Bringing Health Care Home

A path seasoned with wrinkled tomatoes and dried, prickly bushes leads to the home of an Iraqi refugee family. The road is bare and uniformly beige lined with rows of abandoned greenhouses and covered in a layer of dust.  A young man and his son introduce themselves and lead us through the rows, to their home. We arrive at a hand-built structure roofed with a combination of green tarp and grape vines. Inside, a cradle – constructed from a small crate and layered with newspaper – hangs from the top of the entrance room by four pieces of unraveling cord.

It is International Medical Corps’ first visit to this Iraqi refugee family in Jbeil, a town in northern Lebanon. The young Iraqi father, Nijar, answers standard questions about his family – the age of the baby girl, whether the young boy is in school, and the man’s profession in Iraq. These are typical questions that International Medical Corps asks each new refugee family during Mobile Medical Unit (MMU) outreach visits.

During tomato season, Nijar is able to find work by farming tomatoes, but for the larger part of the year he remains unemployed. Iraqi refugees are not legally allowed to work in Lebanon, leaving many without a stable or adequate income source. Thousands of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon face similar circumstances: unemployed and living in insecure homes with unclean water and limited access to quality health care.

To expand access to low-cost, quality health care services to vulnerable Iraqi refugees like Nijar, International Medical Corps launched its MMU program across Lebanon in 2007. The five MMUs complement the services provided by International Medical Corps-supported clinics, and are essential in providing outreach and access to refugees throughout the country. Each MMU travels to Iraqi homes in teams of three, consisting of an Iraqi community mobilizer who locates newly-arrived Iraqi refugees and is familiar with the region and the community, a doctor who performs complete physical check-ups for all family members, and an International Medical Corps health officer who informs refugee families about the services available, including medical consultations, free medications, laboratory tests, vaccination services, and routine physical examinations.

As part of every MMU visit, International Medical Corps distributes hygiene kits, which include toothbrushes, washcloths, soap, and shampoo; age-appropriate baby kits to families with infants; and educational materials on topics such as breast-feeding, healthy hygiene practices, and water safety. “We used to use cloth instead of diapers, even though it is unsanitary, because we were unable to afford diapers or reach services being provided by other NGOs,” Nijar says. “But now, through International Medical Corps’ MMUs, we are receiving diapers and baby food to our home.”

MMU team members also work with pregnant women to develop health care delivery plans, urge parents to ensure that their children are vaccinated free of charge and in accordance with the Lebanese National Vaccination Policy at an International Medical Corps-supported clinic, and provide referrals for individuals requiring additional medical services.

International Medical Corps’ MMUs cover communities within five targeted, geographic locations throughout Lebanon on a weekly basis: Tyre and Nabatiyeh in the south of Lebanon, the poor suburbs of southern and eastern Beirut, and the vulnerable communities of Bekaa. According to International Medical Corps assessments, these areas have the largest concentrations of Iraqi refugees and are where International Medical Corps also supports eight primary health care clinics to ensure that vulnerable individuals and families have optimal access to support services.

The MMUs also conduct outreach visits to other regions in Lebanon, such as Tripoli, Hermel, and Akkar, to provide valuable assistance to areas with smaller numbers of Iraqi households. International Medical Corps’ MMUs provide widespread support and have assisted thousands of Iraqis with their primary health care needs. In the coming months, International Medical Corps will continue to extend MMU services to Iraqi refugees in locations across Lebanon.

At the end of the visit, Nijar and his family accept the hygiene and baby kits, and thank International Medical Corps. The MMU doctor advises Nijar to take his son to receive an MRI that will be fully paid for by International Medical Corps. “For years, I have been unable to take my son to a doctor to look into his condition because I cannot afford it,” says Nijar. “International Medical Corps brought assistance to our home, and now my son is being cared for.”

The young father promises to follow through on the team’s advice, and informs the MMU that he will soon take his children and family to a clinic for vaccinations and regular check-ups.

Father and son walk us to our car and smile contently as they wave us goodbye.

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