Testing Gulshan

No amount of tragedy — be it war, illness or mass
shooting — could stop her from following her dream.

The Atlanta police chaplain appeared calm and composed as he stepped through the door of Gulshan Harjee’s home that summer evening in 1999.

Gulshan remained in denial about the news she was about to receive, even after learning there had been a mass shooting on the street where her husband worked. Even after authorities recovered her husband’s driver’s license from the scene. Even after Dean Delawalla — her first love, the man who encouraged her to come to America, and the one who helped her achieve her dream — did not come home that day.

There are other buildings on the street where the gunman struck. There are other offices in the building where Dean worked. Maybe the shootings happened elsewhere. Or maybe Dean escaped. The mind has a way of weaving just enough hope.

This was before Sandy Hook. Before Las Vegas. Before Pulse nightclub. This happened when mass shootings could still shock.

Pink and white balloons drifted in a corner of Gulshan’s Sandy Springs home as dozens of grim-faced friends and relatives streamed in to offer their support. Gulshan and Dean’s daughter Shahla had celebrated her fourth birthday just the day before.

Are you Mrs. Harjee? the police chaplain asked.

I am.

I am sorry to tell you, but your husband was killed today.

How sure are you?

Ma’am, it’s your husband.

The chaplain showed her Dean’s driver’s license and hugged her. Then he led her to a chair, where she collapsed. Shahla crawled into her mother’s lap.

Where is Daddy? she asked.

Gulshan and Dean had endured so much before coming to America: discrimination, disease, war. This wasn’t supposed to happen in America. They thought they would be safer here. Dean’s death would test Gulshan’s faith. She had to find a way to persevere. Her children were counting on her, as would many others.


Rehmat the resilient

Gulshan’s journey began in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest point. She remembers marveling at the snow-capped dome glowing pink under the sun. She grew up in Tanzania with her parents, two siblings and paternal grandmother, Rehmat, her hero. Rehmat doted on her grandchildren, often hugging and kissing them in between sewing and playing solitaire. Gulshan vied for Rehmat’s attention with her younger siblings, chatting with her in Kutchi, the language of her grandmother’s Indian homeland. Around their neighborhood, Rehmat was nicknamed “Bibi,” or grandmother in Swahili. Gulshan inherited Rehmat’s grit, a trait that would serve her well on her own journey.

In the black-and-white passport photo, Rehmat stares wearily into the camera. A dark, floral print scarf is draped over her head and shoulders. A prominent nose ring bejewels her face. To Gulshan, Rehmat looks deeply sad. She had already been through hell at that point. And she could have guessed more tragedy awaited her. Rehmat immigrated to Tanzania with her husband, Mohamed, from India, drawn by economic opportunities in developing East Africa. They were Ismaili Muslims, belonging to a minority sect of Islam. Rehmat gave birth to 13 children, but only two survived. The rest succumbed to illnesses, possibly malaria. Mohamed died when Rehmat was about 30, perhaps from tuberculosis. Widowed, pregnant with her second son and illiterate, she supported herself and Gulshan’s father, just 5 years old at the time, curing tobacco, rolling cigars and selling them on the streets of Dar es Salaam.

A few decades later, Rehmat fell ill and nearly died on the way to the hospital in Moshi. Just a young girl, Gulshan accompanied her grandmother on the hour-long ride over dirt roads. Helpless to ease Rehmat’s suffering, Gulshan announced she wanted to be a doctor so she could learn one day how to protect her grandmother. Gulshan’s father, Sadrudin, swelled with pride. He had dreamed of becoming a doctor but couldn’t afford medical school. He supported his family as an accountant, filling their home with books and encouraging his children to excel in school. Rehmat survived that day in Moshi. Four years later, she died from liver cancer.

Gulshan experienced her own brush with death as a teenager while attending a boarding school in the Tanzanian town of Tabora. She contracted malaria and the disease made her delirious with fever. Chills pulsed through her body. Her legs swelled, possibly from kidney or liver failure. The whites of her eyes turned yellow. Her body’s transformation shocked her. Just 18, she was too young to die. There were too many things left to do. Gulshan’s condition was complicated because she suffers from lupus, a potentially fatal autoimmune disease that can damage skin, joints and organs. If Rehmat could persevere, Gulshan remembers thinking, then so could I. Gulshan’s family spent a month nursing her back to health.

