Thomas Hallahan, executive director at Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard for nearly the past five years, announced this week that he will step down in early May for the job of associate provost at the new American University of Iraq Baghdad.

“Iraq will be the seventh [Middle Eastern] country I’ve lived and worked in,” said Mr. Hallahan, a trained audiologist and health scholar who also worked in South Africa and Cambodia during the decade and a half before he started at hospice in May 2016.

A Fulbright scholarship to teach at the University of Jordan, Amman was his first Middle East posting, in 2012. He went on to work in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Kuwait, among other countries, generally in the fields of health care education and advocacy for people with disabilities.

“The Middle East, I find, is a very sacred region. This really speaks to me when I’m there,” he said.

Always returning to the Vineyard between jobs, Mr. Hallahan has also served as a Dukes County Commissioner and taught at the regional high school and Tisbury School.

His Cambodian-born son Eliot, who attended Island schools and is now a junior at Skidmore College, accompanied him on earlier overseas sojourns.

“We lived there and joined a gym and went to school and shopped at the market,” Mr. Hallahan said.

While driving to a South African safari lodge in an inadvisably small car when Kiric was 11, they also got cornered by a bull elephant. A night safari rescued the father and son, but not before some terrifying moments.

“It was really scary,” Mr. Hallahan said. “We wound up being chased. There were hyenas.”

The Hallahans were in Beirut in 2013 when the first Syrian chemical attack sent refugees flooding into Lebanon.

“There were Russian warships and a U.S. warship in the harbor when it was happening,” Mr. Hallahan said.

Refugees also filled the streets outside their hotel and gunfire was heard, leading 13-year-old Kiric to observe to his father, as he turned out their room lights, “Most parents take their kids to Disney World,” Mr. Hallahan recalled.

But living in the region was life-changing for them both, Mr. Hallahan said.

“I realized I was so biased by how we perceived the Middle East,” he said.

As for his son, he said, Kiric wound up focused not on the upheaval and danger they encountered, but on the humanity they met.

“His college essay talked about not the really extreme situations, but the reality of other people’s lives, and that was really powerful,” Mr. Hallahan said.

“For him it was just very eye opening to see firsthand the inequities in the world and how privileged we are. Where we’re born is all by chance.”

Mr. Hallahan departs for Iraq May 8, one week after his fifth anniversary at hospice on May 1, he said.

“People say, is Iraq safe? And I don’t know because I’ve never been there,” he said. “Every society has its challenges around security and safety . . . as Americans so noted just in our recent history last week.

“It won’t prevent me from going there and has not prevented me going to other countries over the last 15 years.”

Pandemic safety looms larger in his mind.

“I have offered, as part of the associate provost role, to spearhead Covid protocols at the university and to insist on mask wearing, precautions, hand washing — all the things that could have so controlled it if we had all stepped up,” he said.

“Getting the vaccine before I leave will be really important, but we’ll still have to do precautions for quite some time.”

After meeting next Wednesday, the hospice board is expected to formally name an interim executive director who is already working with Mr. Hallahan remotely on a regular basis.

“She will be phenomenal,” he said, although he declined to identify the person who will take over his job while the board engages in a search for a permanent replacement. He did say the person is a seasonal resident who will return to the Island in time for the transition.

While Mr. Hallahan’s job switch was unexpected, he said in conversations with the board over recent years he had brought up the possibility of stepping down as hospice prepares for Medicare certification, in favor of someone with a stronger Medicare background.

“So when the American University of Iraq presented this opportunity, they [board members] were disappointed but not surprised,” he said.

The new university, which is Iraqi-owned — overseas institutions using the American University name are unaffiliated with each other or with the private Washington, D.C. university, Mr. Hallahan said — is in the process of opening this year on the site of overthrown dictator Saddam Hussein’s largest palace.

“I believe it was called his Water Palace,” Mr. Hallahan said.

But the university itself is not sponsored by the Iraqi government, he said, and will conduct its business in English, as do most leading international educational institutions.

As associate provost, Mr. Hallahan will oversee the schools of medicine, dentistry, nursing, health sciences and pharmacy.

“Associate provost is really about the retention of faculty and deans,” he said. “I will oversee the deans and I’ll be responsible for accreditation, memos of understanding, reciprocity agreements with other universities in the region and in the United States, and relationship building, for lack of a better word.”

Despite his affinity for the Middle East, Mr. Hallahan did not take this latest move lightly. Even after teaching and serving as a county commissioner, he said, he hadn’t realized in detail the work done by Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, its staff and its volunteers until he became executive director.

“It has been a privilege not only to lead it, but to learn and be surrounded by the amazing work,” he said.

“It’s been a real gift in so many ways. I could easily stay here.”

But Mr. Hallahan told the Gazette he expects to be back in his Oak Bluffs home — “I am a ‘proud to be from O.B.’ person,” he said — within one to three years.

“I will return to the Vineyard,” he said. “My commitment is probably three years, but . . . you never know. You kind of take that one day at a time.”