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Medical Teams Blog: Stories of boldly breaking barriers to health

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  • A Grim Anniversary for Syria

    by Sarah Vanderburg Austria | Mar 14, 2018

    March 15 marks seven years since war began in Syria. Nearly 11 million residents, half of the pre-war population, have been forced from their homes, fleeing to other parts of Syria or to neighboring countries. Families have lost livelihoods. Babies have lost parents. Children have lost dreams. Over the course of the war, Medical Teams International has met Syrians, whether displaced within their country or as refugees outside it, along their journey to safety and healing.

    How Medical Teams Helps Syrian Refugees

    After fleeing horrendous violence, refugees then struggle to survive without basic health care. By meeting the medical needs of Syrians trapped in besieged cities and those who have settled as refugees in neighboring countries, Medical Teams International relieves some of the pressure on host countries and makes sure refugees get the life-saving care they need.

    As refugee populations have moved, so have we. Medical Teams International worked in Greece as the country saw a major influx of refugees from Syria. We met them there and brought them healing. As the war continued, Medical Teams International shifted our work to focus on refugees settled in Turkey and Lebanon.

    Trapped in Syria

    PHC photo 2As of today, 13 million people left in Syria are in need of humanitarian aid. Bombings and horrific acts of war make basic needs like food, water, and medical care difficult to find. As clinics and hospitals are destroyed, health care becomes less available. Now, fewer than half of the medical facilities in Syria are functional. Horrifically, the remaining clinics are increasingly targeted by attacks, putting countless more lives at risk.

    Patients trapped within the borders of Syria urgently need medical supplies and support. Through a partnership with International Blue Crescent Relief and Development Foundation, Medical Teams International provides shipments of much-needed medicine and medical supplies to facilities providing care within Syria.

    Even amidst intensified attacks in 2018, we're thankful we can continue delivering vital supplies to underserved clinics and hospitals in hard-hit areas. More than 250,000 people have arrived in northern Idlib since January. We immediately increased our response by activating six health centers in the area. In northern Syria, where security and economic conditions regularly drive qualified health workers to leave, Medical Teams is currently supporting 50 health workers to enable them to continue providing health care to more than 700 patients every day.

    Community Health Workers

    As more Syrians are forced from their homes and unable to return, effects of the crisis reverberate throughout the region. Most Syrian refugees live in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, largely in cities, with a much smaller portion residing in informal refugee settlements in rural areas.Syrian-refugee-Maha

    Host countries try to care for the refugees, but their infrastructures can’t absorb such immense numbers. Tensions are increasing between host countries and refugee populations, leading to discrimination against Syrians. Any savings the refugees may have had at the beginning of the war are likely gone. It's a challenge for refugees to find jobs, and with a lack of income they can’t afford to pay for housing and other essentials.

    In areas with strained health care systems, Medical Teams International trains refugees as Community Health Workers. Community Health Workers are trained to identify chronic health conditions and connect patients with available medical care. In doing so, they extend the reach of limited healthcare providers -- advocating for their neighbors and families and avoiding additional suffering.

    These locally-trained refugees are an invaluable asset to the health of their communities, where there are simply not enough medical professionals. The training also presents a valuable educational opportunity for refugees, and a way to apply their experiences and resourcefulness to make a positive difference for their community.

    Trauma and Mental Health Care

    Seven years of war affects not only physical health, but mental health as well. Many Syrian refugees have lost everything and witnessed horrendous violence. Impacts on mental health, sometimes labeled “invisible illnesses,” are painfully real. Stress-induced hypertension and stress-induced diabetes are serious or even deadly if left untreated.

    In refugee settlements, we train Community Health Workers to identify these illnesses and refer patients to proper care. We also provide education on lifestyle changes that can improve symptoms for patients who can’t access medication.

    Even when medical care is available for refugees, access to mental health care is usually not included. Mental health disorders without treatment can have deadly effects on families. Medical Teams International partners with local centers and clinics to provide mental health assessments and referrals for care in these communities. As the war drags on and programs focus on long-term healing, this will be an increasingly important issue.

