Author: Suleman Sheikh

January 21, 2021

When People Flee to Seek Refuge

There is a story behind every single refugee. Conflicts, poverty, illness, civil war, famine. But is that really it? 

More than a crisis

We remember faces, stories, names of colleagues and patients, often of the surrounding nature, the local food, the music.

Tragic moments, too, when we have lost a patient, when we hear the fate of the colleague, and sometimes the moments when everything feels too much to handle, when we are tired, exhausted and maybe close to burning out.

But we still would not want to miss a single assignment.

The joy of the patients, when they made it and were allowed to leave the treatment center as cured.

The (unbelievably delicious) breaking of the fast during Ramadan together with the local staff and our little hero, as we lovingly called him, a newborn on whom we almost gave up, but who battled himself back to life.

The tours to vaccinate children in the even most remote villages and then in the evening the hours spent together around the campfire.

The tenacious will of the mothers, who often struggle alone on their own through their heavy lives in the camp and our colleagues who have some hard years of war behind them and yet do not lose their smile.

Why people flee

From a distance, these countries sound strange and far away, nothing that concerns us here.

Often many hours away by air, you may have read about some of them in newspapers or on the radio. Others may sound completely unknown.

The reasons to flee and seek refuge elsewhere are as numerous as there are refugees. There is a story behind every single one of them – something that is often forgotten when purely mentioning the numbers.

Everyone has had sisters or brothers, children or parents, but most certainly a best friend whom they left behind.

In the course of our years with SEMA US, we have heard many stories. Some of them are hard to bear.

That fewer people try to flee, just because there are no rescue ships is a fallacy. Because the reasons to flee their homes remain the same – and also it is not up to us to evaluate these.

Detention centers where torture and rape are the order of the day are more than widespread. Access to medical assistance is virtually non-existent.

What we appreciate

The strength of the people on the ground, who carry on, who don’t give up hope, is always one of the most impressive memories we take home with us.

These are walls that block the view of people in need, walls that forbid saving human lives.

Another thing that stays with us is the tremendous appreciation of our own privileges in which we grew up, the safe haven we can return to after each new assignment. And how much richer our lives have already become through these experiences and newfound friendships.

Beyond walls

Even though we feel particularly affected as a nurse in humanitarian work, we know that we are not the only one who worries when human rights are publicly challenged.

What concerns us – we  will continue to work for SEMA US. From our blog posts, we will continue to tell you about the help we provide locally in order to save human lives.

Whether they are big or small people, wounded soldiers or pregnant women, it does not matter to SEMA US and it doesn’t matter to us.

And you? Do not close your eyes, do not be fooled by walls, even if they are made of words, and do not let humanity disappear from your hearts.

We can only do it together.

January 12, 2021

Lebanon says first case of new coronavirus variant detected on flight from London

Lebanon has detected its first case of the new variant of the coronavirus, which has been spreading rapidly in parts of Britain, on a flight arriving from London, it said on Friday. 

“The detection of the first case of the new variant of Covid-19 on Middle East Airlines flight 202 coming from London on Dec. 21,” the country’s caretaker health minister said on Twitter, urging all passengers on the flight and their families to take precautionary measures. 

A surge in coronavirus infections is straining Lebanon’s healthcare system, which was already struggling amid a financial crisis and following the huge port explosion in August which damaged hospitals in Beirut. 

Lebanon, with an estimated population of 6 million people, has reported more than 1,000 deaths as a result of COVID-19.

We’ve seen how it can devastate fragile health systems, and how it can affect the most vulnerable in places like refugee camps. But for many, the virus itself isn’t the worst effect of the pandemic. Displaced people and refugees around the world are facing a multitude of obstacles including lack of health care and economic opportunities.

Our operational focus, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, remains unchanged. From hard-hit areas to conflict and crisis settings, SEMA US has sought to reach the most vulnerable people, delivering medical care and other assistance to remote communities, people on the move, people who are homeless or housing insecure, and elderly people living in long-term care facilities. 

As the pandemic exacerbates existing health care challenges for our patients, we need your help to rapidly shore up resources ahead of 2021 and ensure we can continue our lifesaving work.

January 6, 2021

The increasing number of suicide cases in Iraq worries public health experts amidst COVID-19 pandemic

The growing number of suicide cases in Iraq over the past years is a worrying public health concern that can no longer be ignored. If not addressed, it will keep taking a heavy toll on individuals and communities in the country.

