Omer Salih Mahdi is a graduate student from Iraq studying journalism, yet he already is a medical doctor.
And while he earned his medical degree from Baghdad University, his life experience more than rivals what he's learned at school.
Dr. Salih Mahdi came to Ball State through the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship program.
As a doctor in Baghdad, he's witnessed the war from the frontlines. He's seen emergency rooms transformed into triage units, treated busloads of children wounded from roadside bomb attacks, and watched helplessly as many of them died because he, and other Iraqi doctors, do not have access to the basic resources they so desperately need.
To raise awareness of his fellow doctors' plight, Salih Mahdi exchanged his scrubs for a camera. "My worst days were in the hospital as a doctor; it made me feel very weak that I couldn't do anything," he says. "Making the film helped me change those feelings. Overcoming that feeling of weakness was what drove me through the process; it was very personal for me."
Salih Mahdi had many of his filming sessions end abruptly when someone would rip the camera from his hands. "I was detained by the Iraqi commanders, threatened with beatings, dragged from a car, and drugged many times—all to keep me from making this film," he says.
The groundbreaking documentary that resulted from Salih Mahdi's courage and commitment aired on the BBC and in 23 other countries. Honored with an International Emmy for News and Current Affairs, it made its American debut in 2008 on HBO.
Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone is set in Al-Yarmouk Hospital, the epicenter of hope and despair for thousands of wounded civilians and their families in Baghdad. It has been transformed by insurgency and sectarian strife into what the film describes as a "field hospital in a civil war."
Salih Mahdi put himself and his colleagues at risk to film inside Al-Yarmouk Hospital, whose emergency room was too dangerous for an American crew to attempt to film. Only an Iraqi ER doctor could do the job.
Given permission by hospital authorities to use a handheld camera inside the hospital's emergency room, Salih Mahdi took great risks to film scenes of chaos and misery both inside the ER and on the streets of Baghdad, revealing some of the horrific injuries sustained by Iraqi men, women, and children. At the same time, the documentary lays bare the substandard conditions, low morale, and danger that its doctors and nurses endure on a daily basis.
Until now, to protect himself and his family, Salih Mahdi has remained anonymous. His face is not revealed in the film, and an actor has recorded his voice.
The scenes in Baghdad Hospital are graphic and often heartbreaking. Among the casualties: a young woman engulfed in flames by a car bomb while on her way to buy bread; a 7-year-old boy injured while playing outside with several friends who are killed; a 6-year-old boy, wounded by the shrapnel in a bomb that killed his father and brother, who receives no anesthetic because supplies have run out.
One of the few hospital staff members to allow his face and name to be used in the film is Dr. Ali Abdul Wahed, a surgeon who describes his experiences in the ER. As Abdul Wahed explains, "Whoever is on duty, if they don't have to deal with an explosion or a shooting, we say that they're not really living the real Al-Yarmouk."
Salih Mahdi hopes this powerful documentary is the first of many. To help him continue his success, the Institute for International Education (IIE), who administers Fulbright Scholarships, chose Ball State over three other universities for his graduate studies.
The IIE chose Ball State because of its programs match to Salih Mahdi's course of study and his career goals. The university's reputation for being innovative and progressive in the field of digital media also influenced IIE's decision. Increasingly regarded as having one of the best film schools without a film school, Ball State's journalism and telecommunications programs have produced back-to-back Student Academy Awards—besting entries from traditional film powerhouses such as UCLA, USC, and Columbia University. Ball State students and faculty have earned more than 20 regional Emmys since 2000 along with many other national honors.
"I feel very fortunate to be at Ball State," Salih Mahdi says. "The awards the documentary has earned and what I am learning at Ball State have really made me feel that the risks and difficulties I went through were well worth it."