Interview Conducted and Written By: Rasha Kaloti
Edited by: Leena Zahra
Afsana or Affy as she likes to be called, is a general physician (family doctor) who was born and raised in London, now working with the National Health Service (NHS) in London. She also works in health management in the NHS; understanding population needs, working with local health providers to meet them.
In 2015, Affy completed a diploma in Conflict and Catastrophe Medicine. This was a turning point which opened Affy’s eyes to practicing medicine in difficult situations. In 2016, she decided to take a break from the NHS, coinciding with the time when Syrian refugees were crossing into Europe for safety and refuge, “even though we heard about the crisis through the media, my British Syrian friends who were involved in helping were updating us on the true horrors of the people escaping war.”
In April 2016, Affy joined the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) in Greece as the Medical Coordinator, with a hope to use her NHS clinical and management experience, and education of working in complex situations. This period coincided with various waves of displaced persons in informal field camps in Idomeni. She was there for seven to eight weeks, during a crossover time when individuals were moved from informal camps to the formal government military camps. Her role involved creating and leading clinical teams, finding pockets of need not reached by the larger NGOs, and setting up and running medical clinics. She also coordinated linking with different partners on the ground to make sure all refugee needs were covered, “you have to think beyond just a patient in front of you that you need to treat.” There were only a few people on the ground, working on the project when it first started. Affy helped by setting the basis for the project to develop into a formal structure with an organisational focus later on.
She sees the narrative in the UK towards refugees as generally negative: she describes a lack of understanding in the media, that these individuals are the same as everyone else - there is no difference in terms of class, education, jobs, their lives and families, “everything that is important to them is the same as what’s important to us.” In the UK, many people think that this problem is happening ‘over there’ and is not really their problem to worry about until refugees arrive closer to their shores, “the negative voice around those in desperate need hit me emotionally.”
“People see a different religion, language or skin colour, but they don’t realise how similar we all are to each other in terms of our values and our lifestyles.”
Greece was a turning point for Affy; the immediacy of social and political influences directly on the health of people was constantly visible. The team witnessed the effects of poor water, nutrition and living conditions daily, and Affy was able to use her position as a medical professional and leader to advocate for clear change in the camps.
Affy has been back to Greece twice since and is planning to work on the islands this summer, but sadly this was put on hold due to the (COVID-10) pandemic. She worked in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh in 2018 with SAMS too.
Back in the UK, Affy was a first responder at the Grenfell Tower Fire in West London in 2017. On that first day, she says that the situation brought back memories of Greece due to the emergency nature, high levels of anxiety, lots of Arabic speakers and (initially), a strongly volunteer led response. She is also on the board of trustees for Refugee Trauma Initiative (RTI) which provides psychosocial support for children and young refugees in Greece. Keeping continuity with her experience and continuing knowledge is important to her, as well as wanting to contribute despite a busy schedule in London.
Affy describes herself as values based and the NHS in which she works (comprehensive public health system for all, paid for out of general taxation) fits with her view of human rights and care. Her work with refugees is a natural extension of that, “when you see so many people suffering, it is a responsibility that you have. It’s not about you, it’s about supporting others when you can.”
“What surprised us in Greece was that people were thanking us not because we were there to help, but simply because we were recognising their pain and their situation - which was really important to them. It gives them some dignity and a voice, and it’s our responsibility to amplify their voice. This is not about the responders.”
She says it’s important for people to know that it is easy and straightforward to help, many people worry about the challenges but they can add value and it’s easy, given the privilege Europeans have to travel easily anywhere in the world. She always encourages her friends and colleagues to go out there and help when possible.
What does Affy want people to take away from this piece? She wants people to know that no matter how busy you are with work, there is always time and space to help those less fortunate and everyone can do something to help. “You don’t have to be a doctor to go out there and help refugees.” It can be a few hours, days, or even weeks, but there is always something that you can do with your skills to support others.
A key question that Affy would like her community to think about is:
“In 20 years’ time, what will you say to your children or people around you or to yourself, what did you do to help?”
“We are shameful in our response to people who need help, we are shameful in how much we have and how little we give and we need to do much more.”
However she doesn’t want people to just focus on the negative “we always hear or portray the negative aspects, but it’s vital to always look for love and for hope, because everywhere you go, there is always a story of love.” She remembers the stories of love in the camps - the love and care of the refugees for each other, the love of volunteers who tried to help, the love of some of the locals for both refugees and volunteers. “There are so many positive stories that you have to keep hanging onto, otherwise you can drown in the negativity quite easily and feel quite helpless. If you don’t hang on to the points of love, you will struggle.”
“A big misconception about refugees is making it about them and us, but it’s always about us and us.”
To heal as a community, we can come together to look beyond the surface, and share stories of love, hope and resilience. We thank individuals like Affy who engage in life saving work, and encourage us to come together beyond borders, seeing “us and us” and not “us vs them.” Thank you Affy and to the countless healthcare professionals in the field. It’s time to roll up our sleeves, and participate in the healing for all.