In the first of a series of pieces on people and their relationship with work we look at the trajectory taken by Jena Al-Bazi from her birthplace in Iraq to her working in London via a journey taken under the threat of death.
Who hasn’t wondered whether the eye-wateringly expensive dental treatment that the provider of the treatment says you need is actually needed?
It was skepticism on this scale that caused my surprise when I first read John Maynard Keynes’ words in which he chose the dentist as an exemplar of professionals that economists might do well to emulate. More recently, my scepticism towards dentists has been questioned.
The challenge comes from Jena Al-Bazi: a conscientious and diligent woman who has risen above traumatic experiences growing up in her native Iraq under Saddam to move to the UK with no English, to then navigate the British education system, and to pursue a successful professional career in London… as a dentist.
Al-Bazi’s story includes the sort of experiences that either crush or crystallise the spirit. Her spirit shines clearly in her respect for her fellow humans. So when someone of that moral calibre – who is a dentist – places being ethical at the top of the list of qualities needed to be a dentist, we sceptics should take note.
“So, I think the most important thing when you’re becoming a dentist, and if you want to be a good one, you start by being ethical first towards your patient. You treat that patient as your brother, or your sister, or your mother, or your father. If you treat each patient like that then I think that’s a good dentist,” says Al-Bazi.
Al Bazi has travelled in Japan, six South American countries, Iceland, much of Europe, and Australia. And while on her travels she has indulged her passion for taking photographs of the people and places she has encountered. Her inspiration to photograph in from “Curiosity of the culture, people, the food they eat, and the main thing – the landscape and the beauty of the country.”
Her camera is so dear to her – she has taken the same one all of her trips – it would, she says, be the first thing she would save were a fire in her flat to force her to flee. In truth the first thing she says she would save would be any other people in the flat, then the camera. Sadly the scenario is, for her, not entirely imaginary.
Al-Bazi fled Iraq to Britain in 1999 when she was 16.
Her affection for other cultures and her natural inclination to care for others and do right by them goes beyond the mean. It is elevated to remarkable on knowing her childhood experiences in Baghdad during Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime.
“I was born in Baghdad. I’ve got two brothers older than me. We were living OK in Iraq despite the war, but it got to a point where there was no future anymore.” She explains how harassment from Saddam’s Ba’ath Party forced her family to leave home. “They always want to force you to be part of the Ba’ath party, otherwise you won’t get all the good things. Like for example, if your mom or dad are not part of the Ba’ath party you won’t enter University.
“Basically you need to be agreeing with everything Saddam Hussein used to do. Like killing his own people.”
Her mother was a primary school teacher and her father had retired in 1989 from being a mechanical engineer in the army. This made leaving Iraq illegal and dangerous to attempt.
“Anybody who is in the army are not allowed to leave Iraq without permission. You would never, ever dare to ask for that permission, because they know it means that you are leaving for good. That’s when they kill you, and obviously kill your family.”
So her father sold what he could to pay for the family to be smuggled out of Iraq via Turkey under false passports. The choice was, according to Al-Bazi, to risk death staying in Iraq or risk death trying to escape. “So you take that risk of leaving and see what happens.”
The journey was, she says, a fearful ordeal. And friends and family did die during their bid to escape. “Oh, yes – plenty – even my cousins. Some friends, they get caught, and either they are imprisoned and then killed or they were tortured ‘til death.”
And she explains how it was not possible to bid other friends and family farewell before she left. “You can’t even say goodbye to your own friends and family properly. It has to be quiet.
“ I got asked question once, what is the most challenging thing you’ve ever done? There’s nothing more of a struggle than travelling in fear of your life.”
Following her harrowing journey to the UK came the challenge of making her way in Britain. Starting with no English. A schoolteacher, Hendrickson Clark, figured high in assisting her to succeed, from giving her extra English tuition, to guiding her in university applications. He aided her, according to Al-Bazi, when his colleagues declined in the face of administrative hurdles. And he enabled her to realise an ambition she had held since a fall and a broken tooth when she was eight: to be a dentist.
Having acquired communication skills in English there remained one Arabic cultural obstacle to Al-Bazi’s progress. And Clark helped with that.
“We don’t look people in the eye. You put your head down if, for example, you’re speaking to your teacher, or the doctor, or your mother – anyone older than you, it’s disrespectful to actually look them in the eye,” says Al-Bazi.
Smith saw this. “He caught me one time, and he said: ‘Can you just look at me in the eye?’ That was challenging,“ says Al-Bazi.
Clark helped her break the urge to avert her eyes to equip her for interviews for dentistry courses – the rest we now know. Today Al-Bazi fixes our gaze to assert the importance of being ethical in dentistry.
But exactly what does being ethical mean for a dentist? “Give the patient a variety of options, and time to think about it and to ask you questions,” she says. However, she relieves me of some of my guilt in the scepticism count: “A lot of dentists in the past have been unethical. Dentists are known as money grabbers, who see the mouth as an investment, rather than actually duty of care.”
Jena Al-Bazi is clearly hugely grateful to her teacher for the helping hand he gave her so she could achieve her potential – a just reward after her dreadful tribulations. And perhaps we owe him some gratitude for enabling Al-Bazi to restore a little more credibility to Keynes’ assertion.