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Feature: Greek island welcomes refugee doctor from Iraq

Feature: Greek island welcomes refugee doctor from Iraq

Iraqi Kurd Soleiman Barzani has overcome exile in Iran, completed a scholarship in Greece and concluded the long process of becoming a Greek citizen with his own paediatrics clinic on Ios island.
20 October 2004
Dr. Soleiman Barzani attending to a young patient in his paediatrics clinic on Ios island.

IOS ISLAND, Greece (UNHCR) - What is an Iraqi of Kurdish origin doing on a Greek island? We immediately think of rusty boats arriving at the islands, carrying exhausted and thirsty men, women and children, often a mix of economic migrants and asylum seekers fleeing the conflict at home.

But Soleiman Barzani's refugee days are over. Fifteen years after he arrived in Greece, he is now a Greek citizen and owner of a paediatrics clinic on Ios island, part of the Cycladic islands situated between Greece and Turkey.

In 1975, at the age of five, he and his family fled Iraq for Iran, where they spent many turbulent years as refugees. After graduating from high school in Iran, Barzani was given a unique opportunity when the Greek government offered him a scholarship.

Life in Greece was very difficult in the beginning. After going through some bureaucratic hurdles, Barzani moved to the University of Thessaloniki to learn the Greek language. He applied for asylum in 1990 as the residence permit for his studies did not protect him from being returned to Iraq against his will at some point. He later moved to medical school at the University of Patras, a city in the Peloponnese, without informing the police of his change of residence.

"The police were looking for me in Thessaloniki for the refugee status determination interview and I was in Patras," recalled Barzani. "I finally got a rejection in 1991 and then a second and third rejection on appeal. I had no residence permit, just my student card."

He added, "Then I visited the Greek Refugee Council (GCR), which took me under its wing, granting me a UNHCR refugee card, giving me a small allowance and the support of a social worker to help me cope with my problems."

The first year of studies at the university was hard for Barzani. He was anxious about his legal status and had to cope with a different culture and language. All this while missing his family and feeling lonely and traumatised by memories of his childhood.

"What frustrated me more than anything else was that without any legal documents, I could not receive the scholarship funds from the bank," he remembered. "I feel strong gratitude for an employee at a bank in Patras who, risking his job, gave me the money without requesting any identification or residence permit, only my student card."

He said the support he received from individual people gave him strength and courage to survive the tough years. "It meant a lot to me when the President of the Patras medical school and the dean of the university sent support letters for me to the Ministry of Public Order in 1995 and 1996," he added gratefully.

After graduating from medical school, Barzani went to Athens and worked in a flower shop while trying to finalise the formalities needed to start his specialisation as a paediatrician.

"At the same time I started a very big operation for me to be recognised as refugee," he said. "UNHCR helped me resubmit my case, since I had not even been interviewed the first time. When people live in uncertainty, they cannot plan for their future, they cannot live a normal life, their only preoccupation is how to solve their problem."

Barzani's appeal was finally accepted in October 2002 - 12 years after he first sought asylum - and he became a refugee in Greece.

After he finished his specialisation, he started working as a part-time interpreter and as a doctor for Médecins du Monde (MdM). "Through this experience, I realised that I am not the only person on earth who has problems. MdM and other non-governmental organisations such as the Social Work Foundation and the Hellenic Red Cross helped me to help other people in need. They helped me to grow out of the stereotypes and prejudices I had acquired in my childhood. They helped me see that every human being is equal."

Other paediatricians who know Barzani call him "one of the best doctors we have." One of them noted, "The children love him, the parents respect him and his medical expertise is superb."

In June 2003, at the instigation of the president of Agia Sofia children's hospital, Barzani decided to settle on Ios island, and opened his own paediatrics clinic. The island's public health centre had been trying to find a paediatrician for several years with no luck, perhaps because of the lonely winter months.

"Once the mayor found someone willing to assume the job, he didn't want to lose me, so he fully supported my case for citizenship, a prerequisite for recruitment by the public sector," said Barzani, who has earned the community's trust with his medical expertise.

In April 2004, Barzani received Greek citizenship, a privilege granted to very few people of non-Greek origin. "I cannot tell you how happy I was when I was informed! I could not believe it!" he said with pride.

After 15 years apart, he recently visited his parents before returning to Ios island to resume his practice. He is now awaiting military service to fulfil his public duty to his new country.

By Ketty Kehayioylou
UNHCR Greece