I had my first encounters with cross-cultural medicine as a medical student in 1998, when I was involved in the sector of cross-cultural psychiatry. I subsequently received my medical degree at the University of Vienna,, in 2003. The topic of my doctoral thesis was: the hospital regarded as an inter-cultural meeting point- cross-cultural communication in the doctor patient-relationship.
Family background and childhood experience
I am the product of several cultures. I spent some of my childhood years in Iran, in the United Arab Emirates and in Austria. My parents and relatives originated from Rasht, Iran, which is located on the Caspian Sea. They themselves were, in part, descendants of immigrants from Baku, Azerbaijan and belonged to the Farsi (Persian) speaking community. Religious diversity and religious tolerance characterized the region of their upbringing, and mine too.
As the conditions fundamentally changed in Iran following the nationalist revolution in 1987, my parents tried to establish a secondary residence in Dubai in order to have a safe haven for their children; (my sister and me). In 1989-90, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait once again led to significant turmoil and political changes in the Middle East. Being open-minded and liberal, my parents decided to leave the Middle East permanently.
Their initial destination was actually Sydney, Australia. Going to Austria was intended to be an intermediate stopover, but after staying there for six months, they made the decision to settle in Vienna. The family obtained Austrian citizenship after living in Vienna for 10 years.
Education and Training
I concluded my A-Levels in 1996 and immediately started to study medicine at Vienna University. Throughout my childhood and career, I have always shown a keen interest in people; in their motives and how they functioned. I tried to blend as far as possible into their cultures and way of life, and generally to gain an insight into their language and their way of thinking. I tried to acquire a deeper understanding of the historical and cultural context.
I gradually became more aware of my own multi-cultural and multilingual background, which was distinguished by a tolerant Sufi religious ideology dominant throughout my family. It was not unusual for the family to accept friends’ invitations to celebrate Hanuka, Christmas or Norroz, the Iranian celebration of the first day of spring. As my mother had always said: “God is as close to you as your arteries and God is deep within you. Religions represent a path to our inner self and they all follow the same direction, even though they may take different approaches.”
During my studies in Vienna, I increasingly realized that the various misunderstandings between colleagues and between doctors and their patients, were not based primarily on language barriers, but were mainly due to cultural barriers. This confirmed my grandfather’s opinion: he had always taught me that ignorance of culture is often the root cause of irrational and unfounded reactions and even fanaticism.
In 1998, I met my tutor and academic mentor, Alexander Friedmann. I was particularly impressed and intrigued by his renowned ‘Wednesday afternoon seminar in transcultural psychiatry’ at the Vienna University Hospital. This initial interest was soon followed by lengthy discussions and an ongoing intellectual exchange. Friedmann`s consistent commitment to promoting the improvement in the understanding of and the knowledge of different cultures, in particular within the medical staff, left a lasting impression on me as an emerging clinician. During this time I realized the current relevance and importance of transcultural medicine and psychiatry. My training in general psychiatr has led me to further training in neurology and in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, along with consolidating my commitment to transcultural psychiatry as a career choice.
Together with a multi-professional team, I am currently establishing a transcultural basic emergency kit (a library of basic resources of transcultural medicine for trainees in all health and mental health disciplines), including exemplary cases and video presentations for hospitals. In addition, I have assumed a leading role in organizing the first international congress for transcultural psychiatry, psychotherapy and psychosomatics in the German-speaking countries, the first congress of which was held in Witten, Germany, in Sep 2007. More than 200 people participated in the congress; to everyone’s surprise and satisfaction. The second such congress will be held in Vienna, in Sep 2008, and it is expected that a similar conference will be held yearly after that.
Since 2006, together with a group of influential German, Austrian and Swiss colleagues who are active in the field of transcultural psychiatry, I have been working on founding an association for transcultural psychiatry, psychotherapy and psychosomatics in the German-speaking countries. The objective is to found a trans-European association dedicated to enhancing the breadth and depth of research and stimulating the vocational and advanced training of the medical and other clinical staff in inter-cultural communication in all clinical settings, and subsequently to gain more influence in the socio-political issues related to migration and acculturation.
For this purpose, as a further step in achieving the objectives noted above, I have helped establish a website on transcultural medicine and psychiatry, the editorial staff of which is consistently growing. The website is intended to serve as a reference guide for medical staff as well as concerned people in regard to migration- related issues. There are now three such websites in the German-speaking countries. They are listed below.
June 3, 2008