“I have never been lucky in life,” says Smitha Surendran. One of the 46 Indian nurses to have been rescued from Iraq last week, she now sits beside her ailing parents in their one-room, mud-brick shack in a Kerala village wondering whether her time in the war-torn country wasn’t better simply because she had something to look forward to.
“But for the threat that the Tikrit Teaching Hospital would be bombed, I would have loved to stay there,” says Surendran, adding, “Don’t blame me.” The bombs were a worry but there wasn’t this daily concern about how to put food on the table.
The 30-year-old went to Iraq in February this year from Delhi, where she had worked in four different hospitals since 2009. With renewed conflict cutting short her tenure, she eventually returned without earning any money for her work abroad. “I have returned without getting a single coin,” she says.
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While Surendran’s father Raghavan Surendran was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, her stepmother is an asthma patient. With the two unable to continue working as farm labourers, the family lives largely at the mercy of neighbours in Mannakkanadu village of Kottayam district. They don’t own any land and their house is built on abandoned government land.
Unlike others who study nursing after Class XII, Surendran did the course after graduating in English. “Nursing looked better in terms of prospects,” she says. She took an educational loan of Rs 1.15 lakh for the nursing course in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.
In 2009, she joined a Delhi clinic as a nurse at a monthly salary of Rs 3,500. When she moved to Tikrit in Iraq in February 2014 after four jobs, her salary had grown to only Rs 12,000 per month. Meanwhile, her educational loan, Surendran says, had grown to Rs 1.60 lakh, despite her paying interest for three years.
When the Iraqi government promised her a salary of Rs 40,000 per month, she didn’t hesitate to take up the offer. Surendran’s elder sister, a nursing assistant in Delhi, helped her raise a loan of Rs 2 lakh for the cost of the visa.
“Many of my seniors were already working in Iraq when I got a chance to work there. We were told that our troubled days were over. Some of my colleagues are still in Iraq,” Surendran says. She hoped to build a small house in her village with the money she made.
As war erupted between the government and rebels in Tikrit, she kept the news from her parents. Her sister though knew about the worsening situation, she says.
Surendran adds that she was even ready to move elsewhere to Iraq rather than returning. “But finally when the entire issue seemed a choice between death and life, I decided to fly back.”
She hopes she will find a new job soon. “I have to ensure food for my parents. How long can we depend on others for survival?”