Modern technology makes it possible for us all to communicate around the world at the touch of a button. Today, even refugees can speak to medical specialists for a diagnosis and appropriate treatment. This could still be costly, though, which is why the “I Hear U” project was launched in October last year in Brazil. The intention is to reach as many refugees as possible, both within the country and overseas, and provide free online consultations.
The project also aims to raise awareness about medical issues, and increase access to physical and psychological healthcare. Since its launch just a few months ago, it has already provided medical care to more than fifty people from nine different nationalities living in eight Brazilian states.
“I Hear U is about putting our humanity in action and creating spaces not only to improve health, but also to hear from ‘the others’ and their needs, to alleviate their suffering and cultivate hope,” explained the project’s founder, Bruna Kadletz . “Many of the refugees live in camps or urban areas with little or no access to specialised medical care, let alone such care in their mother tongue. And even those who have found refuge and protection in another country face challenges in accessing medical treatment.”
Brazilian Kadletz is a writer and former dentist turned humanitarian activist. She has visited and worked with refugee communities in places such as Palestine, South Africa, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Serbia and France. She is the co-founder of Círculos de Hospitalidade (Circles of Hospitality), a Brazilian NGO that develops social, cultural and educational initiatives for refugees.
“When a Syrian refugee mother living in Brazil reported a health problem with her daughter, who had a respiratory infection, I contacted Dr Mohamad Feras to ask him to see the girl,” she told me as she explained how the charity came about. “He saw her promptly and prescribed a new treatment, which led to an almost immediate improvement.”
That’s when Kadletz realised the importance of creating a project that would offer medical appointments, in-person and online, for refugees and immigrants who have difficulty accessing the public health system and specialised care. Above all, those who face challenges in communicating with health professionals.
Last month, the project started offering online appointments to people in the Gaza Strip. “By providing medical care to people in Gaza, we stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people,” said Kadletz. “We know that Palestinians have their rights and humanity erased by the occupation, including the right to physical and mental health. We also know that the medical infrastructure in Gaza is precarious, which makes things even more difficult, because without physical and mental health, the path to freedom and self-determination is even longer.”
Gaza is home to two million people, of whom 70 per cent are refugees, living in extremely overcrowded conditions. The territory is thus not only one of the most densely-populated places in the world, but also one of the poorest. Hundreds of thousands of people live in ramshackle refugee camps and bombed-out buildings with basic and limited facilities.
According to one patient in Gaza, the project is extremely helpful in providing a link with qualified doctors in Brazil. “I spoke directly with the doctor via the platform,” he explained. “I told him my symptoms and he prescribed medication. My health is starting to improve. After my experience, I told my friends about the project.”
I Hear U would not have seen the light of day without the help of Dr Mohamad Al-Lahham, an otorhinolaryngologist at IPO Hospital and Hospital Santa Cruz in Brazil. He moved to the country from Syria in 2013 with his family to get away from the devastating civil war. “I know what it is like to leave your homeland,” he said, “so I feel a calling to help refugees. I know what it’s like to have to leave your life, dreams and plans behind and struggle to start again in another country. There’s a sense of being lost and everything is new, different.”
Kadletz and Al-Lahham have persevered to deal with all the challenges they face every day at I Hear U. They have to be very creative sometimes. For example, the patient must have access to the internet in order to download the app, register and then seek an appointment and consultation. Some people don’t have internet access, and so can’t download the app. Refugees in Gaza have the additional problem of lengthy power cuts because of the Israeli-led siege.
In these cases, the project team makes an exception and speaks to the patient via WhatsApp, or schedules consultations when it is known that the electricity supply will be connected. “We understand the limits of online medical care, but we still believe that it is beneficial, especially in situations where there is no doctor available or when the person is distressed and needs to be heard without delay,” the doctor pointed out.
The UNHCR 2020 report revealed that there are 82.4 million forcibly displaced people in the world. Refugees make up one of the most vulnerable groups today and need to have their humanity recognised in humanitarian responses, instead of being trapped in refugee camps, asylum centres and war zones.
“The message I would like to leave is that the world is not a closed community,” concluded Dr Al-Lahham. “We have to see and feel what is happening to our neighbours. We are all part of the same whole. We need to open our eyes and ears to see and hear all of this.”