Damascus, Syria — Dr Omar al-Khattab fled Iraq just over a year ago after receiving death threats.
At that time, he was working at Balad General Hospital, 50km north of Baghdad.
“I had to leave my home, my work and my salary so now I’m living here jobless and am just barely surviving,” he said during an interview inside an almost bare apartment in the Al-Qudsiya suburb of Damascus.
“In my hospital alone, of five surgeons only one remains. We were three orthopaedics but now there are none, and only 25 per cent of the resident doctors remain.”
According to the Iraqi Ministry of Health and UN statistics, Khattab is one of 18,000 Iraqi doctors and health care professionals who have fled the war-torn country since the US-led invasion began in March 2003.
In 2003, there were 34,000 registered health care workers in Iraq.
Al-Khattab said: “I know at least 10 other Iraqi doctors just here in Al-Qudsiya who have left because of death threats or the overall security situation.”
A general practitioner who was a resident in the surgical department at his hospital, al-Khattab is now living off his meagre savings and unable to return to his country.
He fills his days by offering his services to other Iraqi refugees who cannot afford health care in Syria. It is also how he maintains his expertise while assisting some of what he estimates to be 50,000 Iraqis in his neighbourhood.
One of his patients is a 64-year-old Iraqi woman with type-2 diabetes, a hernia, a broken arm and an infected abscess in her right leg. The former primary school teacher broke her arm while running in panic during a mortar attack near her home in the Mansour district of Baghdad during February 2004.
Right now, al-Khattab is most concerned about the abscess which resulted from a wound when the woman, who asked to remain unidentified because of security fears, fell on a bus while going to Lebanon recently.
Iraqis in need
Dr Ahmed Shibad, 30, also left his medical practice at Baquba General Hospital for the security of Damascus.
Since he has arrived in Syria in March 2007, he still doesn’t know about as many Iraqis in need as al-Khattab does, but is doing what he can.
He said: “I’ve helped on a case of an Iraqi here who needed help, free of charge of course. If anyone asks me, I’ll help them immediately.”
And there probably are many Iraqis in need of free medical care.
Last month, Damascus called for international aid to manage the nearly 40,000 Iraqis entering Syria every month. The UN estimates that there are some one million Iraqis in the country.
So far, Syrian authorities have maintained an “open door” policy and have welcomed the Iraqis as “guests”, but they are prohibited from procuring gainful employment.
Another Iraqi doctor in Damascus fled Baghdad in February 2006. He asked to be referred to as “Dr X” because “this indicates the plight of all Iraqi doctors today”.
He told Al Jazeera that doctors are targeted in Iraq because they treat people who are sometimes fighters, militia men, or security personnel. Treating one group may anger another.
“Dr X” said: “We receive dead bodies, blood, and innocent people, and sometimes people who are killers.
“I remember I was sitting in my room in the outpatient clinic at my hospital south of Baghdad when all of a sudden two men arrived with machine guns looking for someone. They went into the patients ward and shot a man dead.”
Soon after, militia members threatened him with a verbal warning, and decided to move to a hospital within the capital.
A few weeks later, as the fighting in and around Baghdad intensified, a nurse told him that he would have to leave – because his name could get him killed.
He first fled to Jordan, but after six months of no work found it too expensive, and opted for Syria where he joined the rest of his family.
Although “Dr X” came to Syria because he had hoped to resume working in his specialised field, a series of bureaucratic entanglements has kept him without work.
“First you need all these IDs and extra qualification tests. But they have placed many restrictions like certificates from different departments in Baghdad, which are so hard to get. They each cost around $600 to get in Iraq so it’s nearly impossible to work here.
“I am unemployed and homeless.”
Yet “Dr X” too is doing his best to help Iraqi refugees in Damascus and says many of his colleagues have found ways to keep practising their expertise by treating relatives, friends and other Iraqis in their neighbourhoods.
He said: “We had good training in Iraq, and the people here trust you so you can treat them and practice your work, and deal with your relatives.”
But Shibad and Khattab fear that soon they will have to leave Syria for countries where they will be able to gain wages.
Khattab is worried how long his savings will hold out, and is frustrated by his fruitless job search thus far.
He said: “I have applied through many websites, I have applied for work in the Gulf and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia specifically but they said they don’t give visas to Iraqis.
“We have a very dark future. We don’t know what is going to happen.”