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Refugee’s journey from maelstrom to medicine

27 February 20200 comments

Batool Albatat fled the first Gulf War and Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime with her family as an 11-year-old girl.

Put by people smugglers aboard a leaky boat piloted by a 14-year-old boy, the family and their fellow travellers became lost in the Indian Ocean and expected to die.

Rescued from their floundering craft, the Albatats were eventually accepted by Australia as refugees.

Now, Dr Albatat, now 30, is saving lives herself as a surgical resident at Melbourne’s Northern Hospital.

But eighteen years ago this summer she was stranded in the middle of the Indian Ocean with 130 other desperate asylum seekers drifting aimlessly.

Water and food had run out and the teenagers driving the leaky fishing boat had no idea what they were doing even before the engine broke down.

They were only saved when an Australian Coast Guard vessel chanced upon them and prevented them from disappearing into the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean.

When Dr Albatat’s family fled Iraq in 1991 and crossed into Iran they had with them little more than the clothes on their backs.

“My parents just had to pack up and go, they just wanted to save their lives and their kids,” she said. 

Her father was an engineer in the southern oil city of Basra and the family enjoyed an affluent lifestyle.

“We grew up wealthy, so it was a shock running away, leaving everything we had behind and being suddenly poor, crammed into a tiny house with my cousins, uncles, and grandparents,” Dr Albatat said.

A few of their extended family made it to Australia as refugees and Dr Albatat’s father decided to follow them to give his family a chance at survival.

However, people smugglers demanded thousands of dollars for each family member and they could only afford to take the two youngest boys.

At the last minute, Dr Albatat’s grandfather decided she was too young to stay behind and scraped together the cash to fund her trip.

“That decision changed my life dramatically,’ said Dr Albatat, the fifth of seven siblings.

“Saying goodbye was heartbreaking as we didn’t know if we would ever see them again. We heard that so many people died trying to get to Australia, but it was our only chance,” she said.

The family’s escape from Iraq was shrouded in secrecy.

“Getting out of Iraq was dangerous. If my parents had been caught, they would have been killed,” Dr Albatat said.

“My parents travelled separately to Iran. My Dad had stayed behind longer to gather some belongings and when we reached Iran, he wasn’t there. We didn’t see him for a few months,” she said.

“We didn’t know anyone in Iran and we didn’t know how to speak the language. My mother had no nappies for the babies and no milk but the Iranian people helped with the basics and food,” Dr Alabatat said.

Life in Iran was difficult for the family with no official status the children were not allowed to attend school and work for Dr Alabatat’s father was difficult to come by.

“But the Iraqi people built an Arabic school for the Iraqi children. So, I did grades one to four at the school and I learned Persian on the street,” she said.

Eventually, the family was able to pay people smugglers to get some of the family out of Iran.

“Myself, my two younger brothers and Mum and Dad left Iran, but my older brother and two older sisters stayed behind,” Dr Albatat said.    

The family flew to Malaysia on forged passports and then to Indonesia where they were moved around by smugglers every day to avoid the police.

“Every day for three months we were told we would get on the boat tomorrow, only to be told we couldn’t,” Dr Albatat said.

“We ran out of money and for weeks lived on only rice. Sometimes we added sugar to make it easier to eat. Then for the last few days we had nothing to eat.

“There were many other Iraqi people who had been waiting longer, or they paid the smugglers all their money who then took it and ran off,” she said.

Eventually they were taken to a beach under the cover of darkness and hid huddled in silence for hours until the boat arrived.

The tiny fishing boat was crammed with 60 asylum seekers and looked like it would be lucky to make it off the beach. 

“The boat shouldn’t even have been at sea, it was old and falling apart,” Dr Albatat said.

“As soon as the engine started people started vomiting from the fumes and clouds of smoke the old engine was belching out along with the rocking from the sea.”

Dr Albatat woke after a few hours’ sleep in the middle of a storm only to be told they were heading back to shore.

“It was a tiny ship in a big storm, there was big waves and rain, we didn’t know where we were going, and the boat was sinking,” she said.

For two weeks the refugees were marooned on a tiny forested island off the coast of Indonesia living with the local inhabitants.

“Everyone lived in tree houses because it was too dangerous on the ground where there were crocodiles and snakes,” Dr Albatat said.

“The local people took turns guarding everyone else through the night so the animals didn’t kill them,’ she said.

“My mother was crying the whole time about leaving my brother and sisters behind and Dad felt like he’d brought his family out there to die but he had no choice as we couldn’t go back and he’d already given the smugglers all his money.”

