One of the biggest problems facing our region is that of brain drain. In Albania, Kosovo, and other Western Balkan countries, thousands of young, intelligent, and ambitious people leave their countries every month for opportunities in Europe and the US. While it is not difficult to understand why many feel this way- poverty, education, healthcare, and politics all pose challenges- it spells problems for the future.
But out of those that do leave, some come back after furthering their education and having a successful career; those that do, bring back their skills, mindset, and vision. One of these is Rifat Latifi.
Latifi was born in Kosovo, and after graduating from the Medical Faculty of the University of Prishtina, he went to the US, where he became top of his game as a general surgeon, publishing a raft of books, articles, and chapters, becoming a professor, and working in some of the most respected medical institutions in the world. Then one day, he received a call to return to his native Kosovo to serve his country as Minister of Health in the government of Albin Kurti, and he went.
But going back to the beginning, Latifi explained that while he knew he always wanted to pursue medicine, his path was not always clear.
“After graduating medical school and completing my residency, I thought, ‘what next’?”. I had to decide as I was at a crossroads. For many reasons, I felt I could not achieve- I could not see an avenue [in Kosovo] to achieve my potential, whatever potential I had. I didn’t know if I was a good doctor or a bad one; I just knew I was ambitious,” he explained.
During these years, he knew he wanted to write books, publish, learn new things, and develop his practice, but to continue this in Kosovo was hard. While he had opportunities in orthopaedics locally, when the chance to go to the US came, he felt he had to take it.
He went to New York initially before transferring to the University of Texas, where he became a research fellow and associate.
“This opened my world,” he said enthusiastically, explaining how he worked with some of the best names in the sector before moving to the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic. But when the opportunity to transfer to the Yale University School of Medicine under the leadership of Professor Ronald C Merrell came, he took it and completed his studies in General Surgery.
He worked his way to the top of his field, working with the most respected surgeons and professors and at the most prestigious institutions. Latifi also said he authored a total of six books during his residency.
“During my residency, I didn’t just publish a book; I published six books which is impressive and frankly, it is unheard of for a resident to write a book, let alone six, but I did it,” he says beaming with pride.
Latifi refers to himself as “incredibly lucky” in terms of his career trajectory and the opportunities offered to him, but he does concede that it wasn’t always easy.
Like most immigrants, getting to grips with the language was a struggle.
“My spoken language was alright, but my writing was better. And then you add in the Texas slang ‘y’all how you doing’, and it becomes pretty difficult,” he said with a no-unmistakable American drawl.
“But what saved me was the perseverance and absolute dedication that I will do this. I can succeed, but it’s going to be hard work, it’s going to be long hours, but I also had a lot of support.”
While Latifi went from success to success and built a family life in the US, including five children and a handful of grandchildren, Kosovo was never far from his mind.
“I always wanted to come back home. I was asked in an interview in 1991 if I would ever come back to Kosovo, and I said, ‘if I do not come back, please do not count me among the living,” he says with a wry smile.
Throughout his career, he worked on a number of projects with Albania and Kosovo, including a successful telemedicine programme, opening new medical facilities, and training local staff. Then in 2018, he was involved in creating the Kosova College of Surgeons and Latifi was subsequently appointed president. But nothing could prepare him for what was to come.
“When Mr Kurti called me on the phone, it was the biggest surprise of my life,” he explained. “I never thought this kind of thing would happen to me. I could get struck by lightning in the middle of the day, but not this.”
On 21 October 2021, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti called Latifi and asked him to return to the country and take on the role of Minister of Health.
“I was in shock! Not many things can shock me, but I was shocked to the point I didn’t know what to do. That had never happened to me before. I told him, `Thank you, I am in shock, and I will let you know’.”
Latifi describes himself as non-partisan and says he is motivated by a deep love for his country, his profession and a desire to make things better.
“If we do not pursue the betterment of the country, what is the point in doing it?” he said on the topic of putting the needs of Kosovo before personal enrichment.
Over the following days, Latifi considered the invitation carefully, consulting his family members in the process. Once the decision had been made, Latifi crafted his response, and both he and his wife pressed the ‘send’ button simultaneously so there could be no later disputes about whose decision it was.
“I thought long and hard. I could find hundreds of reasons to say no- I am at the top of my game, my life is here, my life is good, I have a nice house, blah blah blah. But I had a problem. How would I tell my kids that once I had a chance to help Kosovo but I said no? For that reason, and so I cannot complain about the situation there anymore, I said yes.”
His first day on the job was, as one would expect, somewhat overwhelming. Following a meeting with Kurti and his first press conference, his driver asked him if he wanted to go to the ministry. He replied that no, he wanted to take a walk alone in the city to take a deep breath because “something really big happened here.”
“Every day is a new day in the Ministry of Health. But it is an honour in my life. It is a hard job, a tough job, but I know that whatever I do will improve the situation here.”
In terms of regrets, Latifi says he has none as he has ticked all of the boxes; education, career, family, and now serving his country. He explains if he could go back in time, he would not do a single thing differently.
“I would do it all again and again, the same way. I put myself in the hands of destiny, and I was never sorry for believing in that. Then I worked hard, I learned a lot, and I was not afraid. I tell my kids I am the luckiest guy ever. There is turbulence in life, but you have to sacrifice, and you have to work hard on that,” he said.
As for those that want to leave Kosovo today, he explains that many do not see opportunities here and do not see the potential for the future.
“They get bogged down by the small talk from their bosses and those who are not good. They don’t have opportunities to achieve their potential. But I would say give it some time. Just some time.”
Latifi has been in office for eight months and is under no illusion that things will change overnight, but the foundations are being laid.
“Healthcare is relatively easy. All you need to do is provide high-quality care. But for that, you need well-prepared medical staff, and infrastructure, and you need to love your country just a little bit more.”
Some of his initiatives include creating new fellowships for speciality training in 22 disciplines, and more than 100 medical staff will be sent for international training this year. “They will come back and become leaders of the healthcare system,” he expressed with unmistakable enthusiasm.
“We are laying the foundations. We will buy the equipment they need, prepare the system, do the legal framework, create research centres. We are 1.7 million people- it is a small town or a suburb of Paris. We can do it. If you can create human capacities and people love their country, the rest of it, I promise, will fall into place.”
Another issue that plagues Kosovo and its neighbours is that of corruption, but Latifi has a very firm stance.
“I have declared that they can corrupt me, but the price is $10 billion, and every penny I will give to Kosovo.”
His ambitions in Kosovo cover seven pillars and 15 centres and clinical programmes, including digitalisation, reducing brain drain, advanced clinical, training and residency programs, improving quality of healthcare, decentralising the system, and the development of programmes in various areas. These include burns, trauma, oncology, telemedicine, and creating a centre for autism, Down Syndrome and the likes.
Overall, his message is simple: to take the opportunities that life gives you and work hard to fulfil them, but never forget your roots. Taking the gifts destiny gives you is essential, but using them to help those back at home is the best gift of all.