This past March, Pakistani-Canadian Dr. Fozia Alvi was preparing to leave for Bangladesh on her fourth humanitarian mission to Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, where about one million Rohingya live in miserable squalor in the world’s largest refugee camp.
March, of course, is when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, quickly racking up hundreds, then thousands, of deaths every day. Forced to cancel her medical mission, Alvi was still determined to help the refugees.
COVID-19, she knew, would be devastating for the overcrowded Rohingya, already suffering chronic malnutrition, living in shacks cobbled together with tarpaulin and bamboo, and sharing toilet and cleaning facilities with numerous other families.
“I was hearing from the local doctors that the refugees were getting COVID-19 symptoms, but not being diagnosed as they couldn’t do testing. People were dying, isolated in their tents,” says Alvi, who trained and worked in the United States from 2000 to 2007—where she undertook a psychiatry internship at the State University of New York, then spent five years as a physician in Wisconsin, including three years at a rural medical clinic in the town of Wautoma.
Alvi, who now works as a family physician in Calgary, Alta., devised a way to help the Rohingya: She would fund teams of three, consisting of a Bangladeshi doctor, a nurse and social worker, who would visit each individual family and test and treat those with COVID-19.
“I decided I just couldn’t sit around and watch their demise. With the Rohingya, I felt the pain of those people; their suffering keeps on driving me.”
Alvi’s initiative, however, required money to pay the salaries of the team members, as well as fund medicines and personal protective equipment (PPE). Alvi began searching for organizations that could support the initiative financially and logistically.
She found two groups that could make her idea a reality. Avaaz, one of the world’s largest online activist networks, awarded her $200,000. And the Turkish Red Crescent (Red Cross), one of the few NGOs still on the ground providing humanitarian aid to the Rohingya, will oversee the creation and monitoring of the three-person mobile teams.
Alvi says the teams are especially important for the Rohingya women, many of whom are single mothers who will not leave their tents to obtain medical care, food or firewood for fear of sexual violence.
“They don’t have any men with them, so they are not able to go get the food rations for themselves and for the children,” says Alvi, who developed post traumatic stress disorder following her 2018 medical mission to help the Rohingya—the result of listening to endless stories of gang rape and other brutalities from her patients.
The Avaaz grant came as the Rohingya marked a grim three-year anniversary—August 25: when military and armed civilians in Buddhist-majority Myanmar drove 740,000 Rohingya, the country’s Muslim minority, out of the country, committing mass murder, rape and arson. The United Nations called it a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Most fled to neighboring Bangladesh—which was already hosting upwards of 500,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled persecution dating back to the 1990s, according to Human Rights Watch. Since then, Myanmar authorities have failed to ensure that the one million refugees can return home safely.
Alvi says that the Rohingya are becoming increasingly hopeless and are fleeing the refugee camps, sailing in wooden boats to try to find sanctuary at ports in Malaysia or other parts of Bangladesh. Many have perished at sea.
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The World Health Organization reported in June there were 2,456 COVID-19 cases in Cox’s Bazar District, while 50 Rohingya tested positive for the virus. Alvi says that the number indicates a lack of testing in the refugee camps, and is likely much higher.
COVID-19 transmission is exacerbated by illiteracy among the Rohingya.
“They say that it’s some sort of curse from God,” Alvi says.
Educating the refugees about social distancing and cleanliness will be part of the mandate of the three-person medical teams, she adds.
As a complement to the three-person COVID medical teams, Alvi is also establishing an online telemedicine platform, allowing Bangladeshi physicians to link up to counterparts in the West who specialize in such fields as infectious diseases, internal medicine and pediatrics—thus providing treatment advice and guidance should they encounter a case of COVID-19.
In Bangladesh, the Rohingya refugees—more than 50 percent of whom are children—have been entirely dependent upon foreign aid. Alvi, in her previous medical missions, considered raising money to help the women create microbusinesses in the camp, or at least till tiny gardens to help feed their youngsters. But the Bangladeshi government cracks down on such initiatives, Alvi told Ms.
“The Royingya are not allowed to do any sort of businesses or create any sort of jobs, as the government wants to send them back to Myanmar.”
Alvi, who moved to Calgary in 2007 with her three children and husband, a petroleum engineer who works in Alberta’s oil and gas industry, has often acted on her deep humanitarian impulses.
In 2017, she personally financed and oversaw the opening of the $1 million 60-bed Iman Hospital, named after her daughter, in the Punjab district of her home country of Pakistan, where she earned her medical degree. She also helped raise money in 2018 for an orphanage for young female Syrians in the city of Şanlıurfa on the Turkey-Syrian border.
“What drives me is I was raised in the poor country of Pakistan and thought, ‘I have to give back.’ I believe that you are a human being first, and religion comes after.”