I remember the last day before I learned of the Islamic State: I was visiting my parents last August after recently starting my new job as a junior resident. My aunt phoned much later than we’re used to getting phone calls. Her message was brief: Islamic militants were headed to my mother’s town of Bartella and were expected to arrive by morning. My relatives had packed up a few belongings, locked up their home and piled into their car. The next morning, CNN had begun broadcasting from a makeshift shelter inside of a church in northern Iraq. The camera panned across the pews where dozens of displaced families sat in despair and disbelief.
As I stared through the screen into the eyes of my compatriots, my anger triggered a visceral response: my heart raced, my fists clenched, my eyes welled with tears, my forehead beaded with sweat. Admittedly, the political situation at the time was lost on me: I didn’t know what ISIS stood for nor did I care. I pictured my frail grandmother with congestive heart failure and asthma. Did she bring an extra oxygen tank? How many diuretic tablets and inhalers did she have with her? What if she had an asthma exacerbation? Would she be able to get to a clinic? Where were they even going?
It dawned on me that this was the start of international crisis situation as the overnight exodus of Iraq’s Christians descended upon the city of Erbil. I went to work the next day able to focus on little else. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to “help” – whatever that meant for a new medical school graduate halfway across the world. My reflex was to find a way to get to Erbil.
My parents, having emigrated from Iraq to escape the Ba’athist regime, were not persuaded by my plans. There were certainly other ways to help, they reasoned, which wouldn’t involve risking their daughter’s safety. I couldn’t completely explain my urge to leave my comfortable life for a country I have no memory of.
Yet, all I wanted was someone to offer me a position in a rudimentary clinic or on a team of field medics – anything where I could be of some use. Every night I dreamed of the places and people I had seen on the news and incessantly wept. To me, their pain was real and their loss was mine.
My decision to pursue medicine was rooted in altruism, humanity and kindness – all admirable reasons but certainly not exclusive to the medical profession: teachers are devoted to the betterment of their pupils and lawyers work tirelessly to defend the rights and freedoms of others. So, why did I choose medicine? A universal aspect of medicine is the categorical respect for human life, regardless of nationality, race, creed, sex or conviction.
I am a physician because I have no interest in choosing sides. I’m not a powerful person. I cannot influence foreign governments nor can I amass huge numbers of followers in support of my cause. Frankly, I have never cared for a sick patient who valued anything more than my empathy, respect and dedication to his or her well-being. My commitment is renewed each time I meet new a patient, listen to a list of symptoms and provide some comfort and relief from his or her illness.
As any physician will tell you, illness and death are the great equalizers: our existence is ephemeral and eventually we all succumb, like our ancestors, to our mortality. Perhaps it is the acceptance of this simple truth, which makes physicians apt to travel thousands of kilometres for people they have never met. When we are equally reduced to an organized collection of cells, there doesn’t seem to be any relevance in which flag we raise. Our common physiology bridges the gaps within our societal constructs, including arbitrarily drawn state lines.
Compassion and empathy are arguably two of humankind’s greatest evolutionary advantages. Our survival as a species hinges on our ability to recognize suffering in others, internalize it and seek to end it. I am the pregnant woman in labour inside of a refugee tent, without analgesia or antibiotics. I am the unvaccinated child who contracted chickenpox from living in an overcrowded shelter. I am the father and breadwinner with acute appendicitis who will die from lack of operating theatres and surgeons.
The rise of the Islamic State, and its malicious mission to exterminate an entire nation, signals a turning point in the history of our modern world. The international response since that day in August and through the coming months will determine the future of civilization. If we believe that individuals are products of circumstance, what can be said for the thousands of displaced refugees in Iraq and Syria? What then, does it say about the rest of us who sit by and watch their plight?
Today, my family and I were horrified by the aftermath of a fatal car bomb explosion from within the fortified town of Ankawa. This suburb of Erbil is ironically where my father’s family has roots and where my mother’s family has now come to call home. While I may not be there to personally care for the injured, I have been inspired by thousands of Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs across the globe who stand in solidarity with them. We are obligated to ensure their suffering does not go unnoticed and to act as vehicles for change, knowing that there can be no action unless we demand it.
Klaudia Jumaa, ADFA Canada representative