    Where We Go From Here

    The enormity of the Syrian war and the repercussions on the people of Syria is daunting. However, we owe it to Syrians to continue to pay attention and to support them with our commitment to their healing.

    The grandmother suffering from diabetes, the infant brought safely into the world in a refugee settlement, the parents seeking help for the traumatic effects of war...These are the faces of real people experiencing this crisis, who in the midst of seven years of turmoil have felt the effects of YOUR love in the form of prayers and medical care. Thank you.

  • International Women's Day: Celebrating women around the world

    by Martha Holley Newsome, President and CEO | Mar 08, 2018

    Bangladesh, Martha and Fatima, 2018 (4)
    Medical Teams International President and CEO Martha Holley Newsome meets with women at a health clinic in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh.

    Today, we celebrate International Women’s Day, a particularly fitting day not only to pause and reflect, but to act. 

    Gender inequality continues to be one of most pervasive human rights issues of our time, and despite strides made to close the gender gap, there is still no country on earth where women have achieved economic parity with men. Women are woefully underrepresented in government as only one in four parliamentarians are women worldwide. Even worse is the fact that one in three women will experience violence in their lifetime. 

    When we lift women up and give them equal footing – whether it’s knowledge or employment opportunities or health care – entire communities rise. As the "Times Up" and #MeToo movements have shown us here in the U.S., no country is free of gender-based inequality. But in developing countries, this cycle of suffering results in preventable deaths.

    Right now, we have the profound opportunity to stand with women around the world who are breaking barriers and remind them they aren’t alone. Please take a bold stand with us and choose to support women who need our action.

    In places of disaster and conflict, it’s the women and girls who bear the greatest brunt of injustice. From the womb to the tomb, their stories make up a litany of discrimination and obstacles. More than two-thirds of the world’s refugees are women and children. By the time this day is over, 830 women will have died from preventable causes related to childbirth and pregnancy, according to the World Health Organization. More than half of the world’s poor children live in women-headed households. 

    You are changing this. 

    Today we applaud the courageous women around the globe who are committed to improving the lives of those in their communities. I’ve met some of these women in the places Medical Teams works. Their strength and convictions moved me. In the rural foothills of Guatemala, I walked alongside women we trained to help bring babies into this world safely. In Bangladesh, I sat with female Community Health Workers, refugees we trained to educate their neighbors on the importance of vaccinations and disease prevention.    

    We know that women are usually the ones who respond first in a crisis, who sacrifice everything to provide for their children, and who play a key role in the survival of their families and the resilience of their communities. That’s why in all we do, we partner with women to help them both realize their God-given potential and assume leadership roles. 

    Community Health Workers


    In settlements in Lebanon, Bangladesh, and Uganda, refugee women are looking for ways to keep their communities healthy. In Bangladesh, one of these volunteers is a young woman named Yasmin, who dreams of one day becoming a teacher. Bright, dedicated, and bursting with potential, Yasmin loves serving her neighbors. “I want to help others with the education I do have – being a Community Health Worker allows me to do that.” 

    Providing women in Uganda with nutritional support for their children

    Uganda, Brenda and Sabrina - malnutrition and malaria, 2017 (12) 

    Imagine spending days walking through the countryside, scared and hungry, your children clinging to your side. For South Sudanese refugees, this is a common story. Around 80 percent of all refugees in Uganda are women and children, many of them severely malnourished. In settlements throughout Uganda, we identify women with severely malnourished children, like mom Brenda and baby Sabrina pictured above. At this settlement in northern Uganda, Brenda received nutritious food and malaria medicine for her sick baby.

    Support for pregnant women

    Guatemala, Sheridan - Irma for PW, June 2016 (8)

    In Guatemala, indigenous women are at a significant disadvantage. They are twice as likely to die during childbirth as non-indigenous women. Women like Irma, pictured above, don't have health resources available to them. It's difficult for women like Irma to receive the check ups necessary to identify potential complications. In Irma's case, health promoters with Medical Teams International determined that Irma, pregnant with twins, was at risk of a breech birth. But with the help of nurses and midwives, Irma successfully gave birth to two adorable babies.  

