CHICAGO – From Chicago to Afghanistan, Dr. Jerry Umanos dedicated his service to poor children.
The pediatrician was among three Americans killed when an Afghan security guard opened fire Thursday at a Kabul hospital. He was volunteering in Afghanistan to train young doctors, periodically returning to Chicago to work in a Christian clinic on the city’s southwest side.
Umanos “was always working to help inner-city kids and trying to help out any needy, poor kids anywhere,” said Jeff Schuitema, Umanos’ brother-in-law.
The fatal shootings at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul were the latest in a string of deadly attacks on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year.
In an interview inside her Chicago home, Jan Schuitema, Umanos’ wife, said he always wanted to work with children, and became fascinated with Afghanistan when visiting through a Christian clinic in 2006.
“What he would really want people who care about this to know is that he really did love Afghanistan and the Afghan people,” said Jan Schuitema, a teacher in Chicago who also spent time teaching in Afghanistan.
“This should in no way negatively impact people’s feelings about the country or about the people in the country,” she said. “They are no different than us here.”
The couple moved individually back and forth between the two countries. They knew other people who had been killed in Afghanistan – doctors, nurses and community development workers. Yet they did not live in fear.
“There’s always a concern. This isn’t the first time we’ve been through this. And there’s always a thought that this could happen,” she said. “It’s a reality, but it doesn’t, we weren’t afraid. When you know you’ve got God’s backing, the fear is not there.”
In addition to the pediatrician who was killed, “also two others who were here to meet him, and they were also American nationals,” said Afghanistan’s Minister of Health Soraya Dalil. “The two visitors were father and son, and a woman who was also in the visiting group was wounded.”
Colleagues in Chicago are heartbroken about the loss of Umanos, 57, who had worked for more than 25 years at Lawndale Christian Health Center in the city, said Dr. Bruce Rowell, medical director of clinical quality at the facility.
“He was ... for many of us on staff, the pediatrician for our very own children,” Rowell said at a news conference in Chicago.
“This loss is a great loss for his family, for those of us he worked with as well as for the people of Afghanistan,” Rowell said. “He was a loving and caring physician who served all of his patients with the utmost of respect.”
Dale Brantner, president and CEO of Lemoyne, Pa.-based Cure International, said he did not have solid information about what motivated the attacks, but that “it doesn’t seem to be religiously motivated.”
“We’ve existed there for 12 years being unapologetically Christian,” he said.
He remembered Umanos as “a guy who is just full of life, loves people, especially little people.”
Jeff Schuitema said Umanos and his wife quickly moved to Afghanistan when their children were old enough.
“Once the kids got to an age where they could leave, they were off,” Schuitema said, struggling to compose himself on the phone from his home in suburban Atlanta. “Jerry was trying to get me to come with him for years but I never did.”
The Cure International Hospital where the shooting took place is focused on maternity and pediatric care and serves 37,000 patients annually, said Mark Knecht, Cure International’s chief financial officer.
Umanos’ volunteer work in Kabul involved training residents and medical students interested in international health.
One of those trainees, Johns Hopkins University medical student Evan Russell, met Umanos in Kabul in 2011 while volunteering at the Cure International Hospital and later worked with him on a project called Empowerment Health. Russell said Umanos had been working for years on training programs to teach Afghan women basic health education and skills to provide health services in their communities.
“Just this morning, he expressed how excited he was that, after years of development with our Afghan partners, we were already on to our second day of training,” Russell said in an email to the AP. “Our efforts in the community will continue on, and we remain deeply committed to the mission to which he devoted his life, but Jerry’s daily impact on this program, and on so many other people, will be missed forever.”
Umanos was a graduate of Wayne State University School of Medicine and completed his residency at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, according to the nonprofit Empowerment Health’s website.
Officials at Cure International said they were working closely with authorities investigating the shooting.
Knecht told reporters outside the group’s headquarters in Lemoyne, Pa., that it “remains committed to serve the people of Afghanistan.”
He also asked for prayers for “the families of the victims and those affected by the shooting, as well as the peace in Afghanistan.”