Health on Wheels

A mobile clinic delivers hope in Kurdistan

text and photographs by Raed Rafei

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Evene George considers her toddler a living miracle. During the fifth month of her pregnancy, Islamic State warriors stormed her hometown of Mosul. After a brief moment of confusion that hot June night in 2014, she managed to escape with her family.

For six hours she walked, sensing an intensifying pain in her swollen feet. Then her neighbors pushed her in a cart. Gradually overcome by exhaustion, she felt certain she would miscarry.

Finally, after settling down among tens of thousands of other similarly displaced Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and Muslims in nearby Kurdistan, Mrs. George gave birth to a healthy boy.

The 27-year-old now resides with her husband, three sons and two teenage sisters in Nafkandala, a small, desolate Assyro-Chaldean village in northern Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region of Iraq protected against Islamist militants by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. While they survive with support from charities and aid groups, the full extent of their needs remains great. For days now, her son, Massis — now 13 months old — has been suffering from a persistent cough and a sore throat.

“To get medical treatment for my son, we have to drive in a taxi for miles to reach the nearest city. My husband is jobless and we are drowning in debts. We cannot afford it,” she says. Aside from keeping her son warm and out of the sharp, chill winds, it had seemed that Mrs. George’s only recourse was prayer.

One morning, when a white van serving as a mobile health clinic arrived in this village near the Turkish border, the inhabitants greeted it with enthusiasm. Learning about the clinic by word of mouth, Mrs. George carried her son and headed to the village’s main hall with dozens of other residents. There, the basic elements of a clinic were quickly put in place: a green, three-panel privacy screen, an orange stretcher and a table serving as the doctor’s desk — complete with a stethoscope, a blood pressure meter, an oxygen tank and assorted medical instruments.

Funded by CNEWA, the mobile clinic is an initiative of the Rev. Yousif Jamil Haddad, the pastor of the Virgin Mary Syriac Catholic Church in Zakho, a bustling city close to Turkey and a commercial hub for the export of oil from Kurdistan.

“Many refugees are staying in poor, remote villages where they have no access to medical care,” says Father Haddad, explaining the motivations behind the project that began its operations last June.

Today, the mobile clinic visits 22 villages scattered throughout the hilly northern edges of Kurdistan, serving a population of roughly 15,000 internally displaced Christian, Muslim and Yazidi families. Staffed by a doctor, a pharmacist, an administrator and a driver, the van departs from Zakho around 9 a.m., five days a week. Each morning, the van is loaded with supplies stored on the premises of the Syriac Catholic parish. It then makes its way to one or two villages where, typically, the clinic’s doctor provides medical consultation to some 140 patients.

In the daily efforts of this small operation, displaced from all walks of life have found a lifeline — enabling many of the region’s most vulnerable people to reclaim health and hope.

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