    Traditional Midwives 


    No child or woman should die during childbirth. Yet it happens far too often in Haiti, where young women regularly give birth at home without supervision. Haiti has the highest infant mortality rate in the Western Hemisphere. We've worked to empower women in rural Haiti by training midwives and educating pregnant women. After 23-year-old Altinise, pictured above in pink, gave birth to her baby girl, she started bleeding. She was shivering and dizzy, and the bleeding wouldn't stop. That’s when a birth attendant, trained by Medical Teams International, stepped up and put her knowledge to work. That birth attendant was also Altinise's mother, Jaqueline, who used an abdominal massage technique to lessen the bleeding and save her daughter's life.
    Right now, we have the profound opportunity to stand with women around the world who are breaking barriers and remind them they aren’t alone. Please take a bold stand with us and choose to support women who need our action.

    We believe every day is International Women's Day. Our Healthy Women, Healthy World initiative mobilizes women here in the U.S. to be agents of change around the world by promoting and advocating for women's health issues.

  • A view from Uganda: 12 photos of the Congolese refugee crisis

    by Helen Manson | Mar 02, 2018

    Right now, in this very moment, even as you read these words, there's an invisible crisis unfolding in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Refugees are leaving in droves because of violence, heading to nearby Uganda where health clinics cater to their needs. 

    In the past week, there have been nearly 1,000 reported cases of cholera in southwest Uganda, and the vast majority of patients are children under the age of 9. With young lives hanging in the balance, Medical Teams International is mobilizing health professionals to heal the sick and protect the vulnerable.

    To shed light on this crisis, photographer Helen Manson traveled to southwest Uganda to document the experiences of Congolese refugees crossing the border. 

    It's not easy for me to edit photos like these. I go to bed and see their eyes as I try to sleep. I remember all too well. The smell, the temperature, the harshness of the environment they live in and the context in which we met.

    Last year (on average) 30 to 50 people crossed the border each day. Now those numbers are closer to 500 per day. Medical Teams International is also there, right now, providing emergency and ongoing medical care to these precious people--now refugees. Here are the 12 photos that meant the most to me from my recent trip there.


    Uganda, Mikuze and family - story - DRC response, 2018 (4)
    This mother and child woke up a couple weeks ago and realized their entire village had packed up and left. Gun fire sounded in the distance, so she grabbed a bag and her other children and walked to Uganda. As she crossed the border, we met and hopped into this United Nations truck together. I sat in the back of that truck with other refugees like her to a transit center where they began their new lives as refugees, escaping the violence and conflict of their home country. When the truck slowed down to pass over a speed bump, I took this shot.

    Uganda, Registration of DRC refugees, 2018 (1)
    Waiting in line to be registered as refugees by the United Nations' refugee agency, this young boy caught my eye.

    Uganda, Mikuze and family - story - DRC response, 2018 (9)
    On arrival at a border point/transit center, Medical Teams International provides health screening and immunizations for incoming refugees.

    Uganda, inside an MTI clinic - DRC response SW, 2018 (28)
    This little 18-month-old baby girl weighs 13 pounds. Her parents have both died and her grandmother is now her caregiver. Your contributions help provide nutritional support to help her grow.

    Uganda, Registration of DRC refugees, 2018 (10) (1)
    This is what it looks like to register as a refugee. This mother caught my eye, as did her beautiful children. They are exhausted. 

    Uganda, DRC refugees at the transit center, 2018 (10)
    Living conditions for 2,700 Congolese refugees arriving into the transit center on the border of Uganda.

    Uganda, inside an MTI clinic - DRC response SW, 2018 (14)
    Standing in the doorway of the Medical Teams clinic this beautiful little girl lost her daddy just days earlier. She and her two sisters and baby brother are now refugees living in Uganda.

    Uganda, sanitation screening - DRC response, 2018 (16)
    Health Screening is an important first step for refugees arriving into Uganda. Babies who need food will get it, mothers who need medicine will receive it, and children who are sick will be seen and cared for.