Another boat that left Indonesia about the same time sank and many asylum seekers dro0077ned, with word soon reaching refugees still on shore.

“After we left Indonesia, none of our family knew if we were dead or alive and when they heard a boat sank they started organising funerals for us,” Dr Albatat said.

Finally the smugglers arrived with a bigger boat, but crammed more than 130 people on to it so it was just as crowded as before.

Soon after leaving Indonesia, the captain left the boat, leaving it to be piloted by two teenage boys aged 14 who, as minors, would not face jail sentences in Australia.

“Our lives depended on two boys who barely knew what they were doing. We had no idea where we were or if we were going the right way – all we could see was water around us,” Dr Albatat said.

“By the second day the boys were lost and we were almost out of water, we shared out what water was left and we tried to make it last. We could only drink a cap-full every few hours.

“Everyone felt like they were going to die and were preparing for the end. Some people got desperate and lit fires on the boat at night hoping someone would see them.

“A storm was coming and the boat was leaking. On the third day a plane flew over but it didn’t see us. Everyone lost hope and was crying and praying because we were sure we were going to die,” Dr Albatat said. 

On the fourth day the engine broke down and the rickety boat was left drifting far out sea at the mercy of the wind and waves. 

Finally the Australian coast guard arrived and it transpired the boys steering the ship were headed for the middle of the Indian Ocean where everyone would have died.

The boat was towed to shore and everyone on board was sent to the Christmas Island detention centre.

Dr Albatat remembers the camp as harrowing, “like a prison”, surrounded by hopeless asylum seekers, including children, waiting to learn their fate.

“Many people we met on Christmas Island were there for years and had no idea when they would be allowed to leave,” she said.

But the Albatat family’s claims for refugee status were accepted in just three months and they were sent to Melbourne where her cousins lived.

Not knowing a word of English, Dr Albatat at first struggled to fit in at school in suburban Australia.

“I only had my cousin to talk to. But when I learned enough English I was able to make friends and sit with everyone else,” she said.

Soon after, they got Australian citizenship and were able to bring her brother and sisters to Melbourne and reunite the family in 2008. 

“It was an amazing relief to see them safe in Australia after seven years. My mother struggle for so long and she was overjoyed to have the family together again,” she said. 

Dr Albatat says that initially school in Australia was difficult.

“But I studied hard because I didn’t want to let down my family. They had gone through amazing hardship so that we could have futures – so there was not time to waste.” 

By the time Dr Albatat finished school, her English was good enough that she was just like any other graduate.

She earned a biomedical science degree from La Trobe University before studying a Doctor of Medicine at the University of Melbourne, graduating in 2017.

She completed an internship at The Northern Hospital, and has just started her third year as a surgical resident. 

“I love working here, everyone has been very supportive and kind to me,” she said.

“The staff is very multicultural, from all over the world and I get along well with everyone. I’ve never had any problems being a Muslim.”

Dr Albatat said she feels a debt of gratitude to Australia and its people who welcomed her with open arms

“I’m so grateful to have been welcomed into Australia. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the opportunities it gave me,” Dr Albatat said.

“I feel a sense of privilege to be here and have this opportunity that so many people, including my parents and my other siblings that we left behind, haven’t had. Therefore I feel an obligation to do well. Because of what I have been through, because of what my parents have been though, I have this strong sense of obligation,” she said.

Dr Albatat said she also felt great gratitude to her parents for providing her with a future.

“There were so many scarifies to get us to where I could achieve my dreams. I couldn’t waste that opportunity; there was no time to waste or room to mess around, no room to have fun, no room to have a party,” she said.

“There is was expectation that so much had been put in and invested in me; that we the younger generation are the hope of the older generation.

“They didn’t speak English, so we are their voice. They couldn’t use their degrees so we became their degrees. They could not achieve the success they wanted here, so we are that success for them in so many, many ways.

“And even thou there were many restriction along the way, they always find alternatives,” Dr Albatat said.

But she said her success is bittersweet.

“My siblings who stayed behind in Iran for those first years missed out on the opportunities I’ve had to get a good education,” she said.

“The journey has been tough, but I feel privileged to be a doctor now, and to be able to help people at the most vulnerable time of their life,” Dr Albatat said.

She says her experiences as a refugees have made her stronger and a better doctor.

“The trauma and the experiences I’ve been through have taught me a lot and made me more resilient. My experiences help me in my work; help me to be more compassionate and do as much as I can for people from non-English speaking backgrounds and people, who have suffered trauma in their lives,” Dr Albatat said.

“Everyone has a different story and you never know what people have been through,” she said.