‘Nothing is impossible.’ Syrian immigrant living in Ann Arbor accepted to 12 medical schools

Lanah Almatroud is pictured at a celebration dinner her family arranged at Habib's Cuisine in Dearborn, Michigan after she was accepted to medical school. (Lanah Almatroud)

ANN ARBOR – Lanah Almatroud has come a long way from when we last interviewed her five years ago.

Then a high schooler at Skyline with college admissions at the top of her mind, she has since graduated from University of Michigan-Dearborn and has been accepted to 12 medical schools.

When she moved to this country 10 years ago from Syria with her family, she didn’t speak a word of English. Almatroud, her parents and two sisters arrived to a new land and a new life, fleeing a war-torn country and seeking a new beginning.

Left to right: Fasiha Alabed (grandmother), Mayada Chamdin (mother), Maher Almatroud (father), Shahid Almatroud (sister), Lanah Almatroud (me), Yara Almatroud (sister) at a celebration breakfast the day Lanah got her MCAT score. (Lanah Almatroud)

Her parents left behind high-paying jobs, a nice house in the center of Damascus and their family and friends.

They had to adjust to their new country with language barriers; the parents working the jobs that they could, and the girls getting help navigating the hallways of Scarlett Middle School with the help of other Arabic speakers.

Now, Almatroud has a big decision to make.

The following interview was conducted via email. Some answers were edited and condensed.

What was your experience like at UM-Dearborn?

At UM-Dearborn, I worked as a supplemental instructor for General Chemistry I and II and as a peer academic coach, where I met with students, especially first-year students. I helped them identify their strengths and weaknesses, and we worked on creating goals for them for the semester.

In addition, I am the co-founder and president of Serving the Underserved, a student organization at UM-Dearborn, where we raise money and purchase and create monthly care baskets for families in Detroit and Dearborn. Through this experience, I also tutor and work closely with many immigrant and refugee children, high school students, and college students who dream of going to medical school, PA school, or nursing school but are lost, confused, or afraid of the language barriers, cultural barriers, or financial barriers.

I constantly get asked how I was able to get accepted into university and now into this many medical schools, even though English is not my first language. I share with them all of the resources I used to study for my classes and the MCAT, and I give them the confidence and encouragement to always try their best because if I could do it, they can too.

I share with them how I got told by many people since I arrived in the US that it was going to be hard for me to get into this competitive field because of the language barrier or because of my accent, and was still able to get accepted into 12 out of the 20 medical schools I applied to.

What were the challenges you faced?

The biggest challenge I encountered during my undergraduate years was that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I had to deal with the overwhelming transition from high school into university while dealing with this significant change in my life. I balanced keeping up with my schoolwork while serving as my mother’s translator during her hospital and chemotherapy appointments.

During her mastectomy, I studied for exams, watched lecture videos, and completed my assignments from her bedside while my father went to work. But this experience taught me a lot. I not only learned how to prioritize my time and balance my school work and personal life, but it was an eye-opening experience. I learned about the numerous obstacles that non-English speaking patients face in healthcare, and it gave me another reason for pursuing medicine.

Left to right: Maher Almatroud, Mayada Chamdin and Lanah Almatroud at Altayeb Restaurant in Dearborn, Michigan during Eid Al Adha. (Lanah Almatroud)

Through translating for my mother and communicating to the physicians her symptoms, and later, through working as a medical assistant and translating to patients, I saw how language barriers intensify patients’ vulnerability as they cannot explain their pain with their voices and only through emotional expressions.

Being a bilingual physician will allow me to address communication barriers in health care, lift a barrier to continuity of care, and improve health outcomes because patients are encouraged to return knowing someone will be present to speak their native language and understand their experiences.

Why did you decide to pursue medicine? Have you always wanted to enter the field?

Since I was a child, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in healthcare. I remember witnessing my mother, a pharmacist serving in a low-income city in Syria, offer a multitude of healthcare services because many people could not afford to go to a medical facility.

Unfortunately, while my mother’s role was essential to her community, I watched her turn patients away because she was limited in providing service to those in need of diagnoses and treatment plans. Seeing how physicians support marginalized communities in their health journeys sparked my interest in medicine.

