BUCKHANNON – For decades, one local doctor has helped treat patients who suffer from diabetes, heart disease and other ailments. Now, he and his son have decided to try and heal something quite different – the divisiveness that has spread with the rise of social media.
They’re doing it by forging connections and hosting conversations in the real world.
Like many people, Dr. Ali Khan is bothered by a troubling inability for people to reach common ground online. As an immigrant and a Muslim, he’s been the target of discrimination – especially via memes and comments on social media.
Khan knows he’s not the only person who’s felt excluded or left out, and he believes the misunderstandings that often lie at the root of such divisions are hard to overcome in a Facebook comment or 128-character Tweet. So he and his son have been calling people who might have questions about their faith or other issues and inviting them out for coffee.
“What Derya (Khan’s son) and I try to do is to meet folks regularly,” he said. “Every Saturday or Sunday, we call somebody, somebody who may be on the extreme right side, or on the extreme left side, or maybe somebody we just don’t know that well.”
“I’ll say to Derya, I think we should invite this person out and sit down and talk to them,” Khan explained. “We have to have a dialogue. We go out there, we have coffee with them, we sit down, and we talk about it. The most important thing is to talk: That’s why I want anybody who has any questions about the Muslim faith, or any faith, or they feel that ‘other people’ are not welcome in this country, come sit down with me.”
Khan said the person-to-person meetings came about as he recognized his own anger and frustration while using social media and sought a better way to communicate with people, especially those of different beliefs.
“I see a lot of anger out there, and that anger has to go,” Khan said, noting that applies to himself as well. “I admit, I get angry at times, and if there’s any way we can all get together and work on that, that’s the way to do it.”
Khan said the resulting person-to-person conversations tend to reveal more about what people have in common than what separates them.
“If I can sit down and talk [with someone who has an opposing view], they are my friends,” Khan said. “If I give them my reasoning, and they give me their reasoning, and we talk about history and we talk about the Constitution, and it turns out that our views are similar about most issues, but maybe we just interpret things differently – we are friends.
“What I want is for people to understand each other and for people to say, ‘Hold on, before I make any judgments or throw something at anybody, I sat down with that person, I had coffee with that person, I ate with that person, and he or she gave me these ideas. Let me go check it out; let me read about it.’”
Khan said he himself loves reading about U.S. history, the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, as well as different religious faiths. Born in Pakistan, Khan earned his M.B.B.S. – Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery, which is the equivalent of an M.D. in the U.S. – there before coming to New York on a special visa so he could complete his residency and fellowship in the United States. After finishing a fellowship in hypertension and nephrology at Northwestern University in Illinois, Khan earned his green card in the mid-1990s, and after five years maintaining the green card, applied to become a U.S. citizen.
He practiced medicine at St. Joseph’s Hospital for more than a decade and subsequently opened his own medical practice just down the hill, where he now works alongside his son, who manages medical records and general office administration.
“I love cardiology and studying heart disease,” he said. “We’ve had excellent results with some of my patients with congestive heart failure and diabetes. I love taking care of diabetics, and seeing how, if they lose weight, their blood sugars get better and sometimes, they don’t have to use insulin anymore. Some of them have actually come off of their medicines they’ve done so well.”
Khan often demonstrates his enthusiasm by singing songs or telling patients jokes.
“My patients will tell you I’m a great singer,” he said, smiling. “I love the 80s music, and I will go and say to them, ‘Let me do Aaron Neville’ or ‘Let me do the Bee Gees.’”
He keeps an iconic country tune in his back pocket for patients who are fans of that genre – Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.”
Khan said his patients are his friends – some even like family – despite radically different viewpoints on politics, religion and other issues. He believes mutual respect can be established through open, person-to-person dialogue.
“We don’t want anybody to feel left out,” he said. “If anybody is being discriminated against, we want to go out there and help out. We don’t want them to feel unwelcome in this place.”
Khan knows that feeling well. Even after spending decades helping improve the health and well-being of countless West Virginians, he still sees messages telling Muslims or immigrants that “if you don’t like it, you can leave.”
“I chose this country, I became a citizen of this country,” he said. “I love the Constitution of the United States, and I love my friends here. If you say, ‘leave,’ you’re basically telling me that I’m a second-class citizen who can never be a full American citizen, so if you say that to me, it degrades me. It degrades my efforts to be an American citizen.”
At times, Khan admits he has gotten angry about politically charged posts. He’s working to find better ways to heal the divisiveness, and that’s how the idea for coffee conversations came about.
“We all make mistakes, and I’m not going to say I haven’t gotten upset about some of these things, but I’ve realized it’s better to sit down and talk,” he said.
His son, Derya, interjects.
“In the end, we’re all part of one group,” he says. “We’re all human beings.”