Saturday, 21 July 2007

From the Diary of an Iraqi doctor

It is the dream of every middle class Iraqi family to see her son or daughter becoming a doctor, and my family was not an exception. My mother always wished her son to be a doctor one day, not an engineer or a lawyer. I still remember my uncle’s advice “If you become an engineer, prepare yourself to be a taxi driver afterwards”. But what about me? What did I want to be in the future at that time in late 80s? The answer was simply: I do not know. I suddenly found myself achieving high marks in the “Backaloria Exam, which is the equivalent of GCSE in England” that enabled me to register with any college I like. To fulfil my mother’s dream, I decidedly joined the Medical College and finished my studies successfully. However, these years were not easy ones. Everything was changing around me and the socio-political atmosphere was very tense. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the UN sanctions, the defeat of the Iraqi army and its withdrawal from Kuwait, the uprising in the South and North of Iraq which was brutally smashed few weeks later and finally the beginning of the biggest wave of Iraqi exodus. Doctors were always among the first professionals who fled the country in hundreds and may be thousands. As the years went by I’ve realised that I will not be a good doctor. I occasionally attended lectures and clinical sessions and most of my time was divided between playing basketball and chatting with my friends. It was simply a natural continuation to my high school days. I hated wearing suits and ties. Instead, I always wore Jeans trousers, T-Shirts and trainers. I did not go to the graduation ceremony and believe it or not I did not take the Hippocratic Oath traditionally taken by doctors pertaining to practice Medicine all over the world. The post graduation medical training in Iraq was very much disappointing compared to our expectations when we were students. At that time in mid 90s, there was a significant rise of anti-medical sentiments. And we doctors were responsible for curing people in almost completely collapsed medical services due to unfair sanctions. Moreover, we found ourselves, after 6 years of study, getting paid a monthly salary of $2.00 only. As a natural result, many left the profession and entered the world of Business and hundreds fled the country seeking better opportunities elsewhere. Jordan, Yemen, Libya and later on Oman and UAE became compulsory destinations for those who left Iraq because no other country was willing to issue visa to any Iraqi. These were the transit stations in the long exile journey to the West, and specifically UK, the ultimate destination for thousands of doctors from all over the world.
Once I arrived to UK, another “internal exile” journey has begun albeit differently. Here you realise that, apart from your primary medical qualifications, all your work experience was meaningless and unworthy and you have to start all over again doing re-qualification exams. I did that successfully, like hundreds of “fresh off the boat” doctors. However; all my efforts were smashed on a solid rock named “The Home Office”. As a failed asylum seeker for four bloody years I was not only prohibited from work, but also from the basic rights of receiving treatment and having a decent place to live in. simply we were unwanted and unwelcome in this country and I became legally known as “illegal immigrant” or “a failed asylum seeker waiting for deportation back to his home country”. And here you will find yourself driven to a new world and a new experience called “the black market”. I still remember my first illegal job here in the UK as an onion picker in a field of many big farms employing hundreds of illegal workers from all over the “hungry” world. And I always tell my friends that Britain should be proud of its “multicultural black market” exactly in the same way we hear repeatedly in the news about the British Society and how they are proud of their diversity. My first “illegal” wages were £9.00 for working from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. I worked for two days only there and then I made a good progress in my second “black, hidden, underground” job. I worked as a labourer with an Iraqi Kurdish carpenter for £25.00 per day. It was a big achievement. I worked three weeks with him and later I moved to London where I worked as a carpet cleaner for one week only. I got £35.00 per day this time and I was climbing the “black market Economy” stairs slowly but steadily. finally came my last, but the longest job which was to some extent “professional” and I used all my English language and communication skills this time properly. It was a receptionist in a youth hostel. Approximately three years of my life were spent behind a reception desk. At that time I believed that I will not come back to the medical profession. It did not bother me very much as I was not keen about it from the beginning but the only thing that kept worrying me was how disappointing to my mother to see her “doctor” son working in cheap jobs rather than his “precious” profession. However; since then the situation has dramatically changed. Unexpectedly the Home Office changed its mind about my status and allowed me to stay legally in this country and I have to stand up to the challenge of building my shattered medical career once again. Twelve years after graduation and I have to start all over again and most likely I will find myself in a specialty other than the one I really want or practiced before and under the supervision of an English or Asian doctor few years younger than me. It was at this time, I have realised that I am not too young anymore. And to make things worse, my registration with the General Medical Council came one day after the news of the failed attempt of Bilal Abdullah, the Iraqi Doctor, who tried to detonate his packed-with-explosive car at Glasgow Airport. But most importantly shall I be able to cope with the restrictions, policies and demands of the medical authorities here. In the “good doctor guide” sent along with my GMC registration license, the words “you must” were mentioned nearly 75 times. And if eighteen years ago I did not know whether I would like to be a doctor or not, now the question that buzzes in my head “do I still have the energy, physically and mentally, to carry on with the profession? The answer is simply again: I don’t know.