Yemen: Conversations with a caring community
The ICRC is supporting 12 Ministry of Public Health and Population-run medical facilities in Yemen. One of them, Bateis Health Centre, has been a place of welcome and care, serving its community for nearly 40 years.
"Come in, sit down, you are welcome," said Nasser Mohammed Hassan, leading the way through Bateis Health Centre’s small consulting room packed with mothers in black abayas and their sickly children. He showed his three visitors into a quiet room at the back where a group of men and women sat waiting.
Established in 1975 by the local community, using their own funds, the Centre is a place of welcome and care. Even through years of conflict and unrest in the region it has remained open, although with fewer patients at times when supplies have run low.
“Last summer there were only about ten consultations a day,” explained Nasser, Director of the Centre. “Now as many as 80 people come here daily.”
The Centre’s change in fortune is due in part to the support it has received from the ICRC since mid-2012. But it is also due in large measure to the dedication and loyalty of Nasser and his 14 staff, and to the unflagging solidarity of local citizens, several of whom were present that morning.
There was Hussein and Walid Ali, retired military officers, Salim, a teacher, Saleh, a medical assistant at Al Razi (the referral hospital in nearby Jaar) and Faysal, a retired civil servant – all of them men of a certain age and of good standing in the community. The four women who were present sat a little apart: Amina and Bushera, teachers in the local school, and alongside them two of the Centre’s three trained midwives, Khamisa and Saeeda.
"I became the Director in 1995," commented Nasser, a soft-spoken man in his late forties. "The Ministry of Public Health asked me to work in Al Razi hospital," he added, "but I refused. I trained in Aden and worked in several different places after I qualified. But I am from Bateis and I wanted to come home to do something for my people."
It was the motivation of the Health Centre staff and the solidarity of the local community that impressed the ICRC when it was considering how to offer its support – this, plus the difficulty the Centre was having in procuring medicines and supplies during a period of great insecurity.
At that time, in addition to servicing a catchment area of around 17,000 residents, the Centre was offering its services to displaced families who had fled their conflict-affected villages.
The ICRC’s support to Bateis was formalized through a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Public Health and Population. Its assistance includes a monthly supply of drugs, dressings and other medical items for the primary health-care programme, on-the-job staff training, clinical supervision and health education. The training is provided by the ICRC's Health Officer, Dr Samah Abdulmajeed, and other colleagues based in Aden. It was Dr Samah who made the original assessment of the Centre in July 2012.
The Bateis Centre is one of 12 government-run medical facilities supported by the Red Cross all over Yemen. Although small in size, and rather nondescript from the outside with a dry, yellow garden and wilting flowers, it feels, on the inside, like a place where people can find hope as well as a cure.
As we sat talking, patients passed to and fro. A woman came by carrying a toddler and holding a small pink flower in her hand. Had she picked it to amuse her boy, I wondered, or simply because it was beautiful.
"That child is deaf and dumb," Nasser remarked. “His parents could take him to see a specialist in Aden, but until now they haven't done so. They say they don't know the procedure. But we will help them."
It was a remark typical of a man who is known for his compassion and for inspiring others in the community to feel the same way.
The need for awareness
The conversation shifted to women's issues, and to the fact that most women give birth at home, attended by one of the Centre's midwives.
Replying to a question from Dr Samah on why statistics for vaccination against tetanus are so low, Khamisa, the midwife, said, “If a woman has an injection she feels pain, so after the first time she doesn’t want to have another.”
"We need awareness and training so that women will understand the importance of vaccinations," broke in Faysal, waving a picture book. "We need booklets like this one, with illustrations. We should go from house to house, and talk to people.”
There and then the group agreed on the need to start training sessions in the local school, to inform pregnant women about tetanus, as a safeguard both for mothers and their unborn children.
As the discussion drew to a close, a woman and her daughter came shyly forward. The older woman explained that they were family members of a former ICRC employee. “We heard you were here, please come and have lunch,” she said. It was a gesture of kindness such as I had witnessed several times that morning in different ways. Bateis is indeed a special place I thought, as we left the compound.