(Photo by Randy M. Cauthron)
A stranger in a strange land.
That's what Dr. Mohammed Rhadi was when he arrived in America a month ago. The first person from his city in Iraq to visit America, he has been a guest of Dr. Rick and Barb Wilkerson's family in Spencer as a guest for the past month as he participated in an opportunity to expand his medical capabilities. On Tuesday, when he boards a plane bound for his country -- with a pregnant wife and three daughters awaiting his arrival -- he will return with something of equal importance to his new professional knowledge. He will be able to share what he learned about middle America and the people he encountered during his stay.
"It's been very good, very beautiful. I've learned more than one thing here," Rhadi said.
Rhadi, orthopedic consultant in Iraq -- a position equal to a board certified orthopedic surgeon in America -- has witnessed more than 30 surgeries while visiting the Spencer and Storm Lake hospitals with Wilkerson and his colleagues at Northwest Iowa Bone and Joint.
"I learned about the approach with patients, approach and dealing with workers, and how he deals with his kids and family. This is very important for Iraqis," Rhadi said. "How he divides his time for family, patients and for people."
Rhadi said there are many differences between Iraq and the United States.
"There are big differences," Rhadi said, pointing to medical care. "You can measure it in years, about 100 years, between U.S. and Iraq in technology and facilities."
He said the knowledge he's gained here will help to close that gap.
In 2004, Wilkerson joined 23 other physicians, traveling to Iraq as part of a United States State Department group to provide support to the country's medical community.
Wilkerson was representing the orthopedic surgical community. He has continued to return to the country on an annual basis.
"I learn as much as I teach," Wilkerson admitted.
During a visit in 2008, conditions were safe enough to allow Wilkerson to travel to new areas of the country.
"I was able to travel to the south. While I was there, I met Dr. Mohammed while I was teaching how to do knee replacements."
Since 2008, Wilkerson has been hosting Iraqi doctors in America where he continues to help educate and teach the techniques used at Northwest Iowa Bone and Joint.
Dr. Rhadi is the fifth doctor to take advantage of the opportunity to come and work with the Spencer clinic.
Wilkerson said he's learned a great deal from his interactions both in Iraq and in Spencer.
"By meeting people face-to-face, you can almost erase preconceptions you have about people," Wilkerson said. "You realize their priorities are often the same as yours.
"The vast majority of these people are not the people you see on the news."
Before arriving in America, Rhadi carried a vision of the country based on what he had watched on the news, TV and based on movies. What he found was something very different.
"It is surprising thing here in Spencer. I found the safety. No door of car is locked. No house locked. My money stayed in my jacket pocket while I was in the operating room. It was surprising for me," Rhadi said.
The Iraqi doctor also appreciated the hospitality he received during his visit.
"It's very important, the helping of the people. All the people in hospital are cooperative. The city and restaurant people are helpful to me. It started at the airport and will end at the airport. It's been a beautiful trip," he reiterated.
Rhadi continued, "I take the idea they are different from Iraqis, they don't want to help me. There is killing and stealing and thieves. But when my friend (a fellow doctor) came one month before me, he started to change my idea about Americans. I'm starting to send the message by Facebook, e-mails and phone to friends in Iraq to tell them about the safety and the helpful people. It is different from the armies and difference from the movies and TV."
He also shared the things he learned from his personal relationship with the Wilkersons.
"Especially for me living with Dr. Wilkerson. I see everything about American family and their lives and their home. This is very important for me. One important thing is hosting of Dr. Wilkerson in his home. I was here about a month and everything was on doctor. I didn't spend any money here."
While in Spencer, the Wilkersons took Rhadi to the Clay County Fair and introduced him to life in a country with a foundation built on freedom. He had never witnessed a livestock show, something he found fascinating. He tasted fair food. Rhadi has read newspapers with editorial pages critical of the American government. He's joined the fans at a high school football game, climbed on and rode a horse for the very first time, and before the doctor leaves the country Tuesday, he will sit in the stands at a Minnesota Vikings football game. All part of a visit that, until recently, would have never been possible to a citizen of Iraq.
"I think all Iraqis -- most of them, not all -- they like American people because America government changed Saddam Hussein and gave freedom to Iraq," Rhadi said.
He knows the war is controversial in American politics but said it was necessary.
"There was no other choice. All other choices failed to change Saddam Hussein," Rhadi explained. "For changing Saddam Hussein and his regime building for 35 years. How can it change? The president was powerful for 35 years and without the help of a strong country and a strong army like America, it was necessary to change Saddam."
He said the difference now is like night and day.
Rhadi also said he learned Christians and Muslims are not so different either.
"There is not a big difference in the basic principles. The same principles. I went to church and saw people pray there. They talk about helping of human beings, about mercy, the love of people. These are the same principles as Prophet Muhammad for Muslims," Rhadi said, noting most Muslims hate the actions of those deemed "extremists."
Rhadi said he's anxious to return and share the cooperation and kindness the Americans demonstrated during his visit.
"There is an American Embassy in Iraq. When they knew I was coming here to U.S. for education and surgeries, they helped me. Getting a visa to the U.S. for Iraqi is very difficult. They helped me with that."
He continued, "My ideas of America will be translated to people in Iraq. I am a mirror image to them about America."
Rhadi also noted the importance of Wilkerson's annual trips to his country.
"Dr. Wilkerson is one of the most important people to come to Iraq to change the ideas of Iraq and America. He gives them help when it's very difficult to enter Iraq. Dr. Wilkerson and friends helped Iraqis and brought many instruments and equipment. They are waiting on him when they hear he is coming to Iraq with their group. They become very happy," the Iraqi surgeon said.
He added, "America has not only changed Iraq by removing Saddam Hussein, but they help health and education. This is very important in changing the idea about Americans."
Wilkerson will expand his medical outreach in November when he travels to Libya to start a program based on the model he helped create in Iraq.