Over 590 people died in 2019 due to suicide, and 1112 attempted it in Iraq; 80% of them were women which translates to an average of one death per day due to suicide, and three people per day to have attempted suicide. The number of suicide cases reported in 2019 is higher than those reported in 2018 (519) and 2017 (422). It’s important to note that although suicide is tragic, it is often preventable. Knowing the causes for suicide and who is at risk can help reduce the mortality.

Over several years, many Iraqi families have suffered with mental health scars caused by past conflicts and economic hostilities, as if this is not enough; many communities have also faced new stay-at-home restrictions or limited movements to curb the spread of COVID-19. This, public health experts say, raises concerns as it may increase suicide rates or associated risk factors, including social isolation, anxiety, fear of contagion, uncertainty, unemployment, chronic stress, and economic difficulties, which could worsen depression, anxiety, and substance. Other factors include barriers to access mental health services, depression, and insomnia among populations and some healthcare professionals.

Also, various factors could contribute to rates of suicide in Iraq, including intimate partner problems, physical health conditions, financial challenges, and legal issues. Others are personal or family experiences of violence, for instance, child abuse, neglect, or family history of suicide and broader community conditions, such as high crime rates and violence.

SEMA US acknowledges suicide as a public health priority. Globally, 800,000 people die yearly due to suicide, and for every case, more than 20 others most likely attempt suicide. There is also one death recorded every 40 seconds globally due to suicide.

December 23, 2020

SEMA US: 2020 Impact Report

2020 saw the unprecedented confluence of a deadly global pandemic with natural disasters worldwide. In response to these unrelenting catastrophes, SEMA US this year worked on more fronts than ever before. This report provides an overview of how SEMA US has leveraged support from generous individuals, companies, and foundations to significantly expand operations while continuing ongoing services and support for local health systems in 2020.

By the numbers

  • $310,000 in donations
  • 19,800+ accommodated patients and provided free pharmacy
  • $20,000 spent on prostheses for amputated patients
  • 100 sponsored nursing and paramedics students

Strengthening health systems during COVID-19

SEMA US equips low-resource communities with health care services, medicines and supplies on an ongoing basis and in response to emergencies. In 2020, the organization has been called upon to continue its support for medically vulnerable communities and those still affected by disasters from previous years while the global Covid-19 pandemic has intensified. As most global commercial and humanitarian activity significantly contracted due to Covid-19, SEMA US drastically expanded its response efforts to: 

  • Provide medical materials, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), having delivered thousands of masks, gloves, and other PPE items free-of-charge to health workers on the frontlines of the pandemic 
  • Provide ventilators to help establish ICUs in community health centers to support their vital front-line role in providing access to health care, including Covid-19-related services
  • Distribute hygiene bags which contains cleaning and hygiene materials to equip underprivileged refugee families affected by healthcare exclusion
  • Raise awareness in refugee communities where access to proper medical information is lacking
  • Provide proper healthcare workers’ training and education regarding COVID-19
  • Provide screening triage areas with immediate temporal isolation shelters/tents
  • Continuously disinfect SEMA medical centers, hospitals and offices

We do not know for certain how long this pandemic will last, but what is certain is that primary care and health centers are critical to our response.

Reaching out after the Beirut Explosion

Immediately after a devastating blast rocked Beirut, Lebanon, on August 4, some SEMA US staff who were already working in the country went to health facilities to see how they could assist medics responding to the emergency:

  • Organized a donation of wound kits 
  • Treated people injured, free of charge
  • Evaluated whether patients who need further surgery can be referred to and treated in one of our hospitals after they have been stabilized
  • Assessed the most pressing needs in hospitals
  • Identified additional ways to assist people under such tragic circumstances

Supporting women and children

In low-resource communities, improvements in maternal care and children’s health strengthen health systems overall. SEMA US teams at our medical projects, although trying their best to keep the core services running, are already seeing the painful indirect effects of the pandemic.

In 2020, SEMA US has supported midwives and other maternal and child healthcare providers with medicines and supplies, including:

  • Equipping trained midwives to ensure safe births in medically vulnerable communities during the pandemic
  • Providing access to sexual and reproductive healthcare
  • Expanding with a Women and Children clinic in Lebanon to provide general medical assistance to women and children affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters, or exclusion from healthcare access

As 2020 comes to a close and we reflect on a year shadowed by fear, uncertainty, and loss, many of us are also reminded of how precious life is. This holiday season, consider giving a gift that helps save lives at a time when so many lack access to health care.

December 16, 2020

Saving the Lives of Children with Thalassaemia in Lebanon

SEMA US teams in Lebanon have been treating children with thalassaemia. A genetic blood disorder, in its acute forms, thalassaemia requires intensive treatment that SEMA US provides in a pediatric clinic.

