Carol Stream pharmacist, once a refugee, now helps new immigrants navigate life here
Ali AlQaisi left his hometown of Baghdad with his mother, brother, wife and 7-month-old son amid escalating sectarian violence in Iraq that hit too close to home -- his father was killed, a cousin was injured and he himself was shot in the shoulder.
It was 2010, the year the United States ended combat operations in the Iraq War.
When the AlQaisis arrived in the U.S., they got help with temporary housing, job placement and other guidance through the nonprofit World Relief, which has offices in Chicago and the suburbs and helps refugees rebuild their lives.
Now, AlQaisi is paying it forward by helping new arrivals assimilate to life in the U.S. and adjust to its customs and systems.
"When we came in here ... it was very challenging to start a new life in United States," said AlQaisi, 42, of Carol Stream. "We had to adjust to the new culture and speaking different language and then navigate in a new system."
AlQaisi worked minimum-wage jobs to support his family while studying and completing the needed clinical hours to become licensed as a pharmacist, which took three years.
"(World Relief) provided us with everything that we needed ... and they also connected us to other families in the community," AlQaisi said. "Today, I'm really happy to give back to my community."
A CVS Health clinical specialist, AlQaisi volunteers with World Relief, connecting new immigrants with health care resources, offering mentoring to medical professionals, helping them navigate the U.S. health care system and its educational and licensure requirements, providing translation services to reduce language and cultural barriers, and personal support, such as cooking meals, transportation to appointments and medical counseling.
His work earned him the 2021 Paragon Award, the highest professional recognition within CVS Health. It's granted to an exceptional employee who best embodies the company's values, is a model of excellence, and lives its purpose every day. He was selected from among 300,000 CVS employees nationwide, said company spokesman Charlie Rice-Minoso.
AlQaisi is board certified in geriatric pharmacy. Among the services he provides is helping tutor immigrant medical professionals preparing for pharmacy exams, which they must pass to be licensed to practice here. He also helps connect them with internship and job opportunities.
"It's (a) very difficult exam," said AlQaisi, who helped a dentist friend who was struggling with English.
Today, the man is AlQaisi's dentist and helps others in the community.
"This is a great example (of) how when we help an individual we are not helping just one person, but we are helping our community," AlQaisi said.
The rippling benefits can be exponential, he added.
AlQaisi's wife Zina Sabar, also a pharmacist, works for a suburban hospital. The couple now has three children -- a 12-year-old son, a 10-year-old daughter and another nearly 6-year-old son.
"I know what an overwhelming experience it is to start over in a new country," AlQaisi said. "But if I can help ease the transition of one refugee, it is worth it."