Doctor’s life-long mission to help her community
“I’ll tell you something,” begins Dr Seham Mostafa. “To live a healthy life you should really change your kind of work to make your life interesting.”
For Dr Mostafa, an interesting life has meant adaptation.
Born in Cairo, she began her working life as an academic in the field of radiology at Cairo University.
Forty years later, she is a decorated medical educator on issues such as genital mutilation, and a migrant community leader with an iconic general practice on Sydney Road in Brunswick, Melbourne – more than ten thousand kilometres from her birthplace.
“I’m a radiologist, I finished my doctorate thesis overseas. But when I came here I had to repeat everything,” she recounts.
“When I came to Australia I passed my qualification exam very quickly. Within a year I was appointed as a medical officer within the Health Commission, then as a senior medical officer,” she said.
“But I had problems with conceiving so I decided to have a baby more than a career. After two miscarriages I was frightened to stay another four years studying and postpone the pregnancy.
“I was helping the community with some medical advice. They said that you are a good doctor, why don’t you open your own surgery? Especially as I have a masters degrees in general medicine, and in diagnosis. Within a year I had a very busy practice,” Dr Mostafa said.
“I found myself involved not only in the medical part. I was involved in the life of the patients. I’ve got many migrants, many Muslim women with their cultural beliefs, many newcomers to Melbourne at my practice.
“Newcomers often have their problems, so I was helping in every aspect I can,” she said
In recognition of her unique capacity as a conduit between the predominately Anglo-Saxon Medical hierarchy and her diverse community, Dr Mostafa began engaging migrants to educate them on various health issues.
“We had several meetings organised by community groups. Some were in the mosque, some were in the church or in the community centre. The majority of my teaching was in Arabic, as I could explain to the people how best to do things in their own language.
“I also went to do several conferences to tell the doctors about the Arabic and African beliefs and cultures, and especially about Muslim people, what to do, how to treat them,” she said.
Through this proximity, Dr Mostafa noticed an issue of grave importance.
“I saw the African people, when they came here as refugees. There was a problem of female genital mutilation, a custom of the African women,” Dr Mostafa said.
“The practice is really cruel, it deprives the women from any sexual pleasure, but it’s a custom. It’s a very old thing, they say it goes back to the time of the pharaohs.
“I am connected to the community, and I am coming from Egypt. In Egypt we see this, because in Egypt we have genital circumcision, which is a little bit less invasive, though they are both wrong.
“It is not just depriving the woman from her rights to sexual pleasure, it also has a lot of side-effects and health problems. There is retention of secretions, there is infection, when she has her baby they must cut her each time. It is hazardous, you cannot accept that,” Dr Mostafa said.
“So I started this campaign, then the Mercy Hospital backed it and followed. They were asking who knows about it, so they took me on,” she said.
She started an endeavour that continues today, 30 years on, and for which she has been awarded a humanitarian peace award and, recently, the Australian-African community’s Afroshine award for outstanding service.
“I was the first doctor in this campaign. I was giving lectures to the doctors. In the Mercy Hospital there was a big conference and I was the first speaker,” Dr Mostafa said.
Yet, her daily role servicing the particular needs of her community means many things.
“When I came here there were not many migrant doctors. Now there are many, which is a good thing. Sometimes you advise the patient to go and do this but it’s against their religion. They are conservative,” she said.
“Arabs do not want you to tell the patients that they will die, they will refuse it. They are big families, and when needed they will cooperate a lot.
“If I have a dying person, there is at least two people with them every day, they will take turns but they will not leave.
“Also their fasting, understanding what they can have or not. All these sorts of things many people don’t understand,” she said.
Dr Mostafa says her position as a counsellor has been illuminating to the issues migrants face when they arrive her.
“I had a man come to me in his 20s. He said I want a certificate that says I cannot drink, because my friends want me to drink alcohol. I said that you need to stand by your beliefs,” she said.
“‘Have the power,’ I told him, ‘and they will respect you more than by a certificate.’ I spent a long time with this man.
“We used to stay in a flat with a balcony. You can stay hours and not see any car on the street. I come from a busy city, when you look you see people coming and going constantly.
“And you don’t see any Arabic. We used to exchange our cassettes with friends to hear some Arabic songs, and share with each other when maybe once a month an Arabic move would come on the TV. You miss your country.
“There is sometimes a lot of conflict in these families, especially with girls. Some families rush them to marry early, and take them to their mother country to get married.
“The Muslim girls wear the scarf out in front of their families then take them off. If you teach the kids, and don’t force things one hundred percent, be flexible, they will come to understand.
“Unfortunately some people are very strict in putting their cultural beliefs to the kids.”
These are the issues that only a woman of Dr Mostafa’s experience and aptitude for understanding could aptly handle.
Yet looking forward, she continues to look for progress; to better harness her own potential through change.
“When I get old, I thought that I would like to know about cosmetics (surgery), but I don’t like to just do a short course. So I attended the American Academy of Asiatic medicine, I did two courses and I sat and did the medical exam to get the certificate,” Dr Mostafa said.
“I like acupuncture, because I feel that it is very useful. So I decided to do the course and then a diploma, and then a fellowship, to master it. When I like something I like really to do it well,” she said.
One senses, however, that in her engagement with her community Dr Mostafa has found something she never wishes to see change.
“I said I will have one year to try it, to see if I like it. But in that one year I had a lot of patients, and I really grew to enjoy it. Now here I am, 40 years later. It’s a lot of life, when you are with people all the time and you feel like you are helping them, it is really great,” she said.