    Uganda, inside an MTI clinic - DRC response SW, 2018 (13)
    The pharmacy inside a transit center is this grey box filled daily with medicines to help the huge influx of refugees coming in.

    Uganda, Registration of DRC refugees, 2018 (6)
    I noticed these boys being registered and immediately went to inquire. "Unaccompanied children," the registrar said. We talked for a minute or two about the background details he was getting from them: Their ages are 6, 8 (twins) and 12. My heart sank. I took this photo then turned away and let the tears slip down my cheeks.

    Uganda, DRC refugees at the transit center, 2018 (2)
    A newly arrived family unpacking their things.

    Uganda, DRC response - transit center food, 2018 (22)
    Seeing hundreds of people wait in line for food is a hard thing to experience. I think it's the dignity element and the control element that bother me the most. 

    Your support means everything to these refugees. Consider donating today to help families and orphaned children who are seeking refuge from violence. Every contribution makes a huge difference in the lives of suffering women and children.

  • Medical Teams President Meets Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

    by Martha Holley Newsome, President and CEO | Feb 26, 2018

    The Kutupalong settlement in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, is home to more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

    I’ve just spent a week walking among Rohingya refugees living in the densely populated Kutupalong settlement in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. As one of the two major camps here, the total number of resettled refugees since August is estimated at over 700,000 with around 15,000 to 17,000 arriving per month. That’s a staggering number--making the camp roughly the size of Austin, Texas--and it’s difficult to understand the scale of it unless you witness it first-hand. Makeshift tents are stacked nearly on top of one another on muddy hillsides. Steep sanded steps lead to labyrinths of narrow paths. Tied bamboo bridges create treacherous movement over the stagnant swamps of discarded pump water.

    The conditions are harsh; the heavy dust makes it hard to breathe and there is little protection from the intense sun. This area, once an elephant migration route, has been completely deforested to make space for the refugee population. Now void of any vegetation, the land creates “perfect storm” conditions for the impending mudslides and flooding. Elephants have already come back to rampage the camps and more attacks are intensely feared. Sanitation problems are also impossible to avoid due to how closely tents are placed near latrines. A recent report by the World Health Organization showed that more than 86 percent of water samples tested positive for contamination.  

    According to UNICEF, 60 percent of new arrivals are children and women. Many are vulnerable and at great risk of disease. All are traumatized.

    As refugees poured over the border into Bangladesh, Medical Teams began sending teams of medical professionals to care for their immediate and ongoing health needs. We now serve as a vital link between the critically ill and emergency care. In addition to our clinics, we train refugees as Community Health Workers (CHWs), to seek out the sick among their neighbors, as well as teach about water, sanitation, and disease prevention. Today, over 60 CHWs have been trained and are playing a crucial role in preventing the spread of diseases like diphtheria and measles throughout the camp. 

    I had the privilege of witnessing the work of our Medical Teams staff and volunteers to treat and prevent sickness in our primary health clinics. Here, national doctors are working alongside our volunteer doctors and nurses to care for over 150 men, women, and children each day. They are treating everything from lower and upper respiratory issues, to urinary tract and skin infections, to communicable diseases like measles and diphtheria. Many Rohingya were denied any sort of medical care in their homeland of Myanmar, and often, our clinics and staff are their first encounter with medical treatment. This treatment offers a profound opportunity to provide dignified, loving care to those who have suffered so deeply. I can attest that our volunteers and staff see it as a great privilege to serve these broken yet beautifully resilient people.

    fatima first visit (1)
    Fatima and her baby Esa receive treatment at a Medical Teams International health post.

    At our clinic I met a young Rohingya woman named Fatima. Her face was covered with a heavy black niqab, revealing only her eyes. I watched intently as she spoke of her painful exodus from Myanmar nearly six months ago. She was eight months pregnant during the arduous journey.  

    “We walked for many days. I was so pregnant and I was very afraid I would have the baby while we were walking. It took many days. I don’t remember how many because it felt so long. I had to walk very slowly. The hills were so high.” She paused as deep sadness filled her eyes. “I feared with every step that I would be killed.”

