Local doctors discuss medical mission to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Drs. Geetha Govindarajan (left) and Nadia Momin care for a patient during their February medical mission to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Contributed photo)

By AARON GETTINGER
Staff writer

Drs. Geetha Govindarajan and Nadia Momin, who practice internal and family medicine, respectively, at the Hyde Park Friend Family Health Center, recently discussed their weeklong medical mission to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, to aid Rohingya refugees who are facing an ongoing genocide in the Rakhine state of Myanmar.

“Essentially every day, we went to a different clinic. We went with other Bangladeshi doctors as well,” Momin said of the mission organized by the Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA). “They would also set up translation services for us. They would have other volunteers who would be working with us as well, doing pharmacy and blood pressure. They essentially all traveled with us for about a week.” She estimated that their 4-person team cared for 300 to 400 patients a day — men, women, children and the elderly.

Govindarajan said that the refugee camp administrators found that patients were not utilizing static clinics. IMANA Medical Relief “found that it was better if we went into the depths of the camp,” she said. “Each day was a different camp, set up in a different part of the camp,” allowing for better accessibility.

“We would start setting up the camp, and literally patients would start lining up,” she said. Rohingya teenagers served as translators during the triage process. “These guys were really well-trained by the time we were done, because they knew exactly what medications they were going to get for the kind of stuff we were seeing, which was very repetitive in terms of what you would see in a situation like that, where they’ve undergone trauma.”

Patients came seeking care for common and chronic medical issues, especially those pertaining to women’s health, body pain, generalized weakness, dehydration and skin conditions, as well as some periodic emergencies. Momin said the refugees’ medical conditions had stabilized by the time of their mission in February, thanks to an increase in the number of mobile clinics and hospitals serving them.

But they were also seeing mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety disorders. “It’s a big stigma. It was not necessarily addressed, either,” Momin said. “These people have lost their families. They’ve gone through traumatic experiences, and so that aspect was something we’d try to address, but we didn’t speak the language, so it was a little difficult for us to address those issues.”

Govindarajan concurred. “We still remember a lady who was literally crying in front of us, and the translator said, ‘Oh, don’t worry. She’s just mental,’” she said. “They’ve gone through a trauma, and we’re just saying, ‘Come on, just move on.’ And these are people with no identity left anymore. They’re neither considered Burmese, and they’re neither considered Bangladeshi. They don’t have a passport, and they don’t know what the future looks like.”

The doctors said they found IMANA through their own research. “We had decided we wanted to do something abroad together,” Momin said. “This was the organization that seemed to work out with our schedule, so we were like, ‘Great. Let’s do it. We’ve been wanting to go to Bangladesh for a new experience.”

“I don’t think anything prepares you for it before you actually see it,” Govindarajan said. “All you see is rows and rows of homes that are almost like shacks that have been put together, stitched together. Most of them are tents that the U.N. organizations have given them, and they’ve now been made into semi-permanent housing, just from the people’s own innovation.”

Around a million refugees live in the camp Govindarajan and Momin visited, all having fled Myanmar since 2017. “It’s pretty insane when you think about it,” Govindarajan said. Cox’s Bazar is on the Bay of Bengal, lush and green, and Bangladesh is a poor country. The Rohingya are not allowed to leave the camp and strictly policed, and the camp itself is devoid of trees, “converted into a place where these people are being settled.”

Govindarajan and Momin said a dozen people are living in each of the thatched-roofed, mud-floored shacks, which are about the size as a one-bedroom Hyde Park apartment. “The roofing is really small, so you’re bending down to get into your own home. There’s no way to stand upright,” Momin said. Nevertheless, “What they formed within each of the camps was just mind-blowing to be honest.” The refugees have built bridges, schools and clinics all from the materials international organizations have donated to them.

Momin said this has given a sense of permanency to the camp, which compounds the mental health issues. Refugee camps are not meant to be permanent, but the camp in Cox’s Bazar is still growing.

“We were happy that we were able to help for a week,” she said. “We obviously don’t feel like that is enough.”

Govindarajan remembered a translator who asked her not to forget about them. “You always wonder what you’re actually accomplishing going across the world for seven days, and you don’t speak the language — you’re using the translators. I think what they said left an indelible impression on both of our minds, because for them to say, ‘At least you took the time to come; you haven’t forgotten about us.’

“Oftentimes in all these refugee crises what we see is that there’s enough outpouring of help that comes in the first couple of months of something happening, and everyone wants to donate things,” she said. “And then suddenly it’s old news, because the news agencies don’t give it the time, or it’s not as sensational anymore.”

“We thought we were going into help, but we don’t know. It’s just a drop in a bucket, when we think about the gambit of things that we saw and where we fit in,” she said. “But then that guy at the end, who said, ‘It didn’t matter what you did. The fact that you actually came mattered.’”

a.gettinger@hpherald.com