Inspirational Woman August 2016: Dr. Hena Ibrahim

Chicago born Dr. Hena Ibrahim graduated Cum Laude in International Relations from Loyola University after which she studied medicine at St George’s University in Grenada.  She returned to her native Chicago to undertake her pediatric residency at Cook County Hospital and is currently in private practice at St Anthony’s Hospital where she also serves as Medical Director of Ambulatory Services.

Earlier this year Hena undertook a medical mission to to assist Syrian refugees who had been stranded in Greece along the Macedonian border. With other physicians and humanitarian workers, she provided critical care to those most in need including whole families who had journeyed to escape the horror of war in the most difficult circumstances. Since her return from Greece, Hena has been a keen advocate of the plight of Syrian refugees and advises volunteers how they can assist in the most productive manner. She is currently planning to return to the refugee camps to continue her humanitarian work.

1. Why was it important to actually travel to Greece?

        Since I can remember, I have always wanted to be involved in global relief work.  This was my first medical mission, and the Syrian refugee crisis stood out in my mind as one of the worst since WWII.  I initially considered traveling to Jordan, however as I was traveling alone, I was informed the situation in Greece was not only safer but more urgent.  It was important for me to see firsthand what was happening, and I wanted to help in a more direct way.

2. What did you see in Greece that you were not able to understand by watching the news and the media?

         The personal connection that is developed by visiting and helping refugee families can never be felt through a screen.  You are in the camps with them, feeling the toll of the elements – the weather, the hopelessness, the idleness, the mosquitoes, the tents being blown away or catching fire, or the clashes with the riot police.  You can see and feel every emotion, the intense tensions, the unavoidable pain.  I was also able to speak to many local Greeks who told how this crisis had affected them personally, as well as the country – considering their own economic limitations.

3. How many children are displaced by the Syrian conflict and what are there accommodations? As a pediatrician, what are their most dire needs?

         According to UNHCR there are 4.6 million Syrian refugees and half are children.  Basic health care, ie physical and emotional support is critical. The poor conditions in the camp have affected their health – ranging from chronic exposure to smoke in the camps causing respiratory issues, or newborns born within the camp with little or no follow up care.  Moreover,the children have been traumatized by these extreme circumstances not knowing how to cope, therefore emotional support is vital.

        Secondly, education is very important if these children are expected to have any hope of a future.  The children are idle most of the time, playing with friends, trying to pass time and simply ease the pain of their situation.  Unless some sort of education or skills training is facilitated, they will be severely restricted in future opportunities – affecting whole generations.

4. How do pregnant women receive medical care in the refugee camps?

         A few family medicine physicians on our trip had the opportunity to set up an OB clinic in the smaller (2000 refugee) camp.  In the larger camp, MSF (Doctors Without Borders) helped with pre-natal care, however it was limited and unlike what we would expect to receive in a developed country.  Most women in Greece receive c—sections in place of natural delivery, therefore the refugees were treated in the same way. A c-section would be performed and they returned to camp the same day. Follow-up care for the newborn and mother meant standing in long lines to see a doctor. On one of my walkabouts I met a women who delivered 10 days prior. She spent most of the day in her tent with her 1st born infant in the scorching heat. The baby was doing very well considering the conditions.The mother needed basic medical post-op care, however was unaware of when or where to follow-up.

5. How would you describe the refugee population?

        Suffering yet resilient, dignified, welcoming. Despite their stories being truly horrific, they greet you with love and respect.  They apologize when they invite you into their tent because they do not have enough to offer you as their guest. The women’s hijabs are beautiful done, not disheveled as expected in such conditions.  They are concerned with basic hygiene in the camp. Many men feel angry they cannot provide for their families as they want to work and live with honor and respect. They live one day at a time – waiting.

6. What would you say to those who consider the refugee population would be a burden to the workforce of any country they are entering?

          I can understand both sides of this issue. Unemployment in Greece in 2015 was 25.6%. Many of the Syrians I met had college degrees or had to leave in the middle of their education. In a struggling country like Greece I’m not sure what kind of job opportunities would be available.

