International Student Department 30th Anniversary: Houssam Abou Merhi is Becoming More and More Latvian
As the 70th anniversary year of Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) draws to a close, the International Student Department is starting to celebrate its 30th year. As this anniversary can unfortunately not be celebrated as widely had been hoped, or with an exhibition at the RSU History Museum due to the ongoing epidemiological restrictions in Latvia, we will instead publish two interviews with medical students from this department. To compare student life then and now we will speak with alumni Houssam Abou Merhi from Lebanon, and current student Hoshik Sivpailen from Sri Lanka.
Houssam Abou Merhi is a well-known gastroenterologist and endoscopy specialist in Latvia and a prominent politician from the Unity party. He is originally from Lebanon and studied medicine at RSU (then the Medical Academy of Latvia*) from 1993 to 1999. ‘I was looking for an opportunity to study outside my native Lebanon and saw an advertisement that you can study medicine in English at the Medical Academy of Latvia,’ recalls Abou Merhi.
‘I knew a Lebanese man, Joseph Barade, who had set up a company that helped young people from Lebanon to study in Latvia – not only at RSU, but also at Riga Technical University and the Riga Aviation Institute. He himself had studied at the Aviation Institute and graduated sometime in the 1980s. He had been organising studies for Lebanese in Latvia since 1989.
Photo from "Veselības centrs 4" archive
‘I contacted Barade, and that's how I ended up at RSU. I remembered learning about the Baltic States in geography lessons at school, so I knew they were by the Baltic Sea. I also knew that Latvia had been an independent country, but that the Baltic States had been occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II.’
*Even though Abou Mehri studied at what was then called the Medical Academy of Latvia, this will be referred to as RSU throughout the text to avoid confusion.
What were your studies like?
I started studying in 1993 and for the first three years my studies mostly took place at Dzirciema iela. I still remember that special feeling after the exam session was over when I knew that I would go back home to Lebanon to meet my family the next morning.
We studied real anatomy at the Anatomicum! Not just from books, but with real bones and bodies with real muscles, nerves and organs.
I really liked our teacher, Assoc. Prof. Sarmīte Boka. Histology, taught by Asst. Prof. Olga Koroļova, was also a very interesting subject.
Overall, I’ve been lucky to have a lot of great lecturers, like former Rector Prof. Vladislavs Korzāns who taught us biochemistry. Then there was Prof. Juta Kroiča of course who was the Dean of the International Student Department at the time. We were taught microbiology by Prof. Aija Žilēviča, physiology by Prof. Aberberga, internal medicine by Prof. Nikolajs Andrejevs, and Prof. Jānis Volkolakovs and his colleague Roberts Rībenieks taught us surgery. Uga Dumpis and Prof. Ludmila Vīksna taught courses on infections! [Dumpis has been the Chief Infectology Specialist at the Latvian Ministry of Health since 2016 and prominent during the COVID-19 crisis, and Vīksna has also appeared frequently in the media to give her expert opinion during the crisis – ed.]
1st year Lebanese students in the autumn of 1993 at 16 Dzirciema iela with the Medical Academy of Latvia sign visible in the background. From the left: Houssam Abou Merhi, Foad Alhazh, unknown (only studied in Latvia briefly), Kamal Abu Meri (Houssam’s cousin), Buls Alhazh (4th year student who had started studying in Latvia in 1990). Photo from the RSU History Museum collection.
What about the language barrier, since English is also not your native language?
Languages weren’t a problem, since I learned English at school. There are schools in Lebanon that teach primarily in English or French.
Books could be more of a problem, because at the time there were only a few copies of books in foreign languages that we could use. Students sometimes helped teachers by bringing books back from Lebanon because they weren’t so easy to get in Latvia. At this time, Latvians from the diaspora also helped a lot by sending humanitarian aid, textbooks and scientific journals to RSU.
It was a time of change in Latvia, and you could really feel it. Latvia had just regained its independence when I started studying. Older students I studied with had experienced and participated in the barricades.
It felt like Lebanese students were a cornerstone for the RSU International Student Department in the beginning. There were also students from other countries like Palestinians, Indians, Iranians, but Lebanese students were in the majority. There were also other international students from former republics of the Soviet Union, but they didn’t study with us because they studied in Russian.
Why did you choose gastroenterology?
I was inspired by Prof. Juris Pokrotnieks, who was my supervisor, and Prof. Anatolijs Danilāns, who was one of our lecturers. I went to talk to Prof. Pokrotnieks who accepted me and a few more classmates and helped me with my residency. At that time everything took place at Pauls Stradiņš Clinical University Hospital.
