Czech doctors helping thousands of refugees in Jordan

Photo: archive of Czech Foreign Ministry

The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is home to some 80,000 refugees. Even with international aid pouring in, living conditions in the camp are extremely harsh. Last year the Czech government sent 40 million crowns to Jordan to finance housing units for some 2,000 refugees. Aid money earmarked this year is being used for the camps electrification. And Jordan is one of the countries targeted by the Czech government’s humanitarian medical aid program MEDEVAC, thanks to which around a thousand patients will be operated on this year. I spoke to Jordanian surgeon doctor Watheq Al-Qsous who is involved in the MEDEVAC program about what it entails and the people it is helping.

Photo: archive of Czech Foreign Ministry
“The programme started four to five years ago in Jordan. Its aim was to provide help for people in need, people from war zones, people who could not afford treatment, and because I studied in the Czech Republic and I am an orthopaedic surgeon I was involved in the program from the start. In the beginning we would select patients from the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and fly them to the Czech Republic for treatment. We later realized that this is very expensive and the same amount of money could help many more people, many more refugees, if they were treated here in Jordan by medical teams from the Czech Republic."

"My work is providing free assessments for patients. I have connections in the Zaatari refugee camp and in Azrek and the Czech side informs us in advance about the specialization of the medical team that is coming. We inform the refugees about what kinds of injuries will be considered and hundreds of them come to me to see if they can get help. So I do the preliminary assessments to see which of them are operable and a second assessment is made when the Czech team arrives. At the hospital we assess the cases again and choose 20, 30 or 50 patients who can be operated on and the team gets to work for one week or ten days.”

So you get doctors with different specializations taking turns there?

“When we removed the bandages he looked at his father with a big smile on his face and he said it was the first time that he could see his father clearly.”

“Yes, I cooperate mainly with the orthopaedic teams that come to Jordan, with traumatology teams and plastic surgery teams.”

What kind of injuries are we talking about?

“As regards plastic surgery then mostly burns and scars which are due to bombs or fire. Some of the children who are living in refugee camps get burnt by boiling water because the conditions are not as they would be in a normal home, there are no proper kitchens and so on. They boil water on a fire and the kids play around it, so accidents happen. So we also sometimes operate on these children. Some refugees have congenital deformities and they cannot afford treatment in Jordan because it is very expensive, especially plastic surgery. The traumatology and orthopaedic teams concentrate on cases such as fractures due to war injuries. Some of these people were already operated on in the war zone, but these operations are just basic, life-saving. Further, proper treatment is usually given later, by the Czech team.”

How many patients has the MEDEVAC program helped in this way –approximately?

Zaatari refugee camp,  photo: U.S. Department of State,  Public Domain
“It’s a huge number. I think that just last year – in 2016 – we operated on 476 patients.”

You select these patients from the Zataari camp. What are the living conditions like at these refugee camps?

“I can only speak about the Zaatari camp, because although I have connections elsewhere, I have not been in the others. The Zaatari camp is the largest in Jordan and the people there live in cramped conditions in tents. Sometimes there are eight people living in a tent. It is hard to explain, you need to see it with your own eyes in order to understand the situation these people are in. And Jordan is not a rich country to provide them with better living conditions and give the children the education they need. As I said, there are eight to ten people living in one tent, poor hygiene, and since the refugee camp is situated near the desert in winter it gets very cold and muddy. So these people are living in very hard conditions.”

Where are these refugees from mainly?

“I would say that 90 percent of the refugees there are from Syria, from the south of Syria.”

“It is good to realize sometimes that we should be thankful for what we have, that there are people in this world who lack the basic things in life.”

You mentioned that the program has changed over the years –until 1993 refugees were flown to the Czech Republic for medical aid, now Czech doctors are operating on them in Jordan – what are the advantages of that both for the doctors and the patients?

“Mainly I think that when we take the refugees to the Czech Republic the doctors do a good job, but they don’t really understand the circumstances in which these people find themselves. When the doctors come here they see the big picture and the patients get a lot more sympathy from them. It is also important that in this way we can help many more patients. Before patients were flown to the Czech Republic on a special plane and were given treatment there for three to four months. So we could only help a relatively small amount of people. Now for the same amount of money we are able to treat many more. ”

You studied in Prague. What is cooperation with the Czech team like?

“Oh, it is marvellous. Humanitarian work is extremely gratifying and rewarding. The doctors I studied with are mostly the same age or a little older than me and now they are getting to know the places where we come from, and it is also good for the doctors to see life in other countries, not just Europe and the Czech Republic. It is good to realize sometimes that we should be thankful for what we have, that there are people in this world who lack the basic things in life. For example water, which is taken for granted in the Czech Republic, but here refugees often have to travel a long way just to get some water for drinking.”

Photo: archive of Czech Foreign Ministry
How do the Czech doctors communicate with their patients?

“I translate for them when necessary. I speak Arabic, I speak English, Slovak and Czech so I can communicate with both sides and translate for them.”

Is there an incident or a patient that has stuck in your memory over the years that you have been helping with the Medevac project?

“To be honest yes, there was one such case. It was a special case, that of a fourteen year old boy. The boy came to me for an assessment for plastic surgery as he had scars on his face and chest but while talking to the patient we noticed he did not seem to see well. I asked his father what was the problem with his eyes and his father said he had some congenital cataract. It so happened that at the time we had an ophthalmology team of Czech doctors operating in Jordan. So the next day the team operated on the boy. And when he came in to have the dressings changed and we removed the bandages he looked at his father with a big smile on his face and he said it was the first time that he could see his father clearly. That was a moment that cannot be forgotten.”

“We understand that we cannot fix the whole world –we help as much as we can, but we cannot do everything.”

It must be very difficult for you to have to select only a restricted number of patients when you see so many people in need?

“It’s a civil war you know….and it is difficult sometimes. Sometimes you have to tell someone NO and sometimes people don’t understand that doctors cannot perform miracles. Some things are inoperable. There are diseases, traumas and war injuries that cannot be repaired, we cannot make it as it was before. So it is difficult for the patient, disappointing for them. It is sad, but we understand that we cannot fix the whole world –we help as much as we can, but we cannot do everything. ”