:: Iraqi doctor brings insight on culture and health care
An Iraqi doctor and Ministry of Education employee, on her first trip to the United States, made a stop at Elon Monday to talk about her experiences as a female doctor in Kurdish Iraq.
Niveen Ishaq, an ophthalmologist from Ainkawa, Iraq, is in on a conference tour in the United States sponsored by the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the Rotary Club.
Some of the issues addressed in Ishaq’s talk to Elon students were the relationship between Kurds and other Iraqis, the medical care system in Iraq and religious tensions in her homeland.
“It is so hard to think that some people hate you for no specific reason,” Ishaq said of some Muslim’s treatment of Christians in Iraq.
Ishaq, a Christian, was born in Baghdad but moved to the Christian-friendly northern city of Erbil, Iraq as a child.
She said she’s been ridiculed by Muslims a few times for her beliefs. Once while driving during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, she said a man yelled, “Go to hell!” out of his car window to her. He knew she was not Muslim because she was not wearing a head covering.
But, she said in a country with such a mix of ethnic groups, diversity must be accepted.
In a region where women have more freedoms to pursue careers than in the south, Ishaq graduated from Salahaddin University and now works at Hawler Medical University where she is the director of academic relations.
While Iraq has free medical care and education, Ishaq said there are deficiencies in the medical system mostly because of a lack of government funding.
She said with free medical care, the result is both negative and positive.
“Being a free system, it makes it difficult to make progress,” Ishaq said.
Often there are not enough medical staff members to treat all of the patients that need care, and many hospitals are without the equipment they need such as MRI and X-ray machines, she said.
“The health care system is the first thing that has to be changed for a better Iraq,” Ishaq said.
As a doctor in Iraq, Ishaq has witnessed some devastating events. In 2005 during the celebration of Eid ul-Fitr, two political buildings in Erbil were attacked by insurgents. The attack resulted in 200 casualties.
Because of the holiday, all Muslim doctors were off-duty, and Ishaq was the only doctor in the emergency room. She said after the explosions, people started dragging bodies into the hospital.
“I was shocked,” she said. “Some of them were dead, some in pieces. I was walking among them not knowing who was dead or alive.”
Ishaq said that event was the most trying time of her medical career. She said the worst part was that she had to choose who to give medical treatment to because she couldn’t help them all.
One of Ishaq’s sponsors in the United States, Michael Brennan, an ophthalmologist at Alamance Eye Center, is working with Ishaq toward a stronger medical care system in Iraq.
Brennan made several trips to Iraq along with other civilian doctors who are interested in educating and collaborating with Iraqi doctors to improve the care they give to Iraqi citizens.
What started as a personal interest, turned into an ongoing program that continually sends American doctors to different regions in Iraq. In 2004, Brennan helped arrange a forum in Baghdad with 24 American doctors and 500 Iraqi doctors where the goal was collaboration.
“Our intent was to keep a linkage with theirs,” Brennan said.
When the violence in southern Iraq made it too dangerous to send doctors there, Brennan’s associates looked toward Erbil to start a new medical relationship.
“We found Erbil as the only place we could do business,” he said.
Brennan met Ishaq there, and encouraged her to apply for the AAO and Rotary Club’s program.
“The only thing I would like to see is no one hating each other anymore in my country,” Ishaq said.
Ishaq, who will be in the United States for about one month, will give speeches and meet with American medical professionals, building relationships that will help her country. She will see her sister who lives in Texas, and meet with the Iraqi ambassador before returning to Iraq.
Reporter: Alexandra Hemmerly-Brown - 11/07/07