        I saw firsthand how a country like Greece was challenged to keep up with the refugee crisis in general. Their local hospital had dated equipment from the 1980s and 90s. They are unable to take care of their own population and now there are thousands of refugees who need basic medical care as well. From a medical perspective, they were unable to care for refugees with chronic medical conditions in a timely manner due to the sheer volume and complexity of cases.

       On the other hand, I saw many small businesses thriving. The local village and hotels were bustling with aid workers, restaurants were full, NGOs were buying medications and goods. The local economy was being supported. 

       It is difficult to find that balance. Nevertheless, the Syrians have a choice – flee or live with possibility of death. Most say they cannot wait to go back to Syria after the war. The picture painted by the West that they all want to come to Europe for a better life may be true for some, but not all.  Many are just waiting. Waiting to go back.  It is not the fault of the Syrians, rather the negligence of the international community to get a handle on the refugee crisis.   Fingers should not be pointed at the refugees or their host nations – rather the international community as a whole.

7. From your perspective, why is it taking so long to take refugees out of their circumstances?

        Currently, Greece does not have the resources to deal with this significant influx of refugees in a timely manner. For example, in a camp of 10,000 refugees,Greek officials gave two Skype phone numbers to call to help process refugee applications. That’s two telephone numbers for 10,000 refugees. People spent more than 3 weeks trying to get through with little success. Furthermore, how would the refugees call these numbers considering many did not have cell phones? And those who did needed to constantly charge their phones, which as you can imagine in a refugee camp, can be extremely challenging. One of the most requested items in the camp was a powerbank or cell phone.

8. Were you scared for your own safety during the travel? How did you overcome that fear?

        A few days prior to my departure, I began feeling quite anxious. I have a young family therefore had mixed feelings about the trip. I was not fully cognizant of the situation on the ground, which added to the anxiety. One week prior to my arrival, police used tear gas and rubber bullets against the refugees in which many aid workers were hit as well.

         However, once my flight was booked and place confirmed on the medical mission, I knew I had to face these fears. When I arrived at the camps I did not feel as if I was in danger initially.  However, throughout the trip there were times you could feel the tension in the camps – riot police and vans were very visible and refugee’s frustrations were palpable. It would only take 1 incident to cause instability – as we saw when a large police van accidentally ran over a refugee who fell while assembling his tent. Refugees lined the road shouting for justice, while buses of riot police were brought to the scene. Thankfully, tensions simmered after the family of the victim told refugees back at the camp that he was ok (although he had passed away due to his injuries – the family understood this incident could have been a tipping point).

       Overall, I  noticed myself being very vigilant throughout the week and we tried to remain in groups when venturing into the camps. 

9. What can normal every day women do to help the refugees who are not able to travel to the camps?

         Organize a drive, spread awareness, keeping up-to-date on the current situation.  Reading about it may bring further ideas for of how to help.  One woman started a drive from her home for collecting baby carriers and sending them to Syria. Initiatives like this make a real difference.  For more politically active steps, I came across the following:

1.Call the White House

Comments: 202-456-1111

Switchboard: 202-456-1514

2.Email: https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact

3. Call the State Department

Phone: 202-647-6575

Email: http://register.state.gov/contactus/contactusform

4.Call your Senator

5.Call your congressman

6. Send a letter to the editor to your local newspaper demanding coverage of the ongoing crisis in Syria.

Register to vote and vote!

10. Lastly, what the did the experience teach you about yourself and our obligations as a community?

        Upon my return I realized more than ever it was an obligation to help, rather than a choice. I felt I have a responsibility and be of service because of my position here. I have freedom. I have the ability to cross borders without the fear of being shot, injured or killed. I have a home, food, and education. 

      This is not to say that traveling to the camps is the only way to help. Everyone can do their part as mentioned above. However, I recommend going out of your comfort zone a bit – struggle to make a difference. 

      One of my teachers once said – to give your time to something is very difficult because you are giving part of your soul. It is easy to write a check. Is it just as easy to give your time to pick up the phone and call someone or give your time to a cause you believe in?