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Doctors’ Ugly Quarrel Drives Wedge Between U.S. Syrians

Aug 9, 2012


This article was first published by Star-Ledger on  Sunday, July 29, 2012.

At first glance, it looked like an official website for an orthopedic surgeon. There was a photo of the Syrian-American doctor, bold text featuring his name and then, a surprising message:

“I am Dr. Nasser A. Ani … I have recently invited a world renowned terrorist to speak in the United States as my guest of honor.”

The website, clearly not created by Ani, alleged the Old Bridge physician was close to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and supported “terrorism against the United States, suicide bombers, slaughter of innocent children,” torture and rape, among other crimes.

Accusations like these may be common in war-torn countries, but not in New Jersey, where a name-calling feud has created a deep rift in the Syrian-American medical community and landed in a Middlesex County courthouse for a judge to sort out.

With the growing crisis in Syria, what started as a local tiff between two physicians has spun into a political debate that’s garnered national attention among Syrians from Washington, D.C., to California.

Syrian-Americans form a robust presence in New Jersey’s medical community.

The Board of Medical Examiners doesn’t keep tabs on where doctors are born, but at least 70 licensed physicians in New Jersey got their education at Damascus University, which is Syria’s largest academic institution. Several Syrian doctors estimate there are hundreds of physicians in the state with Syrian roots.

As a whole, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 people in New Jersey who claim Syrian ancestry, according to recent U.S. Census figures.

Many of them worry that this spat has grown out of control and reflects poorly on all.

“The community is really upset and outraged about this,” said Ghias Moussa, a cardiologist at Christ Hospital in Jersey City. “This is the first time ever something like this has happened.” He said he supports Ani and is concerned about Ani’s safety and emotional well-being.

Another physician, Sam Farah of New York City, said the situation is “crazy” but unfortunately representative of a culture that sometimes struggles to stay level-headed in the midst of controversy.

“It’s typical of the Middle-Eastern, emotional, hot-headed personality,” said Farah, who’s from Syria. “Professional life and personal life should not intermingle and intersect.”

After the website launched, the claims spread quickly by word-of-mouth and through social media. Several people told The Star-Ledger they actually first heard about the drama on Facebook. Then, Ani made a move to fight back.

On his own legitimate website, which promotes his medical offices in Hazlet and Old Bridge, there’s a message that blasts the “efforts to defame our practice and the integrity of Dr. Ani.”


No one has offered proof of who put up the website or why, but there are plenty of theories. And many think it somehow relates to a friendship gone sour between two men: Ani, the orthopedic surgeon, and his longtime friend and business partner, Said Samra, a cosmetic and reconstructive surgeon.

In the late 1990s, they joined to open the Old Bridge Ambulatory Surgery Center.

Dr. Nasser Ani in a photo by The Star-Ledger’s Jerry McCrea

Last spring, that partnership fractured when Ani and Samra disagreed about how to run the surgery center, according to a lawsuit filed by Samra this March in Middlesex County.

In court papers, Samra and his son, physician Assad Samra, claim that Ani demanded a bigger share of the profits because he referred more patients to the center.

When the Samras wouldn’t agree to that arrangement, Ani stopped referring patients and stopped operating, Samra and his son claim.

Because of the impasse, the ambulatory center hasn’t been up and running since April, according to court papers. The lawsuit aims to expel Ani from the ownership group.

“(Ani’s) doing all kinds of things that are going to kill the center,” said Bob Conroy, Samra’s attorney. “He’s acting very irrationally with respect to the center.”

Recently in Middlesex County, Superior Court Judge Frank Ciuffani directed the center’s attorneys to bring in an outside consultant, aiming for an August reopening of the center, Conroy said.

Unless another deal is worked out, Ani and Samra could actually work in the same surgery center as soon as next month, Conroy said.

“He’s quite elated that the center will be up and operating,” he said, referring to Samra.

But some people familiar with the case say it is hard to imagine the doctors together again, especially after what has transpired the past year.