Thalassaemia is a hereditary disease caused by an alteration in the genes required to synthesise haemoglobin, the molecule that is responsible for carrying oxygen in the blood. Patients left untreated can have considerably shorter life expectancy. Treatment requires regular blood transfusions. However, this causes iron overload, leading to heart, liver and other diseases, so thalassaemia patients need iron chelation drugs.

It  is a difficult disease for any child to live with. It requires recurrent admissions – sometimes three times per month, recurrent needle pricks, taking medications every day for the rest of their lives and living with the complications of the disease. Children with thalassaemia have to deal with the pressure of leading lives that are different in many ways from their peers’, and of learning to manage a chronic condition.

But living with thalassaemia is even harder for refugee children in Lebanon, where access to public healthcare is extremely limited.

COVID-19, Beirut explosion, makes treatment more difficult

The collapse of the Lebanese economy, compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, has made it even more difficult for Syrian refugee families to access already overstretched public health services. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted families of children with thalassaemia in many ways. 

Free treatment for refugees and vulnerable Lebanese

Our program is providing free-of-charge, comprehensive care to children, whatever their nationality. Most of the child patients today are Syrian refugees, though some come from vulnerable Lebanese families.

With the economic collapse in Lebanon and the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting vulnerable families the hardest, the need for the program to continue providing lifesaving care to these children is greater than ever.

December 9, 2020

The Role of the Youth in Containing COVID-19

Undeniably, the COVID-19 has posed many challenges globally. Lebanon is not an exception to this pandemic; neither has it been exempted from the infection and effects of Coronavirus. Its impacts are felt especially to the vulnerable groups including refugee children, women and the elderly. Closure of schools has also disrupted children’s ability to learn and interact with others. The containment at homes has added stress on family members. Working from home is also proving to be a hectic task. As Lebanon is adapting to the new situation, many are also at risk of losing their employment.

While so many of us are dealing with new realities created by this pandemic, we make sure SEMA US continues to provide lifesaving care to Lebanon. Our teams of doctors, nurses, logisticians, and other staff are responding to everything, from the spread of COVID-19 to the aftermath of conflict and natural disasters. We continue the impact on our ability to ensure medical care services are uninterrupted — even during a pandemic.

As youth who are yet to be financially capable to help support the healthcare needs of many, they can invest more time on awareness during this time of COVID-19. They should be encouraging the community to practice social distancing, hand hygiene and self-isolation. They can also work with the local government and community based organizations on offering psychosocial support to the affected. They may actively engage in social media campaigns and awareness of the pandemic. Nonetheless, more awareness ought to be directed in ending refugee stigma together with the existing issue on violence against children and women.

SEMA US calls all community members to flatten the curve of COVID-19, as it requires self discipline and awareness to spare the underprivileged communities.

December 3, 2020

Forced to flee: Top 3 countries refugees are coming from

Around the world, 79.5 million people have been forcibly displaced. That’s the most since World War II, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Since most people remain displaced within their home country, how many refugees are there in the world? About 26 million people worldwide have fled to other countries as refugees. Another 4.2 million people have applied for refugee status, but not received it yet. More than half of refugees are children.

Here are the top three countries of origin that account for the most refugees in the world today. 

1. Syria — 6.7 million refugees and asylum-seekers

Most Syrians who are refugees because of the Syrian war remain in the Middle East. Turkey hosts 3.6 million, the largest number of refugees hosted by any country in the world. Syrian refugees are also in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. During 2018, 1.4 million refugees returned home to Syria. Returnees face a daunting situation, including lack of infrastructure and services and danger from explosive devices. About 6.2 million Syrians remain displaced inside the country.

2. Venezuela — 4.5 million refugees, asylum-seekers, and people displaced abroad

Years of economic and political instability in Venezuela caused millions of Venezuelans to leave the country between 2014 and the end of 2019. They migrate to seek food, work, and a better life, most of them to nearby countries. Many Venezuelans on the move lack legal status and need international protection and aid.

World Vision provides assistance to Venezuelan migrants in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. In Venezuela, we are working through partner organizations to make life better for children and families.

3. Afghanistan — 2.7 million refugees

About 2.7 million people from Afghanistan are living as refugees, representing the second-largest refugee population in the world. Pakistan hosts nearly 1.4 million, including some second- or third-generation Afghan refugees who have never lived in their home country. Some have been forced to return home from neighboring countries, but increased violence in Afghanistan since 2015 has led to a new surge of asylum-seekers. More than 4 million Afghans are displaced within the country due to conflict, drought, and other natural disasters.

