Nurses help bridge culture gap in Iraq

Posted: Sunday, June 20, 2004

FAIRBANKS Triple-digit temperatures and wearing damp, sticky clothes had taken their toll on Melody Simmons.

Deciding she had had enough of covering up, Simmons dared to walk across the street in a T-shirt that displayed the white skin of her arms. But as soon as she walked out the door of her hotel, she knew it was a mistake.

''The looks I got were bad,'' Simmons said. ''I got the feeling people didn't appreciate it.''

Volunteering in Iraq had its challenges for Simmons and two fellow Fairbanks Memorial Hospital nurses, Gina Gucker and Maggi Rader. They lived in a war-torn country, and cultural differences went far beyond clothing.

The goal of their mission was humanitarian aid and training Iraqi nurses. But upon their return, the first thoughts on their minds were cultural understanding and the similarities of people across the globe.

Their biggest lesson was about the importance of experience. The three passionately explained that images on television and stories in newspapers don't necessarily reflect the core of a culture or a people, and that the only way to understand a country or culture is to be immersed in it.

The nurses went to Iraq with Northwest Medical Teams, a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization that sends volunteers to help people affected by disaster, conflict and poverty. There volunteers for Iraq were few.

''Iraq wasn't exactly a hot spot,'' Rader said.

Despite the danger, the three nurses recognized the desperate need for good teachers. So they volunteered.

For five weeks in April and May, Gucker, Rader and Simmons put their combined 59 years of work experience in maternity, pediatrics and intensive care to use as they taught Iraqi nurses medical care techniques.

The three women said the level of experience among the Iraqi nurses varied. Much of Iraq has been in a state of war for decades, which has devastated the country's infrastructure. A lack of educational opportunities also left Iraq with nurses who are short of knowledge and experience.

''Before the first Gulf War, nurses were a low-accepted position,'' Simmons said. ''They took nurses from the Philippines and other places and brought them in. After the Gulf War, all of those nurses left and there were no experienced nurses left.''

Gucker and Simmons be-longed to a group volunteering in Dohuk, a city on the edge of the desert close to the Turkish border that is considered a relatively safe location.

Pictures brought back by Gucker and Simmons show Dohuk as a city scarred by ages of fighting. Modest homes cover the dry, dusty landscape. Restaurants and shops display signs clearly indicating machine guns are not welcome even though automatic weapons are carried by most of the male population.

Rader reported to Irbil, considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Rader said the town is two hours southeast of Dohuk and a little more dangerous.

Muslim religion dictates much of what people do in these areas. While Iraqi women wore head scarves and clothing to cover every inch of their flesh, the nurses were allowed to wear pants and long-sleeved shirts everyday. Even that requirement was a strain after so many 100-degree days, but Simmons quickly learned the value placed on modesty in the country.

When the nurses arrived at their destinations, they found their hotels were under constant supervision by armed guards. They learned that security was necessary because hotels are potential terrorist targets.

All three said they worried about personal safety.

American soldiers also patrolled the streets in Dohuk, the nurses said.

''That was more of a culture shock,'' Simmons said.

The presence of the soldiers disturbed the nurses, given the calmness of Dohuk and the gentleness of its people.

''To me it was very offensive to see them (soldiers) in a very peaceful setting, parading their weapons around,'' Simmons said.

Although Iraq and its people may look dangerous given media accounts and images of militants who hate America, the reality is very different, they said.

The nurses said they saw a lot of good people living in Iraq.

''They are people just like us,'' Rader said. ''They are a very kind, lighthearted people,'' Gucker said. ''One of the biggest things people need to remember is people are people. Ninety-five percent of people want to get along.''

Even though the culture the nurses came from and the one they entered seem to be quite different, Gucker said, ''people aren't all that different universally.''

The three said they hope their trip was the beginning of a relationship between the Iraqi people and Americans.

''The difference you make is a drop in a big bucket,'' Gucker said. ''You have to have faith you are helping.''

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