Seeing home through the eyes of a volunteer

September 4, 2018 by Michelle Bookless

(SEPTEMBER 4, 2018) This summer, University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine medical student Hanaa Shihadeh '21 had a chance to see her native country of Jordan through a different set of eyes - those of a Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) volunteer.

Hanaa Shihadeh, right, a medical student in the UVM Larner College of Medicine Class of 2021, poses with a child refugee at the Al-Zaatari refugee camp on the border of Jordan and Syria. (Courtesy photo)

(SEPTEMBER 4, 2018)

"Jordan is my home...This summer, though, I got to see a side of Jordan I've never seen."

This summer, University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine medical student Hanaa Shihadeh '21 had a chance to see her native country of Jordan through a different set of eyes - those of a Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) volunteer.

Shihadeh has wanted to volunteer with SAMS since she heard about it from her older sister, a physician in New York City, who has been volunteering for the organization for several years. Unfortunately, the organization requires its non-physician volunteers to be fluent in Arabic and to have a certain level of medical education to work in the refugee camps it serves. Shihadeh was only able to check one of the necessary boxes until she completed her first year of medical school last spring.

In July, Shihadeh traveled with SAMS to complete a month-long mission trip working in a refugee camp at the border between Jordan and Syria. The Al-Zaatari camp is the second largest refugee camp in the world with 82,000 Syrian refugees and Shihadeh says the experience was eye-opening. Each day, she was assigned to a different role; some days she was triaging patients and on others she worked alongside a non-Arabic speaking physician, translating for the doctor and the patients they assisted.

The breadth of experience she gained on the journey was expansive. During this trip alone, SAMS provided 5,000 services including primary care, ophthalmology, and dental services. By the second day, they'd already completed 800 surgeries.

Shihadeh said her work in the camp each day made a huge impact on her. In addition to a lack of resources and medications, which made the work they were doing even more difficult, Shihadeh says it was the personal stories that affected her most.

"One day, a little girl, maybe 6-years-old, just hung out with me all day," she recalled. "I finally asked her where her family was and she said her dad had died, her mom left her and her brothers, and now her grandfather is taking care of her."

Despite the challenges of the experience, Shihadeh says she would love to join SAMS in the future, as a doctor. "One of the main reasons I chose a career in medicine is to be able to provide health care to those in need," she said. "They lost everything; the least we can do is let them keep their health."


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