About 250,000 Liberians were killed in the country’s 14-year civil war and almost 5,000 died during the Ebola crisis. But despite the civil unrest and mass epidemics, Ibrahim Ajami would never dream of living anywhere else. In fact, his dream revolves around Liberia.

“[My childhood] kind of glued me to the country,” Ajami said. “When I grew up, I wanted to make a change. I was very young, but I didn’t want any of the future kids of Liberia or my own kids to live the life I had as kid.”

Ajami is studying at Yale as part of the Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program, which brings 16 people from diverse backgrounds and professions to Yale for four months.

Until he arrived in New Haven in August, he had not traveled out of Liberia for 20 years; however, Ajami had moved within the country several times in response to various conflicts. He moved to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, at the age of 7 for greater security until the civil war deescalated. A few years later, he and his family would return to Monrovia again after rebels burned down his mother’s house. Ajami said these experiences, as well as losing close friends in the collateral damage of the war, will stay with him throughout his life.

While a student at A. M. Dogliotti College of Medicine — the only medical school in Liberia — Ajami volunteered on the frontline to address the Ebola crisis beginning in 2013. He said this offered him professional experience unmatched by a traditional education, as well as significant emotional challenges.

“After taking that risk, there is nothing else that will be more fearful. I stood before a lion, I stood before a gorilla, and I survived that storm,” he said. “What else can you throw at me? The kitchen sink? Please. You can throw a submarine at me, I’m still going to catch it.”

Surrounded by Ebola patients, he explained, a person cannot help but question any uncomfortable physical sensation, from feeling a headache to a slight fever. Indeed, Ajami’s medical school roommate died from Ebola as the two were volunteering. The roommate contracted Ebola while administering care to a sick woman from his community. He died a month later, and Ajami was left with the responsibility of bringing his body to the crematorium and ensuring his family received his ashes.

“He didn’t make any mistake while treating her,” Ajami said.

The only thing he could have done differently was to turn her away, but his instincts always led him to do otherwise, he explained.

Heather Fosburgh, director of programs and outreach for the Greenberg World Fellows, said Ajami’s experiences treating Ebola patients distinguish him even in an accomplished group. The Greenberg World Fellows include several highly educated professionals with their own unique stories, but Ajami brings a deeply personal perspective to the group, she added.

After graduating from medical school, Ajami worked in clinics throughout Liberia. He was accepted into a mentorship position with the Liberian minister of health through the country’s president’s Young Professional Program. There, he spent part of his time acting as a liaison between the minister of health and a team from the global affairs capstone program, an initiative led by the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. JT Flowers ’17, one of the members of this group, nominated Ajami for the World Fellows Program.

Flowers recalled Ajami as both a large- and small-scale thinker.

“He’s someone who’s able to think simultaneously about huge macrolevel and systemic issues that countries face while at the same time addressing the microlevel problems that compound to form those larger problems. And he does all of this with incredible attention to nuance and detail,” Flowers said.

Ajami, who said he has always been focused on achieving the most good for Liberians as possible, now plans to transition from practicing medicine to creating and improving health policy in Liberia.

Earlier this year, Ajami founded the Medical Consortium Outreach Program, a nongovernmental organization that works in poor, rural areas of Liberia to raise awareness and competence to take proactive measures on health issues.

At Yale, Ajami has been networking with the other 15 World Fellows and taking graduate school classes focused on reforming health systems and managing nonprofits, he said. He added that his classes and interactions have helped him learn to create a more effective national health system for Liberia and connected him with funding sources and public health expertise.

“I may stay in the U.S. if I want to, but I want to leave behind a legacy. Not what I can acquire, but what I can leave behind for the next person — something that they’ll remember tomorrow,” he said.

Tommy Martin | tommy.martin@yale.edu