As the conflict enters its fourth year, millions of women and children in war-torn Syria and in refugee camps in neighboring countries (Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan) are suffering from a severe lack of preventive and curative medical care. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that of the one million Syrians that will reside in Turkey in 2014, 795,000 will be children, half-a-million of whom will be of school-going age. The Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) hosts more than 250,000 Syrian refugees, and they make up 97 percent of the Syrian refugees in Iraq. The scale of the accelerating influx has placed considerable strain on administration, infrastructure and services in the IKR.
When I started my Applied Field Experience (AFE), the tension in Iraq was rising, then all of a sudden the situation deteriorated dramatically on ground. Being thousands of miles away from my family has been hard, especially from my family that lives in the disputed areas of Iraq, in the middle of the current chaos. The first thing I did, after hearing the news, was to Skype with my brother back home. Fortunately, I could communicate with my mother and father through my brother during the first few days of the crisis. Later this was impossible, as the Iraqi government decided to turn off the internet services in five provinces, including our province, Diyala. My family is fortunate, the Kurdish troops deployed around our city swiftly, filling the security gap in the disputed areas after the Iraqi army had suddenly left their bases and posts. Meanwhile, areas inside Iraqi Kurdistan, including my city, have become a refuge for those fleeing the violence in other places in Iraq. So far, over one million Iraqis have fled and displaced themselves into the IKR since the beginning of the current crisis. This added a greater burden on the Kurdish authorities and people in the North of Iraq, which has made the environment for the Syrian refugees and Iraqi Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) more complex.
While thinking about my AFE, I knew I wanted to work in a field related to my experience, current studies and future focus. I contacted the Global Institute for Health and Human Rights (GIHHR) at Albany University. The GIHHR is interested and focused on the Middle East and central Asia. A few years ago, in Iraq, I met the Associate Director of the institute while he was establishing partnerships with a few local Iraqi universities. After contacting the institute, I realized they were working on programs for the Syrian refugees in the IKR and they needed support. I wanted to conduct my AFE with the GIHHR, to help them in this regard and they welcomed me warmly. I am currently collaborating with GIHHR to provide research, develop proposals, connect with local partners in the field, and design intervention programs for Syrian refugees and Iraqi IDPs in the IKR. The project, titled “Mitigating Humanitarian Crisis with Public Health Evidence-based Lessons from Syria,” focuses on issues of maternal and child health for women and children in the Syrian refugee camps in the IKR. The research and program design tackles topics of gender-based violence, immunization, mental health and maternal health services for Syrian refugees. I am also providing advice and guidance to the Institute’s staff regarding the realities on the ground, cultural background, and identifying obstacles for implementation.
I want to share here that my lifelong dream of working in public health and conflict resolution is moving forward, thanks to the generous Rotary Peace Fellowship program. Indeed, the fellowship program is helping the Rotary Peace Fellows to make the world a better place and creating opportunities to make a difference in the world. It isn’t that a fellow is studying a Master’s Degree in a specific field. It goes much deeper than that. The peace fellowship program changes the way fellows look at the world around them. My educational pursuits would not be possible without the generous support from Rotary International. Thanks to Rotary International, this goal in now within my reach.