Did you face any challenges in the clinic?
There were difficulties with the language. Not all Latvian citizens speak Latvian, especially then, more than 20 years ago. Things are different today. Back then, it was a challenge to find assistants, young doctors, who could help us communicate with patients and translate from Russian.
We had studied Latvian during our studies, and we had a very good teacher, Sarma Cire. When I started my residency, we had to study in Russian. It was easier for the first international students who started studying in 1990 because they were taught in Russian, not in Latvian.
In 1993, we were the first international students who were taught Latvian as a second language.
Sometimes it was funny when Latvians, seeing that I was not a local, for some reason started speaking to me in Russian.
Did you get involved in any student scientific societies, or research during your studies?
We weren't involved in the university’s student societies. The problem was perhaps that we were a little isolated because activities only took place in Latvian. Only a few of us were friends with Latvian students, and the Latvian students didn’t speak English as well as they do now.
We also weren’t sure whether we would be able to stay here after graduating and would want to work here.
But we created and started publishing a medical journal ourselves, which was entirely our initiative.
Can you imagine that 26 years ago there was an RSU medical journal in English? The journal was called Lebanese Students Medical Journal (Libānas studentu medicīnas žurnāls in Latvian). We also created the logo ourselves – it is a stylised Medical Academy of Latvia logo with a cedar tree at the top. I think it was a very brave idea at the time. I found this particular journal that my classmate Dr. Sabri still had [gastroenterologist Sabri Abdelmasi – ed.].
You can see that this edition is dedicated to the 75th anniversary of Latvian higher medical education. This edition contains both student publications and articles by our lecturers, for example, Prof. Aija Žilēviča, Prof. Maija Eglīte, Dr. Guntis Bahs, Prof. Regīna Kleina.
From the RSU History Museum collection.
It is different today. Students organise international conferences and publish scientific journals together. Back then, the gap was wider, because of the language barrier, I think. But I wanted to get involved.
What memories do you have of living in Riga in the 1990s?
As foreigners, we had found a lovely place to spend our time and lie down in the grass when the weather was good. There was a small hill between the main university building (at 16 Dzirciema iela) and the Institute of Stomatology. There was a path between the two buildings, and the atmosphere was very different there. You could sit and no one could see you. Now the area has been tidied up and it is very beautiful there.
I have interesting memories of the café at the university as well.
There was one small room with three or four tables that was furnished specially for international students. It was next to the large café and there was also a canteen. It was more expensive there. We could buy kebabs, which was really rare in Riga at that time.
It was mostly international students who ate and spent time there. When RSU opened the Faculty of Social Sciences in 1998, more people started coming.
This time was very interesting. Students had parties in the lobby next to the coat check. The most interesting ones were at the beginning of the year, when new students were admitted [Fresher's parties – ed.].
I saw how the library changed and was renovated. We could sit there and study. Then it was beautifully renovated, and the first computers appeared.
Did you live in a dormitory during your studies?
Only in my first year, at 17a Mārupes iela. There were two floors that had been furnished specially for international students. Each room was meant for two people, so my cousin and I lived together for the first year. I didn't feel like it was unusual for everybody to share a kitchen and a bathroom. However, I wasn't used to sharing a room, even if he was my relative. We later rented an apartment together and we each got our own room. It was in that nine- or ten-storey house opposite the university, next to the tram stop. The apartment was on the 8th floor with beautiful panoramic view of Riga.
1999 RSU graduation ceremony. From the left: Smuidra Žermanos, who was the Vice-Dean of the International Student Department at that time, Houssam Abou Merhi, Dean Prof. Juta Kroiča. Photo from the RSU History Museum collection.
Was there anything in particular that surprised you when you arrived in Latvia?
Yes, there were two big surprises. The first one was that it is very cold in the winters. Temperatures could even go down to minus 30! I remember that I would go from the dormitory on Mārupes iela to Āgenskalns market in the morning and saw that it was minus 27 degrees outside. This was incredible to me! And the second surprise was about food and eating. There were only a few food shops at the time (Interpegro appeared later) and there wasn’t a lot to choose from! There were some kiosks, and we would also to the market, but the selection of products was very limited. For example, there was a kiosk near our dormitory where you could buy various juices from Germany. This was a treat!
So, overall, I have a lot of good memories of this interesting time and have no regrets. I can't even imagine doing anything else, and I feel that I am becoming more and more like a Latvian every day!