Kurdish Diaspora doctors care for people displaced by ISIS

A team of Kurdish-born Swedish-trained physicians have returned to Iraq, attending to thousands of desperate people who survived ISIS attacks but face a grim future in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Doctors Nemam Ghafouri, Korshid Ibrahim and Naza Othman, all Swedish doctors with Kurdish roots, listen as a 15 year-old Yezidi girl talks about the trauma she’s been through.

In a crowded tent at the Bajet Kandela camp in Dohuk region of Iraqi Kurdistan, a fifteen year-old Yazidi girl tearfully recounts seeing her mother slaughtered by ISIS militants in front of her eyes. Dr Korshid Ibrahim, a Swedish doctor with Kurdish roots, listens attentively before prescribing medicine and an unusual treatment. He invites her to join his staff at the container medical clinic stationed at the camp in order to take her mind off her suffering. Korshid is part of the Kurdish Medical Association, a uniquely qualified medical team clinic working with internally displaced people.

Dr. Nemam Ghafouri consulting with Yezidi patient Base Suleyman at Bajet Kandela camp in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Amongst those finding shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Yezidis have some of the most gruesome stories to tell and a myriad of medical needs. Many suffered injuries and emotional distress after witnessing massacres, kidnappings and the destruction of their villages.

The Bajet Kandela camp in Dohuk province is home to 13,500 displaced Yezidis— just a fraction of the 1.8 million displaced people now sheltering in Iraqi Kurdistan after ISIS militants rampaged through Yazidi towns and villages this summer, killing and capturing countless people.

Dr Korshid and Dr Nemam and the team of diaspora doctors, born in the Kurdish region and trained in Sweden, have returned to Kurdistan to deliver medicine and care to the neediest patients. Between them they speak two Kurdish languages as well as Arabic, English and Swedish. They provide an important function, offering care outside of Iraq’s overstretched and under-equipped public hospitals.

Shereen Khalil, 80, cares for her nephews after their mother was killed when a bomb struck the house during the ISIS attack on their Yazidi village. Photo by Jodi Hiton

Rotating in from Sweden for weeks at a time, the doctors work long hours without taking pay. They have raised thousands of Swedish Kroner through donations, but funds are quickly exhausted paying for medical supplies and aid and distributing salaries to their local staff.

Wild-haired children, some barefoot, play nearby in a ditch dotted with scraps of tissue and human feces. The toilets are few and some opt for the outdoors over a crowded outhouse. The doctors have been on alert for outbreaks of cholera and other diseases linked with sanitation, but thus far, no epidemics have emerged. They have seen cases of congenital diseases including a woman and daughter with thyroid goiters in addition to the ordinary cases of viral and bacterial infections plus an unusually high rate of tuberculosis endemic in parts of Iraq.

The medical team run a container clinic where as many as four medical staff see patients all day long, usually two general practitioners, a pediatrician and a nurse.

Pediatrician Dr. Mohammad Sayid, a Syrian Kurd, checking a young patient in the clinic at Bajet Kandela Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Jodi Hilton

On the opposite side of the camp, 18 year-old Hadiya Qasim’s splayed legs are covered in a flimsy blanket. She is unable to walk and has lost sensation in her leg, after falling as she ran from ISIS. She later re-injured herself when she saw a bearded man in the hospital, who she mistook for an ISIS fighter.

Dr. Nemam says the injury was misdiagnosed in an Iraqi public hospital. The doctors there took x-rays but didn’t identify the fracture. Weeks later, doctors at a different hospital suspected a back injury and performed an MRI scan on her back, but seeing nothing of concern released her.

A month later she was hospitalized a third time. At that point, doctors diagnosed her with appendicitis and performed what Dr. Nemam says was probably an unnecessary surgery.

Dr. Nemam Ghafouri with Hadiya Qasim, 18, who suffered from a hip fracture and was misdiagnosed at the public hospital. Photo by Jodi Hilton

“One of the main problems is quality control of the local doctors,” she explains. When the Swedish doctors heard about the case, they accompanied Hadiya back to the hospital where more x-rays were performed. Soon after, she was transferred to the Swedish Specialist Hospital in Erbil, which is supporting the teams. There she has been receiving physical therapy and recovering well.

Dr Nemam says that diagnostic equipment, including portable x-ray and ultrasound machines are needed now to save money, sending patients from refugee camps to local hospitals.

Though the clinic is fully operational, they still have many needs, including an Internet satellite uplink, in order to crosscheck information against online databases.

The doctors are aspiring to become an official NGO – they have already raised money and received $40,000 from Khalsa Aid for a bakery in the camp, where a handful of IDP workers churn out hundreds of kilos of bread each morning. They have been distributing cradles to the numerous newborn babies and providing clothing care-packages to orphans. They plan to open a school and a sewing workshop and are trying to assist families with disabled children.

Cradles being distributed for newborns by the Kurdish-Swedish doctors at Bajet Kandela Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Jodi Hilton

The Swedish physicians understand the pain of displacement. “I was born a refugee myself,” says Dr Fatah Atroshi.

His family was among the tens of thousands of Kurds who fled to Iran to escape Saddam Hussein’s massacres. As a child he lived in a tent in a refugee camp while his parents constructed a simple mud-brick house. They eventually received asylum in Sweden, where Dr. Fatah went on to study medicine. For the last three years he and the other diaspora doctors have been talking about a project in Kurdistan, which was put into place this summer.

“This part of the world really needs development,” explains Dr. Fatah. “If I don’t do it, who will?”

Visit the diaspora doctors on Facebook at Joint Help for Kurdistan

Jodi Hilton is a photojournalist reporting from the Middle East and Balkans. She’s collaborating with Beehive to create an online platform using social media to fundraise for humanitarian aid.

Jodi Hilton is a photojournalist who has been covering stories of migration from Asia to the Middle East to Europe and in-between.