In northern Iraq, many war refugees are subject to torture, abuse and injury yet receive minimal resources or access to medical care. After he witnessed the dire need for aid on a service trip, Aaron Epstein (MED ’18) formed the Global Surgical and Medical Support Group, a coalition of medical students and professionals, which made its first trip to the region this summer to provide free medical services and education in a refugee camp.
During the few weeks that Epstein and his team were at the camp, they performed surgical operations for injured refugees and taught medical techniques to local doctors. In addition, the team provided psychiatric services for the refugees. Epstein could not provide specific details about the composition of the team and timing of the trip for security reasons.
Epstein said that he was first inspired to form GSMSG after he travelled to northern Iraq last fall, where he witnessed the gravity of the refugee crisis as populations fleeing the Islamic State group began to settle in Kurdish territories. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are 271,143 refugees residing in Iraq as of December 2014.
“[We saw] the need for the services that GSMSG could provide from seeing firsthand the obvious inadequacies in medical services available to populations that had fled [the Islamic State group],” Epstein wrote in an email to The Hoya. “There is an overwhelming medical burden in the Kurdish territories where most of the refugees have fled from the sectarian slaughter.”
When he returned, Epstein formed GSMSG, recruited surgeons and medical volunteers and raised funds for the group’s first trip.
Epstein contacted representatives from Iraqi organizations, such as Health Outreach to the Middle East, to push for Georgetown Medical School to support the initiative.
Regional Representative of HOME Janan Zora wrote a letter to GMS predating Epstein’s trip.
“While we have tried our best to accommodate the needs of the population, our medical system has become overwhelmed,” Zora wrote.
Regional Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Fr. Michael Zammit, S.J., also sent a letter to University President John J. DeGioia, citing the lack of basic resources in the region.
“Basic needs such as food, shelter, water and sanitation, [and] health care are what … refugees, are mostly in need of,” Zammit wrote in the letter, of which The Hoya received a copy. “As often happens, the gaps in all these areas can be significant. Gaps in health services are related to life and death. I can assure you that the contribution of GMS would fill a huge need, since the existing gaps are huge.”
The initiative gained traction, leading GMS to help promote the cause and recruit surgeons in senior positions to participate as volunteers.
Epstein assembled a group of individuals from diverse backgrounds to provide a broader range of skills to the local doctors.
“We had a range of medical skill sets all the way from board certified surgeons … to neuropsychiatrists to fire department medics, essentially offering a full range of medical, surgical and psychiatric services,” Epstein wrote.
According to Epstein, medical professionals in the area were eager to learn from his team.
“While one of our surgeons was performing a simple hernia repair, the operating room was absolutely packed with local medical professionals trying to see how the procedure was being done,” Epstein wrote.
However, Epstein said that the team provided help outside the medical scope, as it helped raise the morale and sense of security among refugees.
“I asked our local liaisons why there were literally dozens and dozens of people in line to be seen by our doctors even if they [had] nothing wrong with them. The reply was they know they have nothing wrong with them, but they just want to hear it from an American doctor,” Epstein wrote. “Peace of mind about their health goes a long way in a population that has lost literally everything and whose future is unclear.”
Deirdre Byrne, a retired U.S. Army colonel and doctor who went on the trip, said Epstein’s passion made a positive impact on the community.
“Aaron is the remarkable force behind this inspiring effort,” Byrne wrote in an email to The Hoya. “God works beautifully through him.”
Zora also praised GSMSG for its efforts to rebuild the country’s medical infrastructure and provide medical care and renewed hope.
“We believe [Epstein’s] unique background and the goodness and the charity of the people he interacts with will be able to help see our population through some of our hardest times,” Zora wrote in his letter to GMS.
Epstein said that the next step for GSMSG will be to establish mobile medical clinics to serve the thousands of refugees outside the camps who lack access to the main city and its medical surgical centers. Through these efforts, he hopes that the medical infrastructure in northern Iraq can become self-sufficient and eventually provide in-depth medical and surgical care to the burgeoning population of refugees in the area.
“If we can bring in the medical expertise, education and supplies necessary … the locals [will be] able to take care of their entire population,” Epstein wrote. “This is the marathon we are running and every step, every medical trip of experts and supplies, is movement in the right direction.”
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