Future Veterinarian Aboukhater Flees Aleppo, Interns in Belize From war-torn Aleppo to Watertown, Mass., Aboukhater remains committed to her dream of becoming a veterinarian.

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er family had packed its bags to flee to America, with violence mounting and time dwindling. But Jude Aboukhater refused to embark on the exodus without her loyal honey-colored labrador, Roxy.

Aboukhater, MCAS ’20, grew up in Aleppo, Syria, alongside her older sister and twin brother. Growing up, she enjoyed all the trimmings of a quintessential childhood—when she wasn’t playing piano, taking on tennis, or volunteering in religious mentorship programs, Aboukhater and her siblings would watch sitcoms such as Friends or read the Harry Potter books.

“Hearing English and listening and reading the Arabic subtitles, that’s how English worked its way through our lives,” she said.

This initial exposure to English would prove to be instrumental when Aboukhater’s family was forced to relocate to Watertown, Mass., after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Aboukhater was one of the fortunate few who holds United States citizenship—she was born in America, but her family returned to Aleppo when she was two months old. She credits this for her ability to enter the country in the midst of a stringent political climate.

“It started to go bad over there. … We stayed there for four years during everything and [my parents] were very hopeful that things would get better,” Aboukhater said. “That was not the case and things got worse to the extent where my dad was like, ‘Nope, safety has to come first. We have to leave.’”

“I do always think I want to at some point go back home and help in any way possible. Never live there again, I would say, because I believe that history repeats itself, and I don’t want to have my children or grandchildren go through what I went through—but definitely go back and help and give back, because I got something from there that’s a huge part of me.” Jude Aboukhater, MCAS '20

When it came time to choose a college, Aboukhater’s strong family ties pointed her firmly in the direction of Boston College, as her sister was already a sophomore—Layla, BC ’18, graduated this past May. In American culture, kids expect to one day go to college and move out of the house, but growing up in Syria, Aboukhater was not prepared to sever family ties so quickly.

“My twin brother [Matthew, MCAS ’20] too, we just wanted to be in the same school all together,” Jude said. “Especially after going through the last four years of stress … we wanted to stay together.”

Many students are afflicted with career indecision in their undergraduate years—they weigh passion against practicality while faced with competition and time constraints.

Though the glimmer of childhood career dreams dims for many at the onset of adulthood—aspiring astronauts turn into accountants, detectives become doctors, and firefighters morph into financial planners—Jude wants to be a veterinarian just as much now as when she was 5 years old.

“Growing up, she always talked about wanting to be a vetand wanting to save all the puppies in the world,” Layla said. “We thought it was a phase that she’d grow out of, but, as the years passed by … we started to realize that, no, this is actually something she wants to do.”

She remembers growing up with her first dog, Jazz, a rowdy rottweiler that Aboukhater’s family discovered was bred to butcher—Jazz came from a dog fighting club that had recently closed and sold its puppies. Consequently, Jazz was aggressive and even violent, often assuming a protective mode while sleeping and eating.

“Throughout that, I still loved him until my parents literally took him away because he was dangerous,” Aboukhater said.

Upon arriving at BC, Aboukhater began with the required courses for students on the pre-veterinary track. In her chemistry lab, she looked over to the adjacent lab hood and met John DiBello, MCAS ’20, with whom she bonded over their shared disdain for the long hours investigating isotopes and love of making new friends. He quickly noticed her passion for veterinary medicine both in and out of the classroom.

“The way that she approaches humans is amplified when she’s hanging out with animals,” DiBello said. “She’s a wonderful person to people, and then she sees a dog, and it just takes over everything, in the most wonderful way.”

Soon, she became eager to expand her knowledge beyond the classroom and interact directly with doctors in clinics and hospitals. Last summer, she took the first step by traveling to Guatemala for a veterinary volunteer program.

Recognizing her lack of experience, Aboukhater took the volunteer position as an opportunity to dip her toes in the water by observing veterinary doctors for the first time. She was thrown in the deep end, however, when on her first day, she passed out while shadowing a surgery.

“I woke up and got so stressed,” she said. “I [thought], ‘I’ve never known anything but wanting to be a veterinarian, what does it mean if I’m passing out from surgeries?’”

Aboukhater soon realized that rather than being a setback, this moment of vulnerability was watershed—from that point on, she knew how to confront stressful situations and prosper under pressure.

“I opened my eyes, and the Guatemalan veterinarian was holding my hands,” she said. “He was like, ‘Don’t worry, Jude! I fainted two times in vet school.’”

