ONLY a year ago, Saveen Oghana and Ban Isaqi, an Iraqi couple, were busy building their careers – one as a medical doctor, the other a dentist – but now they’re in Brisbane preparing for the biggest challenge of their young lives.
The 28-year-olds are studying at Australian Catholic University before they return home to manage a new hospital being built as their people recover from the ravages of ISIS.
Saveen and Ban, who live in Banyo Nundah parish within walking distance of Holy Trinity Church, Banyo, and the suburb’s ACU campus, have just finished their first year of studies for Masters of Health Administration degrees, and probably have only another six months of research work to go.
Their task then will be to manage the hospital their Chaldean diocese is building in Ankawa, a part of Erbil city, in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
Erbil’s Archbishop Bashar Warda, a Chaldean, chose Saveen and Ban for this after ACU had offered scholarships as a way of supporting the diocese’s aim to establish a hospital and a university.
“To our best knowledge it will be the first Catholic hospital in the Kurdistan region, and most probably nowadays it will be the only Catholic hospital in the whole of Iraq – not the first, but the only,” Saveen said.
“Because, you know, in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, we used to have, as Christians, many hospitals previously but, nowadays, no – because of wars and conflicts and immigration of our people, and kidnapping, killing, continuous war.”
Accepting Archbishop Warda’s offer of ACU scholarships for such a daunting challenge was a big decision for the couple who were in the early years of the careers after graduating from Erbil’s Hawler Medical University – Saveen from the College of Medicine and Ban from the College of Dentistry.
“(Studying at both ACU has been) both challenging and rewarding at the same time because we left everything back in our own country – family, relatives – and even being away from our practice and choosing a different one, which is somehow related to health discipline, but it’s not pure dental practice or medical practice so it was challenging how we will go through this,” Ban said.
“And also in the study part of ACU, because it was different – the studying here from back home in our country.
“But it was also rewarding because once we came to ACU, they provide a supportive learning environment which made it easier for us to be familiar with the subject topics and how to approach different discipline or topics.
“So I think we have gained a lot from ACU, in a short time.”
Accepting Archbishop Warda’s invitation was made easier because Saveen and Ban share his vision.
“The vision of Archbishop Warda is that the presence of Christians in Iraq be an effective one,” Saveen said.
“That means not just about being there but being there in a mission, being there with Christian values.
“And as Church, our Church in Ankawa, they’re working in two main sectors which is the education and health sectors.
“So, in these two sectors, our Church wants to bring the Christian spirit of solidarity, of honesty, truthfulness, caring, into these two fields.
“Because our country has been in continuous war from the 1980s, that’s why as a country we are somehow behind in providing a high quality of health services.
“For this, we are relying on ACU that will qualify us to obtain the degrees that we can present something which is different, and something which is effective and something which is with Christian values, according to international standards.
“This is a good opportunity to thank ACU as they are supporting us not just in our presence in Iraq but also being there in a different way that we want to be.”
Saveen and Ban were already familiar with Archbishop Warda’s way, having worked as volunteers for the Church in Erbil – Saveen for 10 years and Ban for more than five.
“I was already running the St Joseph Charity Clinic – I was the co-ordinator of this charity clinic, and this clinic was established once our people fled from the Nineveh Plain to our city and became IDPs (internally displaced persons),” Saveen said.
“As a Church we established that clinic to provide health services and medication for all IDPs – mainly Christians, because where we live in Ankawa is mostly Christian and most of the IDPs were Christian – but we also treated and provided health services and medication for non-Christians.
“And all it was for free. Medical professionals were volunteering their services free of charge.
“Even now, we have specialists working as volunteers, till this moment. It has been for more than three years.
“This charity clinic (was established) … from the first moment our people (fled from ISIS) to our city, which means that on 6th of August, 2014, we started that clinic as a small room within the cathedral, our church.”
The charity clinic will continue to operate independently of the new hospital.
“The name of the hospital will be ‘Shlama’, which means ‘Shalom’. It means ‘peace’,” Ban said.
And peace is what Saveen and Ban hope for most when they return home.
“I think if you ask this question (‘What are your hopes?’) from any Iraqi, first thing they will tell you is ‘We want peace for our country’,” Saveen said.
“Another thing is respecting the human dignity …, regardless of people’s religion or any other feature, like gender, ethnicity or anything.
“That’s our main hope – respecting humans regardless of their religion or any other feature.”
Saveen and Ban will have a break from study until February but they won’t be returning home just yet.
“We don’t want to go home during this long break because we remember once we came here how difficult it was for us being away from the family and friends and the social life that we have over there, and to come here, being alone – you cannot imagine how we were homesick,” he said.
“So we don’t want to just go and be there for a month, enjoying life over there and then coming back here and facing another attack of homesickness.
“Now we are okay, we are good. We cope with it. We adapt to it, so we don’t want the experience to re-occur.
“So we will just finish (the rest of our studies), then we will go back.
“My sister is living in Sydney so usually when we have a long break, we visit her.
“So for Christmas and New Year, we will be in Sydney, joining my sister and her family, being in the Christmas spirit of our Church, like the celebration with our (Chaldean) congregation in the Mass.”
Ban laughs when she thinks about spending another Christmas in Australia.
“It’s not the same Christmas like in our country,” she said.
“It’s so weird when you have Christmas in summer. In our country it’s in winter.”
Away from the books and assignments, their attention turns to finding a good beach. They’re thinking maybe Bondi … or Manly.