RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) — For almost six years, Wisam Toma and his wife Maysam Daryos have called Richmond home.
“I love my life, I love my family, I like to do science here,” said Toma.
Toma first came to Central Virginia in 2013 from Iraq so he could pursue a Ph.D. in the School of Medicine at VCU, specifically in the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology.
Toma currently works in a research lab to find alternatives to opioids to help combat pain.
“In Virginia I saw people so compelling, so lovely and so helpful,” he explained.
During his studies, Toma and Daryos found friends through work and church, who they say have become family. They also expanded their family while living in Richmond. Their children, Miriam and John, were both born in Virginia.
While Miriam, is a thriving 5-year-old, 2-year-old John is struggling to meet milestones.
“John’s life has been filled with medical issues and suffering since the week he was born. John has undergone diagnostic testing weekly to determine the causes of his various medical issues: focal onset epilepsy that is difficult to control, gross developmental delays, food allergy, failure to thrive, abnormal swallowing, and aspiration of food that requires intensive feeding therapy,” said Toma.
John is in desperate need of on-going care. Toma says their family has found the best care through VCU Medical Center, but they are at risk of either having to move to Iraq or being separated.
“When I was a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, my tuition and stipend were paid by (the) Iraqi Higher Committee for Education Development (HCED), with the agreement that I would return to Iraq to work for them following graduation,” Toma explained. “When I reached out to HCED to discuss deferring my return to Iraq due to John’s many health and neurological problems, they said that they do not care whether John lives or dies - they want $300,000.”
Toma and Daryos say they have been trying to work with the Iraqi government for a year, sending letters from John’s doctors and explaining, the need for Toma to stay in Richmond with his family. They say they have until mid-July to pay the government back or Toma will have to return to Iraq with or without his family.
“I’m willing to pay back their money in an installment plan, but they say no,” he said. “Based on the contract that we signed, I understand that and I respect that but we are humans and we don’t know what’s happening in the future.”
Daryos says they want their children to receive the best education, and also want John to continue to be seen by expert physicians.
“For the sake of him continuing his treatment, I am just praying (to) God and asking everyone that can help us get through this situation just for the sake of John and Miriam," said Daryos.
Friends from church and colleagues are helping the family raise money to payback the Iraqi government. They started an online fundraiser.
“This family is what America should be, we have two hard working outstanding people--they started a family, they worked hard, they contributed to society, so they should be allowed to stay here,” said Julia Meade, a friend and colleague who helped with the online fundraiser.
Meade also works in a lab with Toma, and says the work he is doing could be life saving.
“This is near and dear to my heart, this family, as well as their situation,” explained Pat Haney, who recently retired from the Global Education Office at VCU. “These are unusual circumstances---this is not just someone who just wants to stay in the United States, they have serious medical issues with their son."
Haney is among several friends who Toma and Daryos say have become family to them. Their Richmond family is now scrambling to reach out to anyone they can, lawmakers, foundations, hoping to help the family pay back what they owe.
She wrote a letter on Toma’s behalf, hoping someone with a charitable foundation will be able to intervene:
To Whom It May Concern:
As a former staff member in the Global Education Office at Virginia Commonwealth University, I assisted international students and scholars with issues outside their academic programs. From 2014-2018, I worked closely with Wisam Toma, a PhD student from Iraq whose education was sponsored by his government. Wisam and his wife are Syrian Orthodox from Mosul. Iraqi Christians are persecuted and not afforded the same opportunities as majority Muslims. As the only Christian among the 30 Iraqi students at VCU, Wisam’s selection as a scholarship recipient speaks highly of his academic achievements. Upon completion of his PhD in Pharmacology and Toxicology in 2018, Wisam continues to do research in his field under a U.S. immigration provision for post-graduate students.
Wisam and his wife have 2 children. The youngest, John, is 2 years old and has had significant medical problems for his entire life. Included is documentation from his medical providers. Although Wisam’sintention has been to return to his home country, his son’s condition has worsened and requires medical care that is not available in Iraq. For example, John’s silent aspiration of food into his lungs caused him to stop breathing, but he survived thanks to the quick action of emergency medical responders. There is no such service in Mosul nor the medical specialists or medications he requires. Wisam and his wife fear their son will not survive should they return home.
The Iraqi government scholarships are contingent upon families signing an agreement to repay the entire award should the student not return. When ISIS invaded Mosul, requiring Christians to convert or die, Wisam’s and his wife’s families fled to Kurdistan in northern Iraq. With the defeat of ISIS in Mosul, his family returned to find their homes had been utterly destroyed. The rebuilding coupled with his family members’ meager salaries makes it impossible for them to cover their brother’s scholarship expenses. His family is already under great pressure from the government to repay the award in its entirety by mid-July, even though Wisam has permission to continue his research here.
In desperation to save his son’s life and ensure he gets the medical care he needs, Wisam is seeking loans and/or grants to repay the $300,000 owed to the Iraqi government. He has pursued a foundation and other options but no funds are available. I know Wisam to be a man of character, honesty, humility, strong work ethic and genuine faith. He is not looking for a hand-out and has committed to repay any loans he receives - and he will. He is a man of his word. Would you consider offering to Wisam funding to assist with this educational debt? Do you know someone who might have the financial resources and interest in helping this family?
If Wisam is unable to obtain the needed funds, he will have to return to Iraq so that his family will not suffer severe consequences. In the event that he receives loans/grants to cover his debt by mid-July, he is consulting with an immigration attorney about options for remaining here legally, including religious asylum and the National Interest Waiver, an employment-based immigrant visa.
“My husband and I have written a letter and sent it to hundreds of friends," explained church friend Susie Whitehouse.
In a letter entitled “Urgent Request,” Whitehouse and her husband encouraged people to give and share the families story with as many people as possible.
Senator Mark Warner’s office confirms they have been in touch with the family. NBC 12 has also reached out to other lawmakers about the situation.
“I always pray to God to keep them safe here and keep me with them because even if I have to go back by myself it will be difficult for me and them,” said Toma. I don’t want to be separated from them honestly."