    She arrived barely in time, just a few days before having her son, Esa, in the camp. The week before I met her, he had developed a rash and a fever.

    “I was very afraid for him. I had never seen this kind of rash before and I didn’t know what was happening,” she shared with me.

    Our doctors confirmed that he had contracted measles. At the fragile young age of 5 months old, he hadn’t yet received the measles vaccination, making him dangerously susceptible in a setting like this where disease spreads like wildfire.  Our team worked swiftly to diagnose and treat, giving him Vitamin A drops to boost his immune system and making sure Fatima brought him back for a two-day follow up visit. This is when I met her, and saw that Esa was healing and acting like a typical baby.

    martha and Fatima
    Fatima, a patient at Medical Teams' health post in Kutupalong, meets with President and CEO Martha Holley Newsome, who's holding Fatima's 6-month-old son Esa.

    The conditions, resources, and acuity of sickness in an ever-changing environment like a refugee camp all present unique challenges for our team. Yet at the same time, they create the perfect setting to dare to love like Jesus and boldly break barriers to health. This is what we are called to do, and why we are here.

    Thank you for your continued support of our work caring for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and for your prayers. They are coveted and deeply appreciated. 

  • An unyielding love powers refugees in Uganda

    by Tyler Graf | Feb 14, 2018


    Kneeling on the dirt floor of her home, Rose tucks her spindly legs under her body and talks passionately about her family and the bond of love that brought them to this refugee settlement in northern Uganda.

    Rose's smile is radiant, a full-force beam of happiness. When her husband is by her side, her smile widens. He was by her every inch of the journey through the South Sudan bush, helping her as she crawled over the harsh landscape with shoes on her hands and cuts on her knees.

    Everyone in Rose's family has a disability -- something that complicates an already complicated life. For Rose, she's been disabled since a young age when she contracted polio, leaving her without the use of her legs. She married a man with dwarfism and gave birth to two children who also have the condition. Life for the couple in South Sudan was hard.

    When Rose was young, she remembers people staring at her, treating her differently. Other children did not accept her and she had few friends. She was an outsider, whom even doctors treated coldly. She recalls going to a doctor and being told there was nothing he could do. She was on her own.

    But when she met her husband, her world changed. She felt loved. Together, they forged a partnership. When fighting erupted in South Sudan -- when hatred, violence and persecution boiled over, forcing thousands to immediately flee -- the couple turned to love. They relied on each other to remain strong.

    Together, they found the strength to travel with their children for days until they reached Uganda, where they were tired and sick. Rose was at a reception center after crossing the border when Medical Teams staff embraced her. 

    In midst of the family's struggles, Medical Teams International eased their burden by providing malaria medicine to the children and screening the parents for other diseases. Nurses noticed the family’s disabilities, Rose says, and expressed a desire to make sure they had a good life at the settlement.

    Loving care came in the form of medical assistance and home visitations. Because of the family’s limited mobility, nurses went directly to the family. They came to check on the children, to help Rose and her husband, and to provide love. 

    Rose in her new wheelchair.

    As Rose sat, recalling her story, her smile widened and she looked over at her husband, who was attending to the children as they slept on a mat, snoring loudly. He smiled back. A silent connection was at work – between Rose, her husband, and their children. They were healthy together, and that’s what mattered most. 

    After Rose initially told her story to Medical Teams over the summer, even more love came to Rose’s doorstep – this time in the form of a wheelchair. Nurses from Medical Teams International brought the wheelchair to the family’s house, where that big, warm smile again crossed Rose's face. She was thankful that finally she had mobility. No longer would she have to crawl on the ground with shoes on her hands. This simple act of love went a long way in reaffirming Rose's dignity

    At refugee settlements throughout the world, there are so many stories that show how love leads to healing. In Uganda, Medical Teams International demonstrates what it means to act, to heal, and to love. On this Valentine's Day, let's remember how love has the power to shape and transform the lives of those around us. Learn more about refugees like this family and consider making a donation today.