Soon after she returned to her studies, tensions flared in Tanzania. The country had declared independence from Britain and authorities began expelling Asians and nationalizing their properties and schools. More trouble brewed in Tanzania’s neighboring country, Uganda, where dictator Idi Amin would eventually order 50,000 Asians out of the country.

Gulshan’s parents decided to send her to school in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation. As Gulshan prepared to leave her homeland and her family for the first time, her mother and younger siblings cried and said their goodbyes that summer morning at the airport in Dar es Salaam. Saying little perhaps so he could keep his composure, Gulshan’s father simply declared: You are just going to follow your dream. As she crossed the tarmac in 1971, Gulshan kept turning to wave at her family. She had no idea she was headed toward love and war.

Gulshan discusses children's education and the need for water wells with a local woman at a village in the Magu district of Tanzania, where she grew up. She was volunteering during a UNICEF field visit. Contributed by Barron Segar


Gulshan’s first love

Riding in a rickshaw, Gulshan weaved around goats, cows and brightly colored buses on her way to her first date with Dean. They were set to meet for dinner at a popular Chinese restaurant in Karachi. Along the way, she could hear meat sizzling and smell peanuts roasting and garlic frying in the outdoor food stalls. The carriage ride gave her a chance to see the city and think about Dean. She wondered about his intentions and what her parents would think of him.

A rickshaw ride through Karachi would have been unthinkable just months earlier. Explosions had echoed in the city. Curfews were enforced. For 13 days in December 1971, Pakistan and India fought a bloody war. The Indian navy attacked the Port of Karachi, destroying Pakistani ships and fuel supplies. War planes screamed overhead. Refugees — including many Ismaili Muslims — flooded into town from East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh.

Gulshan, 19, was in college pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor. She met Dean at the bank where he was a loan officer. Older than her by six years, he was successful, handsome and courteous. He made her feel reassured. Like her, he had determination. He dreamed of moving to America to attend law school and become a lawyer. His tenacity would inspire Gulshan during the difficult times ahead.

They were both Ismaili Muslims with Indian roots. His family grew wheat in India until the nation split apart. In 1947, British colonial rule ended there and the subcontinent was divided into mainly Hindu India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions were displaced in widespread sectarian violence that followed the partition. Unnerved by the killings and facing discrimination in India, Dean’s family fled on foot and by train for Pakistan. Just a young boy suffering from a fever at the time, Dean rode on a camel part of the way.

Dean and Gulshan discovered other similarities. They worshipped at the same mosque. They belonged to an association of foreign Ismailis living in Karachi. Gulshan thought these were not coincidences.

“It seems like there was something — a power above us — that was trying to get us together,” she said.

Their first date lasted two hours. They talked about their families, their childhoods and their dreams. They dated for about a year and began talking about their future together. But their own ambitions got in the way. Worried about Gulshan’s safety amid the continuing tensions between Pakistan and India, her father helped her get a scholarship to attend Pahlavi University across the border in Shiraz, Iran, where she could study premed. Again, Gulshan prepared to start over in another country, alone. But Dean would be the first to leave. He set out for America. They cried as they hugged at the airport in Karachi. That’s where Dean said something that sounded familiar.

Keep following your dreams.


The crash

Gulshan felt something soft in her hand. There, resting in her palm, sat an eyeball. Trapped beneath bodies in an overturned bus somewhere in the desert of Iran, she heard the panicky cries of her friend, Almas Pira.

Gulshy! Gulshy!

Badly bruised and dazed, Gulshan struggled to understand what had just happened. The bus she had been riding in had smashed into an oil tanker and rolled over in the middle of the night near the ancient Iranian city of Yazd. The wounded cried out in pain. Some comforted themselves by chanting verses from the Quran. Gulshan’s clothes were splattered with the flesh and blood of fellow passengers.

It was summer 1974. Gulshan had just finished her first year at Pahlavi University and decided to travel with Almas, a friend from Tanzania and a fellow premed student. They were on a two-day trip to visit relatives in Karachi. When they boarded in Shiraz, they found their assigned seats occupied by a young woman and her children, so they found seats on the other side of the bus.

With the help of other passengers, Almas pulled Gulshan out of the wreckage. All around the bus there were bodies. Some were thrown through the windows as the bus rolled in the dark. Many of the passengers did not survive, including the young woman and her children who had taken Gulshan’s and Almas’ seats.

