A Time of ‘Helios:’ A Diary of Thanks

February 28, 2008

By Gulnara Akhundova

Gulnara served as Public Affairs Manager for International Medical Corps in Azerbaijan from 2004-2008.

Laughter ricochets off playground equipment, as the children weave in and out of each other in the grassy schoolyard. Like any recess, teachers watch from the sidelines, waiting to soothe children with tearful scraped knees and grass-stained elbows. To any passerby, the recess is like any other, but this class, Kindergarten Number 4, is unique, as it gives 60 special-needs children in Yevlakh, Azerbaijan the opportunity to learn, play, and develop alongside their peers. The Child Development Center is the only one of its kind in rural Azerbaijan. Created by International Medical Corps, the center provides these children with not only a place to learn, but also with the foundation to integrate into the mainstream school system and society as a whole.

“I know integration is the right choice for my child and for my family. My son is doing wonderfully. He’s making continual gains, he is interacting with his peers and best of all, he feels good about himself,” says Nuraddin, father of a Child Development Center student. “Before my son was alone at home and a specialized institution was the only option that we had. But I want my child to be around other children so that he can be integrated.”

The Child Development Center is one of the many institutions and programs International Medical Corps has given Azerbaijan in its eight-year relationship. It is also one of the many programs visited by myself and two of my colleagues, Tahir and Dr. Kamala Suleymanova, in a nationwide tour of International Medical Corps’s achievements in Azerbaijan. Watching the children play, Tahir adds reflectively, “I am proud to be part of International Medical Corps. This organization has brought so much happiness and joy to children’s lives.”

When International Medical Corps entered in 2000, the country was still struggling to repair from years of violence that left 25,000 dead and 800,000 displaced across Azerbaijan and its neighbor, Armenia. After eight years of hard work, we are able to travel to villages throughout the Azerbaijani countryside and witness how International Medical Corps improved the health care and education landscapes. Reaching out to the country’s most underserved communities, International Medical Corps has rehabilitated more than 70 health facilities, trained approximately 3,000 health professionals, and delivered health education to more than 100,000 community members.

Now, with medical outreach that benefits 1.5 million and rural special-needs education in-place, we will close its doors to pass these sustainable programs on to the people of Azerbaijan. As we prepare to leave International Medical Corps’ downtown headquarters in the capital, Baku, country director Dr. Harsh Sule says, “International Medical Corps is closing its operations in Azerbaijan, but leaving behind the core capacity that will guarantee the continuation of successful reforms in the health sector.”

On the road, oil derricks whiz by on either side of the flat, barren land lining the highway as we drive to western Azerbaijan along the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, where International Medical Corps has worked in 45 communities to bring sustainable health and educational change. One of the longest in the world, the BTC pipeline can transport up to one million barrels of crude oil per day through Georgia and Turkey to western markets.

Wedged between Russia and Iran, the Republic of Azerbaijan has staged massive renovations in the past two decades, as it transformed from a Soviet Republic to an independent state, and from civil war to peace. As one of the elite few with access to Caspian Sea oil, Azerbaijan has evolved to become an energy powerhouse in the global arena, sparking direct foreign investment and economic development throughout the country and particularly in its capital, Baku.

While driving, Tahir reflects on how International Medical Corps helped to ensure that his family received quality health care after the war forced his family to flee their home. A part of the Azerbaijan program since its infancy, Tahir connected with International Medical Corps in 2000 at the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp where his family had resettled. “It is not only because I found employment during hard times. Rather, it is because International Medical Corps has measurably improved the health status of populations in communities, and my adopted village is amongst them,” he says as we pull into the village of Yeni Kend in Azerbaijan’s Kurdamir district to visit a young girl and her father at their home.

Isolated in rural Azerbaijan, the young girl has left her village only a few times in her life. Over traditional tea, she shares that the most unforgettable venture outside of her village was to Baku, where International Medical Corps’ vision project enabled her to have eye surgery that completely changed her life. “Thanks to all the people who organized this project, which returns to people life and hope,” says Sudaba’s father. “As a father, I am kneeling before these people.”

After tea, we continue our tour, stopping in another small town touched by International Medical Corps, Yevlakh, where a state-of-the-art emergency care department provides around-the-clock urgent care for the region’s otherwise isolated residents. One of the four emergency medical centers built along the BTC route, the facility is staffed by International Medical Corps-trained emergency personnel who have the modern medical skills and equipment to save lives independent of health care facilities in the capital, located 400 kilometers away. At the time of our arrival, an ambulance delivers an immobilized patient suffering from a severe head injury. The staff’s role in his survival is clear and recognized by the leader of the Yevlakh emergency care department. “This is quality pre-hospital care that saved the patient’s life,” he says.

Forging through a minefield of potholes and back-jarring ruts, we conclude our tour the following day at Ismayilli, a picturesque region nestled high in the Caucasus Mountains. Here, the pressure to marry is high and the knowledge of reproductive health is low, as the majority of women are housewives with little to no awareness about contraceptive options. “It’s hard to believe, but there are women who have more than ten grandchildren but have no idea how their reproductive organs work,” says International Medical Corps training coordinator, Dr. Kamala. “A healthy woman ensures healthy families.”

Since 2000, International Medical Corps has measurably improved women and children’s health in Azerbaijan. “I remember monitoring a health education session in this community. It was a cold winter day and International Medical Corps health workers had to spend extra working hours, as the audience’s interest for the subject was so high that they did not want to stop the session,” Dr. Kamala says.

Wrapped in brightly colored cloth, a mother approaches us with her healthy baby boy. Dr. Kamala introduces her, “This woman was one of the session’s participants. Now she is a community volunteer helping women and their families stay healthy.”

Ending our tour of International Medical Corps’ operations throughout Azerbaijan, a sense of nostalgia and pride drifts through the car, as Dr. Kamala, Tahir, and I exchange stories about our experiences as members of the International Medical Corps community. “You must love people and feel their problems. Otherwise, you cannot be a part of International Medical Corps,” Tahir concludes.

To this, all three of us could not agree more, as we each said our silent ‘helios,’ or thanks, to all of the people in Azerbaijan who helped International Medical Corps create far-reaching, sustainable change that will continue to provide education for our special-needs children and expansive health care that reaches all our citizens.


For 30 years, International Medical Corps has worked to relieve the suffering of those impacted by war, natural disaster and disease by delivering vital health care services that focus on training, helping devastated populations return to self-reliance.