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Everything is Interesting
Second-year medical student and Kurdistan native Emily Shawkat sat down with North Dakota Medicine on a cold winter afternoon in Grand Forks to talk medicine, migration, and multicultural education
Interview conducted and edited by Brian James Schill
Thanks for your time, Emily. So, you’re just coming out of a lecture on radiology?
Yes, we’re just starting the third block of the year. I almost said “second,” but wow—the time is going so fast. I only have one more block after this and then I’ll be off to Hettinger.
For one of the School’s rural medicine clinical rotations, I assume. Is that where you hope to end up third and fourth year?
Correct. I’ll be in Bismarck third and fourth year. I’ll be doing the ROME [Rural Opportunities in Medical Education] program for six months, which means I’ll be in Hettinger, N.D. Then I’ll go to Bismarck.
Which is where you grew up, yes? How did you end up at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences?
I’m originally from Kurdistan [northern Iraq] and moved to the U.S. when I was five—to Bismarck. I grew up there before going to college at the University of Minnesota – Duluth where I studied chemical engineering and Hispanic Studies. My mom and I left Iraq in 1997. I lived in Guam on the army base there for nine months with her before we came to North Dakota in November 1997—during a really bad winter storm. My mom told me that when she stepped off the plane she thought the pilots had lied to her—she thought we were in Russia or something [laughs]. You know how on television the images of America are all tall buildings and sunshine… But there were no tall buildings and all this snow around and she wasn’t sure this was really the United States.
Not an uncommon reaction for out-of-state folks, wherever they’re from, I suppose. Have you been back to Iraq?
I’ve been back to visit family twice, which was really nice. It has changed a lot. I don’t remember too much about my years there as a child. I must have blocked some of those memories—the process of coming here was stressful. For example, as we tried to leave we were held in Turkey for a few days in what I remember as basically a dungeon before we were allowed to continue. It was hard on my mom, who was only 24 at the time, so maybe it’s better that I don’t remember much of that time.
What was the transition like for you—Iraq to Bismarck—as a young person?
When I came here, I didn’t know any English, but I learned it in kindergarten and after. I knew more than my family, though, so both for my mom and when my grandma, two aunts, and three uncles came, I was basically an interpreter for them at age six, seven. I would read the letters we got in the mail to my mom, who was working a housekeeping job by then. And when anyone in my family went to the doctor I went along and would do most of the talking. When I was still in high school in Bismarck I’d take my grandma to the hospital all the time and translate for her. She had cataracts and macular degeneration, and I got to go into her surgeries with her as her interpreter. My mom can do that for her now, but for a long time it was on me.
Do you have a sense of whether the physicians you spoke with at the time were able to clarify some complex health issues to a child who then needed to tell another adult the same thing in a different language?
It was difficult. But we typically went to the UND Family Medicine Center in Bismarck. And I still remember that the doctors there were all so good. They were all so nice there and that’s part of why I became interested in medicine. My family still goes there—the physicians and nurses all know our family and remember when I first showed up there as a five year-old. Everyone there was very friendly.
Which is why you’d love to go back as a physician, I imagine. But help me understand how you went from chemical engineering to medicine.
Right. Chemical engineering has a lot of overlap with chemistry, of course, so I was required to take a lot of those typically “pre-medicine” courses—organic chemistry, and so on. I also took the biology classes because at the time I was thinking of getting a master’s degree in biomedical engineering. I took a tour of Medtronic in Minneapolis, which was fascinating— getting to see how the scientists there study the body and can develop these medical instruments or devices. But that path seemed to be lacking that patient-contact angle that I had grown to love from being in the clinic with my family, volunteering at the hospital, and working as a CNA. I wanted that sort of thing, which is why I ultimately went toward medicine.
Is that to suggest that the specialty you have in mind is one that would involve more face-to-face patient care?
Yes. The radiologist today was super interesting, but you don’t see a lot of patients in-person there. I really like family medicine, but I also like pathology. I’m really struggling with which path to take. Everything is interesting!
A good problem to have. Has your family played much of a role in influencing you in one direction or the other?
Not really. They’ve just been very supportive, no matter what. My mom, since I was young, has stressed education for me. She worked three jobs—with no high school diploma and little English—to support me. I saw how tired she was from working so hard all the time to help me be able to go to college. She just told me “Education, education, education,” so she was happy with whatever I wanted to do.
You helped your family with the transition to American culture, but you came to the USA before the war between the U.S. and Iraq generated a number of Iraqi refugees ending up in the United States, and before there was much of an Iraqi-American community in this state. Has that community grown in Bismarck or have you had much contact with the new American community in North Dakota, and Iraqis in particular?
Yeah. When I was in Bismarck, we did have some Iraqis arrive as refugees, and one of the families had a few girls close to my age, so I helped those girls with school, with getting around. The cultures are very different, obviously, so I talked to them a lot, helped these girls with applying to college, applying for jobs. I didn’t do much of that sort of thing [in Duluth], but when I got to Grand Forks I got in touch with the Global Friends Coalition and started tutoring new American students at Red River High School. I was actually there yesterday for three hours. It reenergizes me—it’s fun! It’s nice to be able to help these kids whose parents maybe can’t help them with homework in an American school because of language differences. I know how hard it is when you go home with questions but can’t ask your parents for help.
And you’ve brought that energy back to this School—founding a monthly multicultural club for medical students?
Yes. The idea there is to bring in people of different backgrounds to share their cultural traditions with medical students who might not have been exposed to those traditions yet. For example, it’s common for many women from the Middle East not to make eye contact or shake hands with doctors, men especially. I’m hoping to help young physicians understand better that such behaviors are not meant as disrespect, but are just part of a different cultural tradition that physicians should be familiar with.