Dr Batool Albatat is an Iraqi refugee who came to Australia by boat. She now saves lives as a doctor working in Melbourne’s north.
Dr Batool Albatat (La Trobe Alumni Young Achiever Award, 2019) was only a child when her family fled Iraq in 1991 during the Gulf War. Seeking freedom from persecution and the hope of a better life, they crossed the border and became refugees in Iran, leaving everything they had behind.
Life in Iran was difficult. Without any documentation, and unable to apply for Iranian citizenship, the family’s future there was limited. So Batool’s father made the decision to come to Australia by boat.
It wasn’t an easy decision for my father to make, to separate our family and take the risk to die in a boat. But he had no other options. He was driven by the hope of a better future for us.
‘We heard that so many people died trying to get to Australia, but it was our only chance,’ says Batool in an interview with The Daily Mail.
It’s a decision that changed Batool’s future – but it very nearly cost her her life.
Using forged passports, Batool’s family travelled to Malaysia and reached Indonesia, from where they’d board a boat to Australia. In Indonesia, they hid from police and lived on rice and sugar. Until one night, on a quiet beach, they were ushered onto a tiny fishing boat with 60 others seeking asylum, bound for Australia.
It marked the beginning of a hellish journey. The first boat almost sank in a tropical storm. Marooned for weeks on a remote island, Batool and her family were eventually ordered onto a second, more crowded boat captained by two 14-yr-old boys. Days into the journey, the boat’s engine failed. Batool and those around her were left drifting in the ocean, miles off course.
When Australian Coast Guard officers found the boat, Australia’s policy of boat ‘turnbacks’ was not yet in play. Instead of being towed further out to sea, Batool’s boat was brought to shore. All aboard were sent to the Christmas Island detention centre.
Months later, Batool and her family were accepted as refugees. They settled in Melbourne and began building a new life in Australia. In 2008, Batool received Australian citizenship and applied to study a Bachelor of Biomedical Science (2010) at La Trobe University. She’d always wanted to be a doctor; her La Trobe degree would give her the foundation to reach her goal.
‘Finishing high school, La Trobe was always one of my options. I had friends and a cousin who’d gone to La Trobe University, who told me about it,' she says.
I had a very good time at La Trobe, it was a friendly environment. I made close friends there who I’m still in contact with today.
Batool remembers being a very dedicated student.
‘My course had many laboratory classes and lectures and I went to nearly all of them, I hardly ever skipped classes. Going to lab sessions and classes was important to me.’
It was at La Trobe that Batool was first introduced to biochemistry, physiology and anatomy. As the basis of understanding how the human body works, these subjects were prerequisites for her future medical degree.
She had particular success in anatomy thanks to inspiring lectures by La Trobe’s Dr Richard Fernandez.
‘He was my favourite lecturer and tutor. He was always very enthusiastic to teach and made anatomy so much easier to learn.’
La Trobe was also where Batool first worked with cadavers, an experience she describes as ‘scary the first time, but then you just get used to it’. Her passion for anatomy grew stronger when she was selected as one of only two students to undertake an anatomy cadetship with Dr Fernandez.
‘I spent two months working with cadavers, dissecting and preparing different sections for fellow students. It was very challenging work.'
I was given the task of dissecting a lower limb, making sure each muscle, vessels and all of the structures were separated from one another, to make the anatomy easier for students to view and learn. That’s when I became even more fascinated by the human body and its functions.
Today, Batool is enjoying her third year as a doctor at Northern Health. She’s passionate about helping people and uses three languages – English, Arabic and Persian – to understand her patients and support them to overcome the burden of their disease.
‘It’s very rewarding. You’re helping people in their most vulnerable time of their life. You hear patients’ stories, you help them out and you learn a lot by listening to them. It’s been an amazing journey and every day is fascinating, because I get to interact with different patients and cases.’
Being a doctor during COVID-19 has posed new challenges for Batool. As personal protective equipment (PPE) is now worn in most of the hospital’s wards, communicating with her patients has become more difficult.
“You’re wearing a mask, and a face shield on top of it as well. Your patients can’t hear you very well and they can’t see your mouth moving, so it’s extra challenging,” she says.
Even more worrying is the daily risk of coronavirus infection. Batool hasn’t been able to visit her family since the pandemic started, out of concern that she might infect them, too.
“It’s been scary. Every day you feel anxious that you’re walking into COVID-19. And even though you take all of the precautions, you might still get infected,” she says.
Despite the dangers, Batool is grateful to be a medic working on the COVID-19 frontline.
“Our hospital has managed it really well. They’ve put so many strategies forward, like changing our roster and dividing each unit into two. If there is an infection, those staff can isolate, and the others can continue to work. Everyone is taking precautions and we get a lot of support from our seniors,” she says.
“At the end of the day, at least you know you are doing the right thing and helping people in a time of need.”
Reflecting on her refugee story, Batool says the experience has made her more motivated, stronger and more resilient.
‘The journey has been tough, but nothing is easy. Everything comes with challenges, so you just have to face them,’ she says.
I was willing to accept all the challenges. I felt privileged to be in Australia and have an opportunity that so many people didn’t have, including my parents and my other siblings who we left behind.
Batool feels a responsibility to work hard in recognition of the opportunities she's received.
'Because of what I’ve been through, and because of what my family have been through, I have a sense of obligation to do well. My parents struggled and sacrificed a lot to get us here and I can't waste it. There's no time to waste and no room to mess around given what we’ve gone through.’
Her advice to new students is to embrace self-determination and give your all to achieving your goal.
‘In the transition from school to university, you become responsible for your own life. You go to your lectures or not – it’s up to you. So, strive towards your goal. Nothing is impossible. Be motivated to reach your goal and work very hard to achieve it.’
Last updated: 17th September 2020