Since Aboukhater was working in the hospital as a volunteer rather than an intern, she had ample time to herself to indulge another passion of hers—travel. During her most memorable adventure in Guatemala, Aboukhater hiked up a non-active volcano and slept on its peak while watching a neighboring, active volcano erupt titian-colored magma on the 20-minute mark.

“It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been,” she said.

The next summer, she challenged herself to acquire the hands-on veterinary experience she needed to prepare for veterinary school, which for Aboukhater is fast-approaching.

“There’s only so much you can learn from shadowing. Eventually you realize you’ve hit kind of a red line. … You need to have that interactive experience to be able to further your knowledge,” she said. “You will hit that line, and that’s it.”

Aboukhater was accepted into BC’s Eagle Intern Fellowship, a competitive program that compensates students for participating in internships that otherwise might not be feasible. She approached the Heal Veterinary Clinic in Watertown and offered to work as an intern, more than willing to do the grunt work most would dread. For the fellowship, Aboukhater was required to intern for at least 250 hours while simultaneously taking physics for her veterinary school prerequisites.

“I gained so much experience, because what you have to realize is that you actually do know nothing about your field,” Aboukhater said.

“The way that she approaches humans is amplified when she’s hanging out with animals. She’s a wonderful person to people, and then she sees a dog, and it just takes over everything, in the most wonderful way.” John DiBello, MCAS '20

She spent the first week of the internship helping in any way she could, which mostly consisted of washing, folding, cleaning, and scrubbing.

“I tried to help them out as much as I could. … The more helpful you are, the more connections you make and the more they want to teach [you],” Aboukhater said.

Her evident passion paid off, and by the second week, Aboukhater was drawing blood, giving vaccines, doing scribe work for appointments, and forming lasting relationships with the staff. She made such a positive impact on the staff that at the end of her internship, she was hired at Heal Veterinary Clinic and is working there once a week this semester.

“She completely lights up the place when she’s here, and it is definitely a darker and less fun place when she’s gone,” said Amanda Leef, owner and doctor at Heal Veterinary Clinic. “I call her everybody’s good luck charm. She makes everybody happy, and just improves everybody’s day. Whenever she’s here, whatever her role is.”

After completing her internship at the clinic, Aboukhater continued her summer foray into the field of veterinary medicine, traveling to Belize to intern at a local hospital. In contrast to her time shadowing on the sidelines in Guatemala, her internship in Belize provided her with hands-on veterinary training.

“She has such a wide range of experience from living in Syria to living in a fairly wealthy area of the United States, to working in Belize,” Leef said. “I think one of the things that’s really vital in veterinary medicine is that you understand where different people are coming from and that we’re not all coming from the same place, and I think that that range of experience is going to be incredibly beneficial for her.”

By the end of the internship, she was able to comfortably suture dogs, a feat that had felt impossible during the onset of her time in Belize. The process began with a piece of chicken—Aboukhater would suture each piece with three to seven stitches, guiding the thread through the flesh with a small needle, and working hard to balance accuracy with efficiency. When she began to feel more comfortable, it was time to try her hand at suturing living, breathing animals.

“My first dog I was actually shaking,” Aboukhater said. “My hands were shaking and I couldn’t get … the needle inside the dog’s skin, because I was trying to be very gentle.”

The operation was further complicated by limited anesthetic drugs Belisian veterinary hospitals have access to, adding a tight time crunch to the intricate procedure.

“I basically had five to 10 minutes to do it or else, literally, the dog’s tail would start wagging at me and the dog would start to wake up,” she said.

With every dog she sutured, she grew more comfortable, and soon fell into a rhythm—Aboukhater credits the immersive experience with her ensuing confidence.

“By my second, third, fourth dog, I was a pro. … I just got a grip on it … and now I feel like I know,” she said.

“She completely lights up the place when she’s here, and it is definitely a darker and less fun place when she’s gone. I call her everybody’s good luck charm. She makes everybody happy, and just improves everybody’s day. Whenever she’s here, whatever her role is.” Amanda Leef

While Aboukhater still has a long way to go before she opens up a practice of her own, Aboukhater looks toward a bright future in the field of veterinary medicine and vows to always remember the perils of her past.

I do always think I want to at some point go back home and help in any way possible,” Aboukhater said. “Never live there again, I would say, because I believe that history repeats itself, and I don’t want to have my children or grandchildren go through what I went through—but definitely go back and help and give back, because I got something from there that’s a huge part of me.”

Featured Image by Katie Genirs / Heights Editor

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About Brooke Kaiserman