Doctors With Borders: Meeting The Sunni Physician, Working In A Shiite Hospital

By: Fahad al-Shammari for Niqash.com
Samir, a Sunni Muslim doctor from Mosul, fled the Islamic State and is now working in a Shiite Muslim suburb. He spoke about his secret identity and the atmosphere in the emergency room.
Working in a Shiite-majority suburb means the Sunni doctor's real identity must remain masked. (photo: موسوعة ويكوبيديا)
Working in a Shiite-majority suburb means the Sunni doctor's real identity must remain masked. (photo: موسوعة ويكوبيديا)

Trapped inside a sinking ship: That was the first feeling that overwhelmed the displaced doctor from Mosul, Samir, when he discovered that he had been reassigned to work in a public hospital in the Baghdad suburb, Sadr City. But it’s not due to the fact that Sadr City is a low-income area with about a million inhabitants. It is because Samir is a Sunni Muslim and originally from the northern city of Mosul, and Sadr City is an almost totally Shiite Muslim area, home to around a million people.

Directly after the extremist group known as the Islamic State took over his hometown of Mosul in the middle of 2014, Dr Samir left town. He came to Baghdad with his mother and found a new home in the capital. But in order to keep getting his salary from the Iraqi government, he had to file a request to be reassigned to work in a public hospital in any territory under government control.

Most Iraqis know the unofficial rules – to stay safe, you tend to live and work according to your sectarian allegiance, or, these days, according to which unofficial militias have control of which districts and how you feel about them. However the software at the Ministry of Health doesn't know these rules – and Dr Samir was reassigned to work at the  Al Shaheed  Al Sadr hospital, one of the large hospitals in Sadr city.

When we receive injured fighters their relatives often call for vengeance against the enemies amongst us. That means us.

As the Islamic State, or IS, group has been pushed back by the Iraqi military and by other parties fighting against them, the extremist group has launched more suicide attacks inside Shiite Muslim-populated areas. This has led to a rise in sectarian invective in Baghdad and in other southern areas in Iraq. But, as Samir knows, there are also other issues, especially when one works in the emergency ward.

“When we receive injured fighters from the front lines they are often accompanied by a lot of relatives, many of whom are screaming and shouting and calling for vengeance against the enemies amongst us,” Samir explains. “By this, I can only assume they mean against we Sunnis. These calls often subside. But you just never know what will happen when the next casualty is admitted.”

During college in Mosul, Samir really enjoyed a certain local television show that hosted Iraqi celebrities who would exchange jokes. A lot of the guests were from Baghdad and would say things in the city’s distinctive vernacular. Samir thinks that unconsciously he learned the way people in Baghdad speak. Now he uses that style of speech in order to fit into the hospital as incongruously as possible.

“I always try and hide the fact that I am from Mosul,” Samir says. “Relatives come in angry, looking for someone to blame. I hear hospital workers talking about Mosul, and how the people of Mosul conspired with the Islamic State. I don’t even want to imagine what their reaction will be if they find out , so I try to change my dialect to be safe. And when my tongue slips or when people start asking about my origin, I say Kirkuk because it is a mixed city of Arabs, Kurds, Sunni and Shiite. That’s working for me so far,” he confirms.

Head of the resident doctors at the hospital, Haider al-Tamimi, has a different opinion. He believes that those who fled Mosul and other IS-group-controlled territories should be welcomed in Baghdad – they left because obviously they disagreed with the IS group and they won’t harm other Iraqis. Still, he and some others at the hospital have agreed to keep Samir’s origins a professional secret.

“Because of the tribal nature of society here, anyone at the hospital could get into trouble, no matter what sect or ethnicity they are,” the senior doctor explains. “These problems are certainly more of an issue for Sunnis and Christians in Sadr City. But we always work together and we use our own tribal connections if anybody threatens our colleagues.”

“Having come from Mosul, a place where Sunnis are the majority, and then getting to Baghdad, where there is a Shiite majority and where the Shiite militias are so well respected, it is difficult,” Samir admits, when asked about his social life.  “It’s hard to make friends with people in the other sect. On the other hand I find my fellow Sunni colleagues, who are originally from Baghdad, have adapted to this situation really well. It doesn’t seem to affect their social situation at all, something I find interesting.”

Despite the hazards of identity politics in the hospital, Samir remains grateful for the professional development he’s experiencing in Sadr  City.

“There is no other place that offers such intensive training, with such a variety of different cases, thanks to the crowded nature of this suburb,” he told NIQASH. “It’s a path I need to go down, despite the risks. But after I’m done with my training I am not sure I can imagine my future in Iraq anyway,” he concludes. “I would rather emigrate.”


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