“The Soviet Union and the DDR changed the outlook of health services in Third World countries.”

A Palestinian doctor about his further education in the DDR

A young Pales­ti­nian doctor came to the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic (GDR) in 1980 to specia­lise in urology at the hospi­tal in Berlin-Buch. For 6 months he first atten­ded an initial German course at the “Doro­thea Chris­tiane Erxle­ben” Medi­cal School in Qued­lin­burg.  He answe­red our ques­ti­ons in writing, and upon request, we have published them anonymously.

The young doctor during a presen­ta­tion at the medi­cal school. The portrait of Doro­thea Chris­tiane Erxle­ben, after whom the school was named, hangs between the flags of the GDR and Palestine.

Can you tell us about your family and upbringing? Where did you receive your medical training?

I was born in Haifa, Pales­tine in 1945. In 1948, our family was expel­led from our home­land to Leba­non as one of over 700,000 Pales­ti­nian refu­gees. I was about three years old when I recei­ved the “refu­gee” stamp in my docu­ments. I grew up in extre­mely diffi­cult condi­ti­ons in Leba­non. I was the youn­gest among 4 brot­hers, the oldest was 12 years old. We got assis­tance and relief help from the United Nati­ons Relief and Works Agency for Pales­tine Refu­gees (UNRWA); a UN agency set up to assist the Pales­ti­nian refu­gees. I recei­ved my educa­tion through UNRWA schools. My parents were farmers in their own farm. My father was a district admi­nis­tra­tor (Mukhtar)1 under the British mandate in Palestine.

I grew up in Beirut where the poli­ti­cal situa­tion was charac­te­ri­zed by poli­ti­cal turbu­lence and discri­mi­na­tion against Pales­ti­nian refu­gees. We lived in inhu­mane and tough condi­ti­ons in the refu­gee camps until the Pales­tine Libe­ra­tion orga­niza­tion (PLO) was estab­lished in 1965.

Before I came to the GDR in Septem­ber 1980, I had studied to become a medi­cal doctor in Moscow, gradua­ting in 1974. After retur­ning home, I worked with the Pales­tine Red Cres­cent Society (PRCS); an alter­na­tive to the Red Cross society that also func­tioned as a health depart­ment of the PLO. I held a leading posi­tion as member of the PRCS’s execu­tive coun­cil and as the Secre­tary of the Gene­ral Union of Pales­ti­nian Physi­ci­ans and Phar­macists (Leba­non branch).

How did you then come to study in the GDR?

The poli­ti­cal depart­ment of the PLO, which main­tai­ned close rela­ti­ons with the GDR, orga­ni­zed a scho­lar­ship for me to train as a specia­list in the field of urology in East Germany. I first atten­ded a German language course at the medi­cal school in Qued­lin­burg. I had heard little about the GDR during my studies in Moscow, but in the end, my expe­ri­ence didn’t differ much from what I had expec­ted. What I noti­ced was that the prac­tice of socia­lism in the GDR was more advan­ced than in the Soviet Union.

What do you recall about your time in Quedlinburg? What was the relationship like with the staff and other students?

There was a warm welcome from the school admi­nis­tra­tion, which made the tran­si­tion period smooth and short. We got the neces­sary orien­ta­tion about the habits and social life in Qued­lin­burg. Groups and clas­ses were based on their field of specialty, there was no common organization.

I spent about 6 months in Qued­lin­burg, and was mostly invol­ved in either the language course or social acti­vi­ties. It was a fasci­na­ting method of teaching German with a very expe­ri­en­ced staff. We also lear­ned about social life in the GDR. My group consis­ted of physi­ci­ans from Pales­tine and Leba­non. But the school had also other clas­ses for nursing students and midwi­fery: From the People’s Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic of Yemen (South) and Nica­ra­gua and there was a fruitful inter­ac­tion among the diffe­rent groups. We cele­bra­ted our various natio­nal days and got acquain­ted with each other’s tradi­ti­ons and poli­ti­cal views, with the poli­ti­cal and social problems. We exch­an­ged our expe­ri­en­ces in the struggle for free­dom and a better life.

There were no German citi­zens at the school except its faculty and staff, but we had cont­acts with the local commu­nity and had deve­lo­ped good rela­ti­ons with many resi­dents. We didn’t expe­ri­ence any kind of discrimination.

What happened after your time at the Medifa?

After the six months in Qued­lin­burg, I trans­fer­red to the Berlin-Buch clinic where I then began my trai­ning as a urolo­gist. The other colle­agues from my group were spread across diffe­rent cities, but we kept in cont­act and held meetings through, for exam­ple, the Gene­ral Union of Pales­ti­nian Physi­ci­ans (GDR branch). We contin­ued to hold such meetings even after leaving the GDR after our five-and-a-half-year trai­ning program­mes. All of these students retur­ned to their home count­ries follo­wing the programmes.

I left the GDR in March 1986 after finis­hing my studies and comple­ting a medi­cal degree at the Humboldt-Univer­sity of Berlin.

Yet I could not go back to Leba­non, because the PLO had been expel­led after the Israeli inva­sion in 1982. On the advice of the PLO leader­ship, I moved to the United Arab Emira­tes where my family was waiting. But there I also had many diffi­cul­ties. Follo­wing this period, I moved to Norway, and have been living there ever since.

In hindsight, how do you view your training in the GDR? What was the significance of such programmes for national liberation movements like the PLO?

In my view and from what I have heard from my colle­agues, my trai­ning in the GDR was of a very high stan­dard. But there were two sides to my time in the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic: firstly, the trai­ning itself was important, but where I studied and specia­li­zed also had a large poli­ti­cal impact.

Both the Soviet Union and the GDR meant a lot for me. Without their help, I and thou­sands of others from count­ries all over the world would not have had access to acade­mic educa­tion. And this chan­ged the outlook of the health services in the third world.

I still feel very grateful for both the Soviet Union and the GDR, for the oppor­tu­nity they gave me to fulfill my dream. In this time, where the gap is widening between the wealthy count­ries in the North and the poorer count­ries in the South, there is an urgent need for more soli­da­rity work, which I hope will deli­ver promi­sing results.

The inter­view has been edited slightly for better readability.

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