Gulshan searched her Islamic faith for meaning. For spiritual guidance, she often turns to a passage in the Quran about resiliency in the face of calamity: “And we will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to him we will return.’ Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the rightly guided.”

The bus crash was a test, Gulshan believed, just like her bout with malaria.

She escaped with a neck injury — it still hurts today — and some scrapes and bruises. Once she recovered, Gulshan got back to her studies in Shiraz. But they were cut short. The Iranian government’s authoritarian rule sparked riots. Schools closed. Martial law was imposed. The Shah and his family fled Iran as the Islamic Revolution took hold. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Tehran from exile and called for the expulsion of all foreigners — familiar terrain for Gulshan.

The relationship between Gulshan and Dean had continued to flourish, albeit long distance. They exchanged letters, spoke on the phone occasionally and Dean visited her briefly in Iran. At his urging, she hurriedly packed her things and flew to America. Once again, she headed to a foreign country. But this time, she would not be alone.


A door opens

The clock started ticking as soon as Gulshan arrived in America. Her visa would expire in six months, as well as her Tanzanian passport. She set to work, applying to medical schools in America, Australia, Canada, Ireland and Mexico. Before coming to America, Gulshan took the Medical College Admission Test three times, improving her performance each time. Still, the rejections piled up. Some schools said they wouldn’t accept her Iranian education. Others didn’t explain why they rejected her. Her dream school — Emory University — had already turned her down three years in a row before she arrived in America.

Frustrated, Gulshan thought about becoming a flight attendant. Why not? She spoke six languages. But Dean encouraged her not to give up. She also didn’t want to let her parents down, especially her father, who had dreamed about becoming a doctor. He had sacrificed so much for her.

Dean introduced her to a friend who knew Dr. Louis Sullivan, the founding dean and first president of the Morehouse School of Medicine. Sullivan was impressed with Gulshan’s intelligence and resilience. Having grown up in the Jim Crow South, he empathized with her experiences. She, in turn, embraced the predominantly black school’s mission of helping medically underserved patients, including immigrants and refugees. When a student failed to return for the second year of the program, a spot opened for her. She jumped at the chance and excelled at Morehouse. When she completed her studies, Sullivan recommended her to Emory, where she graduated from medical school in 1982.

Meanwhile, Dean graduated from Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School and started work as an immigration attorney. His family helped pay for Gulshan’s education. The two married in 1980. Three years later, Gulshan gave birth to their son, Faisal. They wanted a second child. Gulshan — still battling lupus — suffered through three miscarriages before Shahla came along. Gulshan bought a small medical practice in Decatur. Dean started a medical supply business and began trading stocks. He envisioned creating a boarding school in America for orphans from some of the world’s poorest nations, a place where they could learn to become leaders and humanitarians who could help their homelands.

Gulshan and Dean became naturalized U.S. citizens in 1989. At the ceremony in downtown Atlanta, Gulshan wept. They were finally home and safe. They had achieved their dreams. To her, it felt like nirvana.

At the Clarkston Community Health Center, Gulshan examines Simeon Gahungu, a Burundian who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Tanzania.


‘Kill me if you can’

Faisal, 15, was playing video games with his younger cousins in Sandy Springs when the phone rang. His aunt was on the line telling him there had been a shooting near the Buckhead day trading office where his father worked. The day was July 29, 1999.

Dean was Faisal’s best friend. They spent long stretches of time together as Dean drove Faisal to his soccer and hockey games all over the Southeast. Faisal was already a lot like Dean: handsome, driven and athletic.

Faisal called his father’s cellphone. No answer. He turned on the news. A gunman had shot nine people dead and injured 13 others at a pair of stock brokerages in Buckhead. The newscasters identified the gunman as Mark Barton, 44, a former chemist and a suspect in the 1993 slayings of his first wife and her mother. Earlier that day, Barton calmly stepped into one of the brokerage offices on Piedmont Road and announced: “I hope this doesn’t ruin your trading day.” Then he shot people as they scrambled for cover. Wielding a pistol in each hand, he fired off 39 rounds, first targeting brokerage managers and employees before shooting fellow traders.

Barton had lost more than $500,000 through day trading over the last 13 months. He told colleagues his wife had threatened to leave him because of his mounting losses. In the chilling suicide letter he left behind he wrote, “I don’t plan to live very much longer. Just long enough to kill as many of the people that greedily sought my destruction. You should kill me if you can.”

