led down into the underground hospital where Dr. Attar worked in Aleppo.

It gave me a great education, but it also taught me about those values that I talked about, values like service and compassion and faith because again you have to teach that stuff to yourself if you don’t go to a place like Carmel.You have to find other avenues to get that. But it was the whole concept of service and doing more for others than you do for yourself that just came from volunteering. So there’s a purpose to that, even if it’s just as simple as folding blankets at a nursing home or – I did Penwasciz so I was just pouring water for patients, and it seems like it’s not doing much but it’s a service, so sometimes that’s where it all starts.

So what made you come back to Carmel?

Dr. Attar: Well number one, this is kind of where it all started. Number two, it’s always had a special place in my heart because high school shapes who you are and your future. When I was in touch with my teachers, they learned about what I was doing and asked if I could come back and talk about my experiences. It was almost an honor and privilege that they wanted to hear from me. You know, I’m just some little guy who became a doctor and they wanted to hear about what I’m doing. So I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

What do you hope to accomplish by sharing your story?

I just want to raise awareness for the Syrian people. When I was in high school, I wasn’t very popular.

Courtesy: Dr. Attar
The team of doctors that Dr. Attar worked with in the underground hospital. They are considered criminals, so their faces are hidden to protect their identity.

I didn’t really care. But it wasn’t about that, it was about just doing something with your life and making an impact and little differences. In my mind, those are things that make the big differences over time and I just want people to know that they can find ways to make an impact and it doesn’t have to be in medicine. All it takes is just showing up and stepping up and finding something you have a passion for. Everyone brings something to the table and you just have to find out what that thing is and go for it. If you don’t want to, then that’s your choice too, but I want people to feel gifted and privileged growing up in this area and being able to go to a school like Carmel. I want people to know what exactly it means to be an American, to represent the United States of America and not to take that for granted. Sometimes you have to see the fear and the horror and the gravity of what’s happening outside our borders and to embrace that sense of vision.

You said everyone brings something to the table; what do you bring?

So like I said I’m just an ordinary kid from Libertyville that showed up to a really horrible place, and I did it because I wanted to help out a good group of people. But also I’m in awe and for me it was an honor and a privilege to be amongst Syrian doctors, nurses, and rescue workers and I wanted to be a part of that and stand in solidarity with them. I also wanted to document and bear witness to the crimes and atrocities and to be a voice for the voiceless. I can’t be in Syria all the time, and I wanted to speak out on their behalf.

Was there ever a time when you just wanted to come home?

Courtesy: Dr. Attar
A child walks through rubble to get to school in Aleppo.

Yes. Almost every day I wanted to come home. When I was in Aleppo, there were so many other places I wanted to be. I’d use my vacation time to go, but when you’re surrounded by all those people suffering and dying, and you’re around local Syrians working to help people in underground hospitals or teaching kids in underground schools or caring for orphans in underground orphanages. Being in their presence gave me strength and hope. Even if I died, I was surrounded by good people and I was doing good things and I was okay with that.

Is there a difference in mindset between the Syrian people and the people back in the US?

Courtesy: Dr. Attar
Another associate of Dr. Attar who needs to hide his identity for his safety.

Yeah, I just think that they’re truly suffering. A lot of people here can identify with the Syrian refugees because they had homes, they had kids in school, they had jobs, and they lost it all. Most are living in tents. Some are on boats trying to get to other places. They’re having to start from scratch, and they’re risking it all just to keep their families safe. But that’s a perspective I hope that no one in this country ever has to have. I hope none of ever find ourselves in a position where we have to leave our homes or we’re losing loved ones because our homelands have become a warzone.

How do you feel about President Trump’s recent immigration ban?

I think it’s irrational. Refugees are fleeing the same type of destruction and terrorism that some claim refugees are causing. They’re people that just want to raise their families; they want to be safe and healthy. When you say the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning, you’re not just saying liberty and justice for Americans, you’re saying liberty and justice for all. That’s what I believe it means to be an American. There are other ways to fight terrorism than with guns. All you need to do is show up and lend a hand. Yeah, bad things might happen, but the alternative is not doing anything.

Every cloud has a silver lining. What was your favorite part of what you were doing?

My favorite part was the everyday Syrian men and women who were just there to help their local communities. They did so out of a feeling of obligation and duty. They did so risking their lives. They knew full well that they could die or be put in jail, but that sense of courage, purpose resilience, and endurance was so palpable. The Syrian community just does there best to survive and help each other.

How do you know which decision is the right decision? How do you choose who to save?

You can’t do it right all the time, you just have to do it wrong less often. If you see one person that looks more alive than another, you just go for them. Any other day, you might have gone for someone else. You just can’t be indecisive. If you think too long about which to save, you’ll lose two instead of one. You have to make decisions and live with them.

How do you cope with coming back to the Northshore, an area of extreme privilege, after having been in Aleppo, an area of extreme poverty?

Courtesy: Dr. Attar
A moment between surgeries at the underground hospital where Dr. Attar worked.

You never leave Aleppo. You always leave a piece of yourself behind. Any experience like that will change you. But I do come back knowing that bad stuff is still happening over there, and I have friends and colleagues that don’t have the same privilege to come back to Chicago or to the United States. That’s how I stay sane. Because if they can do it for 5 years, I can do it for two or three weeks. That’s what keeps me going.




What can we as students do here to help?

Do great in school, number one. Figure out what you want to do and go for it. Also stay involved locally, you don’t have to go to Turkey or Syria, you know you can volunteer at Lambs Farm because that’s where it all starts. That’s where I started, and it’s how you get that feeling of service. And if you really want to help specifically Syria, you can find a local group that helps out with Syrian refugees.