Doctors Increasingly Flee Iraq

NPR's Jacki Lyden reports from Baghdad on the safety concerns of Iraqi doctors who fear being abducted and held for ransom. She talks with one psychiatrist who has decided to leave his practice and move to Syria because of threats he's received. His departure highlights the growing dearth of mental health professionals in Iraq.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

As Phil Reeves mentioned, kidnapping remains a big worry for foreigners and natives in Iraq, especially well-to-do Iraqi businesspeople or professionals. Criminals have abducted many for ransom. Fear of kidnappings has led a number of professionals to leave the country. NPR's Jacki Lyden caught up with one of Iraq's dwindling number of psychiatrists. It was his last day in his Baghdad office.

JACKI LYDEN reporting:

For 25 years, Dr. Taha(ph)--he doesn't want his last name used for reasons of personal safety--has practiced on Omnasir Circle(ph) on Sadoon Street in Baghdad. He's a graduate of the College of Medicine in Baghdad. He has degrees in both psychiatry and psychology from the University of Vienna, and he's a fellow of the American Medical Society. All these degrees hang proudly on his wall. It's a quiet office lined with books, the kind you'd expect any psychiatrist to have the world over. This is where Dr. Taha sees his patients and had expected to keep on seeing them for years to come, until he got the telephone call recently warning him to leave the country or be kidnapped for a large ransom.

Dr. TAHA (Psychiatrist): It was an anonymous call from an anonymous person. He said, `I am indebted for you because you treated my brother in the '90s. He was very ill, and you helped to get him--exempt him from military services.' And he told me that the other day, he heard my name coming in the conversation between persons. He knows that they are involved in kidnapping doctors. So he said, `Dr. T, take care.' That's all. I don't know. Is it a legitimate one, or is it just to scare me out? I don't know. But I think he was sincere and I think he was truthful about it.

LYDEN: So soon, he will take a long trip to Damascus and perhaps never return.

There are now just a couple dozen psychiatrists left in Iraq, according to the country's professional associations. Before the war, there were over 50; before the UN sanctions against Iraq in the early 1990s, there were over 200. This is not what Dr. Taha had expected or hoped for after the fall of Baghdad in April of 2003. He looked forward to enhancing his practice with Western colleagues. He told his grandson there'd be McDonald's hamburgers in Baghdad. But in the last two months, as far as he knows, despite increased Iraqi police presence, 20 doctors have been kidnapped for money.

Dr. TAHA: The abductors, most of the time, they beat the doctors. They humiliate them. I know Dr. Jiahjula Aluji(ph), which is a very prominent gynecologist. She was beaten, her nose had been broken. She went through two surgeries in Amman in fix her nose. So it is humiliating. They put the doctor on the floor of the car and put their feet on him. This, in itself, is very, very humiliating, really.

LYDEN: Ransoms for doctors can be 25 to $50,000 or more. Dr. Taha doesn't have it. He thought he was safe because his lifestyle was simply too modest. He drives an old car he calls a beater, a 1980 Toyota Corolla. He walks to work because no one can seriously drive in Baghdad's rush hour, and anyway, the streets might be closed on the way home. Dr. Taha could probably have chosen to live the rest of his life abroad since he trained in Europe, but he wanted to come back to Iraq because he thought his country needed him.

Dr. TAHA: Psychiatric services in this country was very backwards. People need psychiatrists. There were only a handful of psychiatrists in the whole country. And I think I made something before the psychiatrist was looked upon as a doctor for the crazy, you know? We made the profession more respectable. It was a doctor of mental illnesses or of mental diseases. We introduced the concept of psychiatry. It was not a speciality of mental diseases, such as psychiatrist, psychiatry, which, too, came for the suffering people, people in state of crisis. Personally, familiarly speaking, medically speaking, so forth, I think that I have my share of this, and I was looking forward to improve my knowledge in this field. I like my profession. I like it very much. And I enjoy practicing it, really. I am going to miss it.

LYDEN: His scores of patients will miss him. The number of patients had dropped off precipitously this year anyway as the violence in Baghdad increased. Yet after all of this and losing his practice, Dr. Taha still calls himself a `strategic optimist' about Iraq's future, something his grandchildren, who are already in Syria, might actually get to see.

Dr. TAHA: I think that political agenda is right; we are going in the right direction. Iraqis are inventive. They can make it work. They can make things work, really, but we need time. I think--and this is my judgment--the United States wants to succeed in Iraq. They can't afford to lose this battle, really, this battle for democracy, for political reform.

LYDEN: He couldn't vote in January; his polling place was destroyed. `But I'm not angry with the US,' said Dr. Taha, packing up. `Their intentions were good. In my culture, we judge people on their intentions, not on their deeds. Maybe,' he said, `if it's safe, one day I'll return to practice in this country I love the best.' And with that, he gave the keys to a younger couple, who'll be coming in to take over. Jacki Lyden, NPR News, Iraq.

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