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Portrait of our work: Zahra’s Story

"I had just got ready for work when my mother told me we had to run…”

The story that Zahra tells is similar to that told by thousands of others. Tragedies just like it play out again and again every day across the Middle East. “At first, I thought we were safe from ISIS in our village – protected,” she recounts in hushed tones: “I had just got ready for work when my mother told me we had to run. I had to change – take off my makeup and put on discreet clothes so that I wouldn’t stand out. Then we went.” From Sinjar, they made it to Erbil and fled on in the direction of Dohuk. They escaped with their lives, but little else: “We didn’t pack anything. I couldn’t take my credentials or important papers, not even photo albums. We left all of our memories behind.”

That was August 2014. Now Zahra, 27 and a trained pharmacist, is helping other refugees as the manager of the health centre pharmacy in the Bersevi II refugee camp– one of two in the region supported by Malteser International. In Sinjar, Samira used to work as a member of a large team. In Bersevi II, she has fewer colleagues and much more to do. She has not yet had the chance to come to grips with everything that has happened, and consider all that she has left behind: “There is no time to think over things here. I simply have to deal with patients and give the best I can.” 

In the last few months, her work in the health centre has been extremely difficult. Every day, 300 new patients were coming to the centre: just some of the countless number of refugees constantly forced to flee – often from one place of safety to another – by the tides of armed conflict which have gripped the Middle East. In the Pharmacy, there was a great problem in organising regular delivery of the required medications. Since then, however, things have improved. Now around 150 new patients come each day requiring treatment and, not least thanks to Samira’s hard work, are able to receive medication there and then. Better organisation ensures that a constant supply of necessary drugs is in place.

Alongside the new cases, there are, as in any medical centre, emergencies and constant numbers of the chronically ill. There are also those who come to the health centre who are sick of the monotony of life in the camps. Many have suffered much, and there is little provision for dealing with the severe mental and emotional trauma that the refugees have gone through. In this respect, Zahra is one of the lucky ones - she has discovered that her job has provided her with a practical way of dealing with the reality of life as a refugee: “Since we ran, I have been living a new, completely different life. I am trying to see it positively. My motto is a quote from Audrey Hepburn: ‘As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others’.” 

Across the region, the total number of those displaced continues to grow rapidly, and Malteser International plans to open a further medical centre in Northern Iraq in April to help meet the huge need for basic healthcare. We have been working in the region since summer 2014, and up to now, around 23,000 patients have benefited from our services.

Help us to keep supporting Zahra, and bring health and dignity to those who have lost everything: 


Read more about our work with refugees in Iraq and the Middle East

Story: Carmen Wolf / Conor Heathcote

Last updated: April 2015


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