Memories from my trips to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan

I’ve made 14 previous trips to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan as a medical educator. Guests are treated well in the Middle East, and the hospitality directed toward me has always been fantastic. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to teach in Iraq, and maternal safety has improved in some regions based on the work done by the doctors that my colleagues and I have taught. I have to admit that I’ve learned so much from these trips that I’ve become a much better person because of them. I respect the gifts I’ve been given as an American citizen more, I respect the resilience of the human spirit more, and I recognize that people all over the world are usually more alike than they are different.

I’d like to share just a few of the most memorable moments from my previous trips.

An early trip was in 2007; the Iraqi Kurds were thrilled to see us. But they also seemed surprised. It almost seemed as if they were saying to themselves, “Look, they came?! I guess we better start planning the medical conference!” And the next day, doctors filled the auditorium, with over 100 in attendance in a standing-room only event. The lesson was this trust has to be earned. It was apparent that people in Iraq were used to broken promises from American officials.

I was once told that in Kurdistan the richest family in the village is the one with the most beds in their home. This means that they are great hosts. I recall, in my childhood, my Appalachian grandmother once stating with pride, “We slept 23 in this house last night.” It’s not just the hills of Kurdistan and of Appalachia that have similarities.

For the first trips to Baghdad, the conferences were held in what was then called the “Green Zone.” Attendees waited in a two-hour line to get through security to get into the conference area and waited in another two-hour line to get back out and go home in the evening. It was decided that we should get through our lectures more quickly on the second day, and cancel the conference on the third day. That way we Western visitors could tour the Baghdad Medical City complex and the attendees wouldn’t have to stand in line for 4 hours. It turned out that the attendees were hurt and insulted. “How could you possibly think that we didn’t want to learn?” one said to me. I saw a passionate love for education. A colleague and I gave more lectures in the Green Zone the next day while other members of the delegation went to Medical City.

I did make it to Baghdad’s Medical City on another trip and spent some time teaching in the Labor and Delivery Unit. Of course I’ve spent years with U.S. Labor and Delivery nurses, and they are one fine group of people. Nurturing to patients, they will be blunt, direct, and vocal when their patients need advocates. And they pretty much love a good laugh, especially if it is at an obstetrician’s expense. So I was in the Baghdad Labor and Delivery Unit with Charles, a British obstetrician and a very proper British gentleman. Two Iraqi nurses came up to us, then one looked at Charles, pointed to her friend and said, “Make Date?” They then howled with laughter at the surprised look on our faces. 6500 miles away from home. Different language. Different religion. Different culture. Labor and Delivery nurses have the same personality.

One trip to Baghdad occurred in a time period after insurgents had just received a shipment of explosives. We could hear the bombs go off two or three times a day. Once I looked out my hotel room window and saw the fire from a car bomb only about 200 yards away. I was safe, but it was very sad to think that people were dying 200 yards away and there was nothing I could do to help them. At the school next door, children went outside and lined up in their assigned areas just like I used to do as a child for fire drills. I could tell it was just another routine experience. People are resilient.

I am saddened when I hear national leaders imply that people who look different than the average East Tennessean are somehow inherently dangerous or suspiciously dissimilar from usual Americans. I’ve learned that people are people, that most people are good, and that we can all work together to make our world a better place. I remember what a Kurdish leader told me: “All we ask is the chance to have dreams, and to raise our children in peace.” Who wouldn’t support that?

Editor’s note- Dr. Olsen arrived in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan this morning to participate in a women’s health conference there.