Police found the note in his Stockbridge apartment, along with the bodies of his 8-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son and second wife. He’d bludgeoned them with a hammer. Hours after the shootings, police spotted Barton driving his green minivan through Cobb County and pursued him to a gas station in Acworth, where he raised pistols to each temple and killed himself. In his van police found two more pistols, a stun gun and more than 100 rounds of ammunition covered in blood.

Unable to reach Dean by phone, Faisal got a ride from an older cousin to Buckhead where he stood outside the yellow police tape, watching a steady stream of cars pulling away from the scene. Dozens of police officers, news reporters and victims’ relatives roamed the area. Faisal watched for Dean’s blue Volvo S70, but it never emerged. He called his mother from the scene several times. Gulshan headed to Grady Memorial Hospital, hoping she would find Dean there, injured but alive. She refused to believe the worst.

Faisal gave the police his father’s name and description. Eventually, an investigator emerged from the building where Dean worked and approached Faisal with his father’s driver’s license in his hand. The grim expression on the investigator’s face told Faisal everything. Screaming, Faisal yanked off his eyeglasses and threw them as far as he could before collapsing into his cousin’s arms and crying. He headed home to be with Gulshan and Shahla. The police chaplain got there first with the news.

Gulshan and her daughter Shahla Delawalla relax in the Sandy Springs home they once shared with Gulshan’s first husband, Dean Delawalla, before he was killed in a 1999 mass shooting at a stock brokerage in Buckhead. Gulshan is now married to Zulfikarali Devji, who, like Gulshan, is an Ismaili Muslim of Indian descent.


Asking why

The days following Dean’s death were a blur. Sleepless and dazed, Gulshan doesn’t remember much except the many people who showed up for Dean’s funeral. She also remembers Shahla gazing at her father in his open casket and observing the bandages on his head.

What is wrong with Dad, she cried. Dad, wake up!

For days afterward, Shahla searched for her father — in the closet, the bathroom, the garage. Faisal turned quiet and subdued. Gulshan boiled with frustration and anger. She asked God why Dean had to die, why she was repeatedly tested. She wondered what she did to deserve this. There are billions of other people on Earth. Why did God stay so focused on her and her family?

Friends, neighbors and relatives on both sides of Gulshan’s family rallied around her and her children. They took them into their homes so they wouldn’t be alone. They fed them — Gulshan set up two refrigerators in her garage for all the donated food. She couldn’t keep up with all the sympathy cards and voicemail messages she received. Going back to her medical practice 10 days later and seeing patients again was a healing diversion.

Gulshan considered moving her family to a smaller home, but Faisal convinced her to stay, saying he felt closer to Dean there. Slowly they picked up the pieces of their lives and carried on.

Five years after Dean’s death, Gulshan married Zulfikarali Devji, co-owner of a management services company and a fellow Ismaili Muslim of Indian descent who was born in Kenya. But there was more trouble ahead. In 2008, Gulshan developed breast cancer. Again, she asked: Why? She remembered her favorite passage in the Quran about remaining resilient in the face of tests, and she realized there had to be some purpose in her difficult experiences: They fortified her. And they drew her closer to God.

“If I were an atheist, I don’t know how I would come out of these events and experiences,” she said. “I couldn’t because who would I talk to?”

Again, Gulshan’s friends and family rallied around her. She had both breasts removed and underwent chemotherapy. She is now cancer-free.

Today Gulshan, 65, and her husband live with their Shih Tzu, Boots, in the spacious brick house she once shared with Dean, a home located in a leafy Sandy Springs neighborhood near the edge of Interstate 285.

Now 34, Faisal became a lawyer like Dean. Gulshan’s father never achieved his dream of becoming a doctor. But Gulshan did it with Dean’s help. And now her daughter is following in her footsteps. Inspired by Gulshan’s battle with cancer and her doctors’ determined efforts to heal her, Shahla, 22, recently applied to dozens of medical schools. She wants to become an oncologist.

Gulshan speaks with patient Zahayda Sulaiman at the Clarkston Community Health Center.


