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Our Story


The Girl in the Red Dress by Dr. Fozia Alvi (October 2019)


I first saw her when I sat in a refugee tent, listening to a woman tell me about the horrors she’d had lived through. Her baby snatched from her arms and tossed into a burning homestead, her husband’s throat slit in front of her, and how she endured rape over a two-week period. It was all too much to bear, but then I saw the woman’s daughter, sobbing silently in the back of the room.


The girl was about 12 — the same age as my daughter — barefoot and wearing a filthy red dress.


As I looked at her, my heart sank. Her mother’s account was horrifying, and it was devastating to know this girl was a part of it all. While my daughter is worried about volleyball try-outs and about the injustice of the lack of a girl’s rugby team at school, that girl in the red dress will forever be haunted by her father’s murder and will have to live with her PTSD-ridden mother in a makeshift refugee camp alongside thousands of other traumatized survivors.


I never got the girl’s name, but her eyes are seared into my memory. I met this girl on my first trip to a Rohingya camp, and her tears are part of what drives me to continue to work and advocate for these refugees.


I have made several trips since then, and having returned recently from one, I thought it was important to share some reflections with my fellow physicians — both those who have done this kind of work and those who may have never heard much about these issues.


The medical clinics I worked in were packed full of patients. Skin diseases were common, as people were living in hot, and cramped spaces, usually with up to eight people sharing one tent. I saw lots of children with recurrent diarrhea and upper respiratory tract infections, and many of these children came alone to the clinic with their toddler and infant siblings. I didn’t know how to take the full medical history of an infant from an eight-year-old.


These conditions also make the situation dire for those with chronic health conditions. A surgeon from the Turkish field hospital told me how devastated he was to see the complications diabetic patients were experiencing. He showed me one young patient who had his leg amputated due to infection, as his diabetes was not treated. Since there’s no electricity, people are unable to keep insulin and are thus getting very sick due to inadequate treatment. This is the same for kidney


failure patients. I was told that although there’s a lab available at the field hospital, they are unable to do any further treatment. I was also told by other doctors that the Rohingya people cannot leave the camps under any conditions, not even if they are about to die.


On this trip, I also reconnected with Gulbahar, a woman I met in 2018 when she brought her two young grandchildren to the medical clinic. She told me how she escaped from Myanmar and brought her grandchildren to Bangladesh with the help of neighbours, after her son and daughter-in-law were murdered by the Myanmar army. She herself was very sick at that time; her body was skin and bones. I suspected she had some underlying cancer and took her to a Malaysian field hospital. But, she couldn’t get treatment there as no one was able to take care of her grandchildren.


Last month when I returned, I asked my colleague, Bangladeshi physician Dr. Mosleh Uddin, if Gulbahar was still alive. I was glad to learn that she was, so I asked Dr. Uddin to call her back to the clinic, and she recognized me and was glad to see me. I asked her how she was doing, and if she needed anything. She told me that she needs everything, as she has nothing. I gave her some money to buy food, and she was crying towards the end in appreciation. I asked her if she needed anything else, and she said something so profound that I recorded it on my phone. She thought of me as one of the policymakers, deciding what to do with the Rohingya refugees, and she told me not to send her back to Burma — that she would rather die underneath some truck in Bangladesh than go back there.


Among these stories of extreme brutality, there are many stories of great humanity. I am humbled by this contrast, and the Rohingya people have inspired me with their resilience. I also draw inspiration from colleagues like Dr. Uddin; he’s been working in the camps since the Rohingya refugee influx began more than two years ago. I met him in 2017 and continue to work with him every time when I go back.


I have heard from a few patients in his medical clinic about his life-saving efforts that go beyond basic medical care. I’ve heard how he has helped them buy formula for their babies, how he’s transported sick people to a local hospital and lived with those patients there for days. These are just a few examples of the noble acts he performs every day.


I met local Bangladeshi people who were busy day and night helping build shelters, arranging for children’s education, maintaining toilets, and distributing food, all mostly for free. Spending just a week in those camps is extremely difficult, and these Bangladeshi volunteers are doing it for months on end. I was impressed by their attitudes, and how they still managed to smile politely every time I talked to them.


Connecting this to our lives here in Alberta, I think it is very important for us as medical doctors to get involved with some sort of humanitarian work. Physician voices are very important, and when we speak against human rights issues and genocide, people listen. In this corner of the world, we don’t often see these kinds of things, but our small efforts can make a huge impact, and I encourage all of you to get involved with this kind of work in some way.


I have met Turkish Red Crescent people — one of Turkey’s largest humanitarian groups — in Bangladesh and was impressed by their tireless work on the ground. Their on-site manager showed me the Red Crescent hospital, where the operation theatre was fully functional but was closed due to the lack of surgeons available. This is just one example of how my colleagues can donate their time, by going there to work for even just a few days. If you’re interested in humanitarian work, this is a great opportunity to step up. We need surgeons, pediatricians, OB/GYNs, infectious disease specialists, family doctors, and anesthesiologists.


I never realized that the hardest part of seeing crimes like this in real-time is gathering the strength to keep going; fundraising, increasing awareness, and spending days working in humid 40-degree weather in a cramped field clinic. Sometimes my efforts end up feeling meaningless; as the Rohingya are still there, Myanmar still feels no need to stop wiping them out, and at times it feels like I’m ultimately just helping delay their demise. I have received lots of support from my fellow Canadian doctors for my causes, and they are a big part of what encourages me in these times of hopelessness.


If nothing else, your involvement in this cause will let the victims know someone that cares, and they are not forgotten. Please donate, write to an elected official, or even simply tell a friend or family member about this issue. In the best-case scenario, you’ll have played a small role in mitigating a genocide, and in the worst case, you’ll have fulfilled a commitment to your fellow human beings. After all, as physicians, we are guided by the principle that each human life is precious and equal — even the ones far away from home.

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