How you can help refugees:

  • Pray  for mothers, fathers, and children who struggle to survive as refugees. 
  • Give  to SEMA US to help provide for their medical needs. 
November 28, 2020

Give the Gift of Healthcare This Giving Tuesday

This year has been one of the hardest years we’ve ever experienced. The truth is, life is kind of on hold due to the pandemic; but the other diseases still travel their path. Our current refugee patients have experienced the hardship on a level that many of us have not.

This #GivingTuesday, we encourage you to donate and help us give these refugee families in Lebanon an easier way of life in these tough times. 

The holidays this year may look different for many of us, but one thing remains the same: December 1 is a day to give.  And we’re so thankful you’re a part of this community that spreads hope around the world, even under these extraordinary circumstances.

As a supporter who is also committed to ensuring that underserved communities have access to health services, we hope you’ll take some time to learn about us and the people we serve.

Medical and support staff from SEMA US continue to provide essential health services where they’re needed most, despite challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Lebanon, our teams overcome enormous obstacles to continue working safely. They face logistical challenges, local and global lockdown measures, and equipment shortages, all to continue SEMA US’ critical health care mission.

Countries need to use every tool available to make sure that COVID-19 medical products are accessible and affordable for everyone who needs them and this move would pave the way for more affordable generic versions of desperately needed drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics.

Your thoughtful participation  would go a long way. Mark your calendars for Giving Tuesday on December 1st!

November 19, 2020

Syrian refugee in Lebanon sets himself on fire

A Syrian refugee in Beirut was hospitalized after setting himself on fire outside the United Nations refugee agency’s reception center in the Lebanese capital.

In the tragic incident, he was rescued and immediately taken to hospital where he is receiving necessary medical care. The UNHCR’s office in Lebanon is following up closely on his condition and supporting his family in this difficult time.

The 58-year-old man was rescued by UNHCR security personnel and then transferred to a hospital by the Lebanese civil defense. A spokesperson for Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces told the news agency the man set himself on fire because he couldn’t afford to pay for his sick daughter’s medical treatment.

Lebanon hosts the world’s largest per capita population of Syrian refugees at 1.5 million. Because the Lebanese government does not provide formal camps for the refugees, most have ended up in poorly constructed residential buildings, rural settlements or improvised tents.

The country’s residency rules make it difficult for Syrian refugees to legally find work. Those who do tend to find jobs in low-skilled sectors where they are at risk of abuse and exploitation.

Their already poor conditions have been compounded by Lebanon’s ongoing financial crisis and the massive explosion that tore through Beirut in August. The coming winter weather has aid agencies warning the coronavirus could quickly spread among refugee populations where access to sanitation and health care is limited.

But for many refugees, the bigger threat is deportation. According to Human Rights Watch, the Lebanese government deported over 2,500 refugees to Syria in 2019 despite the continued conflict in their home country.

Over 5.6 million people have fled Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011. The UN estimates a further 6.6 million people are displaced within Syria.

November 12, 2020

Lebanon heading for total lockdown as health sector buckles

(Photo: AFP)

The Lebanese authorities will impose a two-week nationwide lockdown at the end of this week in the hope of suppressing the spread of Covid-19.

The lockdown will start at 05:00 local time on 14 November and last until 05:00 on 30 November. President Michel Aoun said the lockdown may be extended if the containment measures do not yield satisfactory results.

As of November 9, the total number of people infected with the virus was more than 95,000, with daily rates sometimes exceeding 2,000, while the number of deaths has reached 725. The number of COVID-19 cases during the first week of November alone hit 13,000, while the total number of cases in October exceeded 42,000 cases, the highest number recorded since the virus was first detected in Lebanon in February. 

Lebanon’s continued abandonment of taking strict measures to contain the spread of coronavirus will mean that no one will remain to treat those infected with the virus in hospitals. 17 doctors were in intensive care units, three doctors had died, and that 100 doctors were under home quarantine. The number of people infected in the medical and nursing body had reached 1,500. 

A Lebanon hospital specializing in receiving coronavirus cases has one infection in every 125 that leads to death and that figure rose to one in 10 among the elderly. 

(Photo: AFP)

Lebanon will enter a new phase of complete lockdown. Without it, the economic situation will worsen in light of the spread of the virus. But the idea of a complete lockdown for two weeks, or even a month, has provoked a negative reaction among the Lebanese public. The consensus is that a lockdown is useless without a clear strategy for the next steps.

The thing is we have yet to know the procedures that will accompany the closure, and the goal is to give the medical and nursing staff a chance to catch a breath.

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