A place to heal

The night Donald Trump won the presidential election, Gulshan was so concerned for the fate of the nation’s neediest people that she decided to sell her medical practice in Decatur and spend more time volunteering at the free clinic she helped start in Clarkston. The Clarkston Community Health Center serves impoverished patients without health insurance. Many are immigrants and refugees.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Dean helped her buy her medical practice and managed the finances. Letting it go was like losing one more tie to her first love. Plus, the work is in some ways more challenging and exhausting at the clinic. Gulshan and her colleagues must constantly navigate regulations, raise donations and manage an ever-changing cast of volunteers. Still, Gulshan sees herself in the patients who come to the clinic, no matter where they are from. And she feels it is her duty to help them, given her Islamic faith. Caring for them, she says, is especially important now that the Trump administration is restricting immigration, blocking travelers from Muslim-majority nations and seeking to scrap Obamacare.

A small brick building with white dormers, the clinic welcomes as many as 100 patients a day for consultations, lab work, tooth extractions, Pap smears and other services. Gulshan spends about 20 hours a week volunteering at the clinic, which marked its three-year anniversary this month.

A week before Christmas, one of Gulshan’s patients — Zahayda Sulaiman — showed up at the clinic, asking what she should do about her breast exam results. They came back abnormal. Zahayda arrived in America as a refugee two years ago, fleeing violence in Myanmar. A Rohingya Muslim, she is part of a stateless minority group that has long been persecuted in her predominantly Buddhist homeland. Zahayda and her husband fled to Thailand and then Malaysia after Myanmar’s security forces hacked their friends to death with machetes. She worked at a chicken processing plant after she arrived in Georgia. Diabetic and suffering from high blood pressure, she quit after becoming dizzy and falling at work.

Gulshan caressed Zahayda’s head as she explained to her in Hindi that she needed a biopsy. Gulshan wrote a prescription. Then she motioned for Zahayda to follow her outside. Gulshan pulled some clothes, purses and belts out of her car and stacked them high in a black bag. Zahayda might be able to sell these items to support her family. They were donated by Gulshan’s mosque.

“I have no money. I have no job,” Zahayda told Gulshan. “I don’t have money to pay rent and you are giving me free care. What can I say about you?”

Tears welled in Gulshan’s eyes as she and Zahayda sat together and talked in a narrow hallway at the back of the clinic, which was growing more crowded by the minute as dozens of patients from around the world — Ethiopia, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela — streamed in for help.

Gulshan’s altruism doesn’t stop at the clinic. Proceeds from the sale of her medical practice are going to help humanitarian efforts in Tanzania and to fund a pair of college scholarships she established — including one at Morehouse — for students who want to work in the health care industry.

Gulshan credits the example her grandmother set for her, her faith, Dean’s love and her family’s steadfast support with giving her the foundation to start the free clinic and spend her days helping those most in need. All of the tests she endured prepared her for this moment. This is the culmination of her striving.

Despite the many tragedies she has suffered, Gulshan, petite and dignified in her white doctor’s coat, maintains a playful sense of humor. After state lawmakers declared her Doctor of the Day in the Georgia Senate chamber last month, she deadpanned: “I love coming to this clinic here. No payroll. No utilities. No HR. No taxes. Free parking. And free lunch.”

Gulshan’s journey has made her more tender. When someone says something kind about her, she lets out a sweet giggle that faintly sounds like a cry. Her experiences have also made her stronger and calmer. Still, she is anxious about what is around the corner. She wonders if God is done with her. She wonders if she will face another test.

Gulshan sorts through a bag of clothes she prepared to donate to patient Zahayda Sulaiman after an appointment at the clinic.

While writing a Personal Journey last year on Dr. Heval Kelli, who came to this country as a teenage refugee from Syria, Jeremy Redmon met Dr. Gulshan Harjee, co-founder of the Clarkston Community Health Center where both doctors volunteer their services. Inspired by Gulshan’s grace and perseverance in the face of unfathomable hardships and sorrows, Redmon spent months reporting and writing this story of her incredible journey. Gulshan’s ambitions are now focused on expanding the free health clinic. To that end, she is seeking donations and volunteers, including doctors, dentists, pharmacists, dental hygienists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, dietitians and web developers. To learn more, go to www.clarkstonhealth.org.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor

Jeremy Redmon covers immigration and refugees for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His reporting has taken him to the U.S.-Mexican border, Central America and the Middle East. His latest work has focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, the plight of Dreamers and deaths in federal immigration detention centers. Redmon is enrolled in the University of Georgia’s Master of Fine Arts program in narrative nonfiction writing.

Dr. Gulshan Harjee addressed the Georgia Senate after state lawmakers named her Doctor of the Day on Jan. 23, 2018. Photo by Hyosub Shin/AJC