At first their dispute was mostly about money. But late last month, a political scuffle between the two men ensued, with the struggle for power in Syria as the backdrop.


As part of a group called the Syrian American Forum, Ani extended an invitation for the “grand mufti” of Syria, a controversial religious figure, to speak at an “interfaith” summit in Washington, D.C., according to the forum’s website. Recent videos show the grand mufti threatening to send suicide bombers to the Western world, according to translations of the clips posted on YouTube.

The Syrian American Forum helps promote civil dialogue among Syrian leaders, said Khalil Matar, one of the forum’s leaders and a close friend of Ani’s.

Amid growing protests, the group withdrew the invitation.

Then the website was launched alleging Ani had links to terrorism. Photos also emerged of Ani with Assad from a visit last fall to Syria. The visit, according to Ani’s attorney and multiple friends of Ani, was part of a large group trip to encourage dialogue between accomplished American leaders and the Syrian president.

“These allegations are outrageous,” Matar said. “They’re accusing him of being a terrorist. All of his activities have been legal activities. We condemn terrorism.”

Critics, meanwhile, say the photos and invitation are proof that Ani is an elite American supporter of the Assad regime.

Early this month, Ani made a move to silence those critics.

In Superior Court in Middlesex County, he filed a lawsuit against Nicole Bylecki, the practice manager of the Samras’ medical office. Ani accuses her of sending an e-mail filled with false terroristic claims.

A copy of an e-mail from Bylecki starts with the banner text, “THIS LOCAL DR IS IN SUPPORT OF TERRORISTS!” At the end of the e-mail, Bylecki encourages readers to “Call Dr. Nasser Ani Now,” according to court papers.

Frank Ciesla, the attorney who represents Ani, said his client has already lost several patients because of the allegations. There have also been threats made against Ani and his family, friends and supporters say.

Going forward with the defamation suit, Ciesla said, was a decision to protect Ani’s future in medicine.

“It’s a very difficult claim to win because it’s the First Amendment,” he said. “We recognize it’s a difficult case, but we’re concerned about the fact that this is clearly defamation and will adversely affect his practice and potentially affect his safety.”

On Friday, Ciuffani, the same judge handling the surgery center case, rejected a request for an injunction that would have essentially prevented Bylecki from making any claims about Ani. Ciesla intends to go forward with the other parts of the lawsuit, which include claims of defamation and interfering with Ani’s ability to run his business, he said Friday.


Rob Avolio, Bylecki’s attorney, said Bylecki copied and pasted the message from another source. She never intended to get caught up in this fray, he said. In fact, she recently said that she thought the Syrian president was a symbol of democracy, he said.

“She doesn’t even know,” Avolio said Friday in court. “She has no sense of the realities of this struggle.”

The lawsuit does not name the Samras as defendants, but Ciesla says he’s looking to see if anyone instructed Bylecki to send the e-mail. He also wants to find out who created the website.

Meanwhile, friends of the Samra family staunchly deny they’re behind any campaigns against Ani.

“We had nothing to do with it. We have nothing to hide. They can have our computers if they want,” said one man close to the Samra family. He, like several other Samra family supporters who spoke to The Star-Ledger, requested anonymity out of ongoing concerns for his family’s safety in Syria.

Samer Araabi, Said Samra’s nephew, works for the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C., and is well aware of his uncle’s situation.

“It’s a mess,” he said.

Araabi, 26, said the overwhelming majority of Syrian-Americans would condemn any visit with Assad or an invitation to the grand mufti. When it comes to Ani, Araabi said he understands why people are so upset.

“There have been hyperboles flying out all over the place,” he said.

As for Ani, his supporters say they’re rallying to keep his spirits up. It’s a sad situation, said Moussa, of Christ Hospital, when people in a community feel like they can’t speak their minds.

“In America, you feel like this is an insult,” he said. “We got used to the democracy. We got used to saying what we think. What’s happened has made everyone really divided.”

Star-Ledger staff writers Stephen Stirling and Sue Epstein contributed to this report.