After moving to the United States, I started shadowing physicians in various healthcare settings, and I saw how the barriers to high-quality healthcare were also present in my new country. I was surprised to see individuals get turned away from medical treatment due to the inability to afford it.

This furthered my passion for empowering vulnerable populations.

Members of Serving the Underserved are seen passing out the monthly care baskets to families in Detroit and Dearborn. (Lanah Almatroud)

What specialty do you hope to focus on?

As of right now, I am hoping to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN). I have always been passionate about women’s and women’s health issues.

I took multiple classes at the University of Michigan-Dearborn related to women’s rights and female leadership. I am also working with Dr. Robert Hymes on a research project about intimate partner violence.

I have shadowed multiple OB-GYNs, which furthered my passion for becoming one. For many women, issues such as mental illness, sexual education, drug use, and self-esteem can go unaddressed, affecting the health of the individual long-term into adulthood.

As an OB-GYN, I will be able to work closely with and help girls and women of various ages. I would have the opportunity to offer resources and support to women of diverse backgrounds to help ensure their well-being.

Can you share which medical schools you got into?

Since the beginning of my undergraduate journey, I have been wanting to attend Michigan State University College of Human Medicine (MSU CHM).

I have attended multiple tours, student panels, and admission counselors panels of MSU CHM panels in the past four years. At the beginning of interview season, I knew that if I got accepted into MSU CHM, I will be a Spartan for the next four years.

However, things got a little complicated when two other schools offered me scholarships, including a $115,000 scholarship from Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine.

So, I’m still deciding which medical school I will be attending. However, I declined the nine other offers I received from out-of-state medical schools in order to leave the seats for other students.

Lanah Almatroud takes a pictures with friend Batoul Chami on their last day of classes at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. (Lanah Almatroud)

Tell us a bit more about all of your volunteering efforts.

I volunteer at Zaman International as a literacy tutor where I help underserved women from the Detroit and Dearborn communities learn the English language in order to secure the skills they need to enter the workforce, as well as help them with passing their citizenship exams through covering the steps to become US citizens, going over the civics exam, and holding mock interviews.

I have also volunteered with Jewish Family Services (JFS) as an employment mentor where I help incoming refugees with transitioning to life in the USA through translating for them and helping them with opening bank accounts, obtaining credit cards, qualifying for food assistance.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I also started volunteering with JFS as a comfort line caller, where I call the elderly in my community weekly to provide emotional support, help reduce social isolation, and identify and report any emerging needs such as food insecurity, medications, or bills and expenses. I also volunteer at Multicultural Academy where I help incoming refugee students with Learning English, Math, and Science.

How is your family doing? We would love an update on them, too.

My father works in the car industry where he buys and sells cars. My mother works with Arabic speaking families and manages enrollment at Multicultural Academy.

My sister, Yara, is on the pre-medicine track at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She will be applying to medical schools this upcoming June, hoping to specialize in Family Medicine. My younger sister, Shahd, is in her first year in the 7-year dental program at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Left to right: Sisters Shahd, Yara and Lanah Almatroud at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in California. (Lanah Almatroud)

How are your family and friends doing in Syria?

The situation in Syria is still very hard. This past June, I visited Syria for the first time since I moved to the USA. Although the war ended, they are still dealing with economic challenges. Prices of goods, services, and life necessities are high and income is very low.

They’re also suffering from food and fuel shortage, and some areas get electricity for only three hours a day.

With all that is happening there, I can confidently say that it was the best month of my life. I went to my house for the first time in 10 years, I saw my grandmother, cousins, and childhood friends. I really hope that Syria goes back to the way it was before the war.

To me, Syria will always be the country I call “home.”

Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?

Since the last time you interviewed me in 2018, I have not only grown four years older and obtained my bachelor’s degree. I not only became one step closer to achieving my dream by receiving a medical school acceptance, but I learned so much. I learned that nothing is impossible.

Whether English is your first, second, or sixth language, you can do whatever you set your mind to. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s possible.

Just make sure you surround yourself with people who want the best for you and encourage you every step of the way. I don’t think it would have been possible without my parents and sisters. All the success I achieved and will achieve is because of them and their support.