In the Victorian town of Warragul Dr Issam Muteir is a minor celebrity.
The specialist in General Medicine and Cardiology is originally from Iraq and came to Australia initially to study.
As violence and a breakdown of law and order gripped his homeland Dr Muter stayed on and relaunched his medical career in Australia.
But few of the residents of the sleepy Gippsland town where he now lives were aware of his story until he published a book about his extraordinary life.
The quiet unassuming medico’s memoir, titled ‘Rebel Doctor: From Baghdad to the Australian Bush’, follows the story of his humble upbringing in a poor suburb of Baghdad to his role in leading and protecting one of the largest hospitals in Baghdad when anarchy and violence ruled the streets as the US Army besieged the city.
And it recounts how fighter jets screaming low over the roof of his home and deadly missiles streaking into his neighbourhood were some of his earliest memories.
Dr Muteir’s early life was marked by tragedy. His sister died from asthma at just 16, prompting his pledge to make a new life for himself as a doctor and to escape the slums of Baghdad.
His father, a soldier, died in a train accident in Iraq’s wild northern regions just as he was preparing to retire from the army.
And his brother was executed by Saddam Hussein for petty theft.
At just twenty-seven years of age, Dr Muteir was put in charge of one of Baghdad’s most prestigious university hospitals galvanising the staff and saving the facility from looting and destruction.
In 2007, he won a scholarship to study in Australia for six months.
He wrote the book in the hope of providing a unique, insider’s story of living in war-torn Iraq as well as providing a history for his children to read in the future.
“Other books and articles do not tell you what is going on in the lives of people during the war, and in Iraq we have seen four wars over 30 years,” Dr Muteir said.
“After my experiences, I always thought about writing a book. I value the lessons in life that I have benefitted from,” he said.
“But I see people around me here in Australia who don’t appreciate what they have.
“Also, I wanted to write the book for my kids so that they would understand me. It’s a way to tell them about my background and my journey and make them understand my past life.
“And I hope it contains some moral lessons for them that will be important for them in the future,” Dr Muteir said.
“I hope this book is very valuable. Often, in the media, you don’t hear about how the people of Iraq have always lived with war they never wanted; how the people actually live. I wanted to talk about that in the book,” he said.
The book also broaches Dr Muteir’s Islamic faith.
Despite the fact Islam attracts controversial views from some quarters in Australia, Dr Muteir says his faith fits very well into Australia’s so-called ‘values’ as well as its cultural and legal norms.
“Islam fits very well in Australia. Islam, for me, is about living a good life, helping others and being truthful,” he said.
“These are things that are values here and are enshrined in law in Australia as a free, democratic country. In Iraq sometimes you had to lie just to survive.
“In Australia, everyone is treated equally and I am not afraid to speak the truth. The law here is generally fair and people are looked after so they don’t need to steal.
“I’m able to practice my religion without a problem. Socially, I tell people I don’t drink alcohol or eat pork and they are comfortable with that,” Dr Muteir said.
But he says that as a doctor working in a country town he has experienced isolated incidents of racism.
“It happens but I ignore it,” Dr Muteir said.
“It is their problem not mine. As a doctor, I treat all colours. We all belong to the human race and we all feel the same pain,” he said.
Dr Muteir says he and his family have settled into a quiet life in Warragul.
He married a fellow international student, from Korea, and they have three children.
“Life in Warragul is nice and quiet for us,” Dr Muteir said.
“We go to parks and play with the kids, I read books to them, normal things.
“The main things for me are work and family. I’m working at the hospital and at the clinic,” Dr Muteir said.
“At the clinic I work with patients in a different way. I see my patients for at least 30 minutes and I try to give them more time. That way I get to know my patients very well,” he said.
“I’m living here so I really want to contribute – other specialists visit the town maybe once a month.
“I make sure I bulk bill everyone – so there is no gap charge for patients – this is in keeping with my philosophy of medicine which is basically that my mission is to help people.
“I want to feel that I’m adding the human part to my medical practice,” he said.
Dr Muteir says writing the book has made him a minor celebrity in town and helped him to connect with his patients.
“A lot of people have read my book and they find it easier to talk to me and because they know my story and people listen to my advice,” he said.
In the hospital Dr Muteir is well known. Colleagues say he is always smiling and laughing.
“I try to put effort into my work. I try to do more than just what is required under the terms of my job and people appreciate that,” he said.
“I’m passionate about raising the standard of care,” Dr Muteir said.
That commitment to patient care is evidence by a letter, included in the book, from a female patient.
“To the tall and handsome Iraqi doctor, in his beautiful blue shirts, who treated me with compassion and humour… life, I would thing, has not always been easy for him and yet he treated me with such kindness. I wish him well…” the woman wrote.
Dr Muteir has had to overcome significant obstacles to have his medical credentials recognised in Australia and to establish himself here. But he still has his mother and brothers and a sister in Iraq.
“Our mother supported us despite the hardships of being a single mum, constant conflict and very little money,” he said.
“She made me a very strong person and I worry about her. It’s not easy for my family still living in Iraq,” Dr Muteir said.
‘Rebel Doctor’ is the story of a young man who rose up against the poverty, corruption, violence and the horrors of war to realise his dream of becoming a doctor.
The book is available on Booktopia and Amazon.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist