Student view:

Heba Osman: A Week in a Jordanian Refugee Camp

Feb. 24, 2016

Heba Osman is a first-year student from Mississauga, Ontario in the College of Osteopathic Medicine.

I spent a portion of my winter break in Al-Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees assisting physicians in providing medical care for a population that has access to none.  

Syrian refugee campThere is no picture I can possibly show you that can capture the dire situation of these refugees. The people I’ve seen, they have nothing. And I’m not just talking about extreme poverty here. I’m talking about people who were previously educated, they were doctors, lawyers, engineers and they lost everything. They lost their house, belongings, job, money, family and country.

One Syrian refugee told a volunteer on my medical mission, “A lot of refugees went back to Syria. In the refugee camps they were dying slow deaths. In Syria, it was a fast death…  Fast death is better I think.”

The thing that hit me hard is they did not once complain about losing anything materialistic. I never heard them talk about losing their house or car or belongings. But I did hear them talk about losing their children, their parents, and most importantly for them, it was their dignity.

As a first-year medical student, there was only so much I could do to help the patients. And now looking back, I feel as if I hardly did anything to help them. However, I got the privilege to hear more stories about their lives. I've heard stories of domestic abuse, of torture in prison by the regime, of a mother who ran out of seizure medication for her two children, and one of a grandmother who is barely getting by while living with nine family members in a moldy room. Many of them refused to inform their family members of their troubles to avoid burdening them even more. Yet, it does not take long at all to get these patients to open up to me.

The week I spent there, I saw what they see and I heard what they’ve lived through but I only felt a portion of what they’ve felt. And I didn’t even endure any of their hardships. That however, was enough to make me question all my struggles. They weren’t really struggles after all.

And I never really understood the term “survivor’s guilt” until now and I haven’t even witnessed war myself. I did however witness it in the child’s eyes who recited the names of his dead relatives so callously. Death was the norm for him. I witnessed it when every man who came into see the physician described a different scene of torture. Torture was no longer something to cry about. I witnessed it when every mother prayed to God to bless us. We were the only ones left who cared about her and that was the only thing she had left to give us.

refugee boys waving

It was only a set of circumstances that put me where I am now.  So no, I don’t deserve a “good job”, “I’m proud of you” or “you’ve done great work.” when all they merely get is a visit to the American doctors every few months. And in return, I get a vacation and a new addition to my resume. After this mission, I can no longer go on living so selfishly.

I've always known I wanted to go into healthcare. It was never a decision for me. But I never had a clear defined purpose until now. This trip gave me that and so much more.

In osteopathic medicine, they teach you to practice a "whole person" approach to health care. I never understood the importance of it until now. Half of our patient visits consisted of them telling us their horror stories, the sort that keeps you up at night.

And so you can’t ignore where they are and who they are when you treat them. You can’t ignore the hardships they’ve endured or the five children they have when they explain to you they can’t buy the medication you prescribe because they need to feed their children that month. You can’t ignore the story she slipped in about being tied up by a family member when she tells you about her wrist pain. You can’t ignore the fact that they’ve seen their children murdered when you’re trying to determine if their pain is psychosomatic or not. I heard their stories but this experience taught me to listen to them.

So my purpose now is to be a part of providing them with the healthcare they so rightly deserve because waiting four months for the next American physician to come is not right. For me, it’s not a matter of whether I’ll go back, but only a matter of when.