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Volunteer doctors care for Myanmar's Rohingya refugees

By Zeenat Hansrod

Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar are packed in crowded camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, where many urgently need medical attention. A group of surgeons has braved challenging conditions to help members of Myanmar’s Muslim minority in the Tangkali refugee camp.

Many of the ailments the refugees are suffering from are easily treatable if properly diagnosed and given the right treatment at the start. But harsh living conditions in the refugee camps and the lack of basic health facilities are worsening patients’ conditions.

A medical delegation of highly skilled specialists recently travelled to Tangkali camp, near the Myanmar border, to provide much-needed treatment to hundreds of refugees.

Physicians Across Continents (PAC), an international medical humanitarian organisation, partnered with Lonely Orphans, a UK-based NGO working with displaced Rohingyas, to bring 10 doctors, mostly surgeons, from Palestine, Sudan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to Tangkali camp, close to Balukhali camp.

The doctors saw around 500 patients in less than seven days and undertook 100 surgical procedures including 10 major ones in a hospital in the nearby town of Cox’s Bazaar.

They say that most of the cases that came to them were easily treatable, in normal conditions, but made worse because of the refugees’ lack of access to basic health care or even clean water in the camps.

Dr Jamal Ghosheh (R) with a local nurse (L) translating medical issues of elderly Rohingya lady Physicians Across Continents

Degrading conditions

It was Syed Ikhlaas‘s second humanitarian trip to the Rohingya refugee camps in Banglagesh. But the head of programmes and operations for Lonely Orphans is still taken aback by how “degrading and humiliating” the Rohingyas’ situation is now.

The children have witnessed very adult crimes. There are children who have witnessed rapes. There are children who have been shot. In the Western world, we would censor our children from even watching in a film. They don’t understand what is happening to them, why they are being targeted in this way and that confusion you can see in their faces.
Syed Ikhlaas, head of operations - Lonely Orphans

Back in Myanmar’s Rakhine state some of them enjoyed a fairly good life as teachers or doctors, he points out.

“There are children, even adults, defecating in public because they don’t have toilet facilities,” Ikhlaas reports. “We’ve noticed … very dirty water. They have to walk at least a mile, two miles to reach some water.

“These camps are extremely condensed. The location is very sandy. There is a lot of dust and sand in the air. The children are playing in this. There are a lot of cases of breathing difficulties. We had… asthmatic cases… pneumonia. A lot of women had issues with thyroids… so severe they needed operations.”

Dr Jamal Ghosheh, a Palestinian neurosurgeon who led the medical delegation, said that there were recurrent cases of patients who were not correctly diagnosed or given the right treatment.

He cited cases of hydrocephalus (water in the brain) which can be cured by diverting the excess fluid through a tube inserted in the brain down to the abdomen.

“As a neurosurgeon, I saw a number of patients with spine problems and peripheral nerve injuries because of gunshots to their legs and arms,” says Ghosheh.

A neurosurgeon with some 20 years’ experience, he is also one of the founders of Physicians Across Continents and is currently working in private hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza as well as in various countries in the region.

Dr Hasan Elian, paediatrician, examining a Rohingya baby in a temporary clinic in Tangkali camp Physicians Across Continents

Five-year-old shot in leg

A clinic was set up in Tangkali camp for the doctors to treat the Rohingyas, from elderly to infants. The working conditions were quite challenging, as the most basic facilities are not available.

“The challenges were tremendous,” explains Ghosheh. “You need a simple blood test, there is no way you can get that in the camp; you need an X-ray there is no way you can get this. We did not have an ambulance. We did not have the basic equipment, staff and follow-up on these patients.”

Among the hundreds of patients, the case of five-year-old Minara stands out.

The little girl was “deliberately” shot in the knee by a Myanmar policeman while attempting to cross the border into Bangladesh with her family, they say. As was the case for many other Rohingyas, their house was burnt down and that is why they fled the onslaught of violence by the Myanmar army to seek refuge in Bangladesh, joining the 1.2 million who have arrived since August 2017 as well as others who have fled the country since 2012.

Even though the bullet was removed, the nerves in Minara’s knee were not adequately repaired, which caused her to limp. There was also a big scar on her leg as a result of the first operation.

Ghosheh recently operated on Minara and repaired the nerve damage that caused “weakness in her leg”. The operation was successful and the surgeon also managed to considerably reduce the scar.

But Ghosheh still regrets not being able to provide the proper medical care right at the start. One case in particular saddens him - that of little boy with a growing eye tuour.

“The tumour was left [unattended] for some time and [it] was coming out of his eye,” he recalls. “We were about to operate on him with a plastic surgeon, a consultant anaesthetic and myself as a neurosurgeon. But, unfortunately, during the preparation he died because… the facilities were not available when he was diagnosed.”

Dr Bilal Azzam, consultant paediatric surgeon and Dr Mohammad Riziq (middle), A&E doctor, checking X-ray outside in Tangkali camp, Bangladesh Physicians Across Continents

High-end care and training

Most of the doctors volunteering with Physicians Across Continents (PAC) are highly skilled specialists who endeavour to find time for humanitarian work despite a heavy workload.

“The senior surgeons are running clinics, they had to sacrifice that time for a humanitarian mission,” says Syed Ikhlaas. “When they shut their clinics, they are potentially losing out 3,000 dollars [2,400 euros] a day.”

One characteristic of PAC, set up in 2003, is to provide high-end care in crisis situation. It also provides lectures and training for medical staff in various parts of the world. PAC, as part of its modus operandi, left a working clinic in Tangkali camp which is currently being operated by general practitioners (GPs).

Dr Jamal Ghosheh, who grew up in Jerusalem, started volunteering as a neurosurgeon shortly after graduating, some 20 years ago.

“When you grow up in a territory like Palestine, a territory with a lot of political tension and oppression, [with] a lot of people who need help, you realise how important [it is] when other people offer you the help you really need,” he says. “Being a neurosurgeon, I always say ‘Why not spare some of my time to help those people in need wherever they are on this earth?’.

“Life is short. All I can say is that one day we will all leave this life, only our deeds will be carried with us in the life thereafter and that’s why we should make sure all these deeds are good ones.”

Follow Physicians Across Continents on Twitter @PhysiciansAC

Follow Lonely Orphans on Twitter @LonelyOrphans

Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt

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