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Transcending Religious Boundaries ‒ Tzu Chi Jordan Holds First Free Clinic at Azraq Refugee Camp

On the 27th December 2016, under the auspices of Prince Hassan of Jordan, Tzu Chi Jordan successfully completed its first free clinic in Azraq refugee camp in central-eastern Jordan. This inaugural free clinic, which brought much needed relief to 170 patients, offered a range of medical services, including dentistry, internal medicine, surgery, paediatrics, and pharmacy. Among the Tzu Chi volunteers that served at the free clinic was a young engineer from Germany, Benjamin, who experienced a life-changing encounter in serving the impoverished refugees.

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As the Tzu Chi Jordan medical relief team traversed the seemingly endless stretch of desert highway in their coach, all they could see on either side of the road was an endless vista of desert dunes. Occasionally, they might see sporadic black rocky outcrops standing out against the dry desert landscape. Noticing the low hanging, dark clouds in the sky that looked pregnant with rain, as of one mind, the entire team immediately started to pray for good weather.

After the vehicle had traversed several miles, much to everyone’s joy and amazement, the bright sun broke through the dark clouds in the eastern skies, and a beautiful rainbow arched across the western skies ‒ a rare sight in the desert. It seemed as if Heaven was moved by the sincere prayers of the Tzu Chi team and granted them the blessings of good weather. Their bus was shooting straight towards the Azraq Refugee Camp in central-eastern Jordan, where they would hold their first free clinic there. The camp is a temporary refuge for Syrian refugees escaping from the violence of the Syrian Civil War into neighbouring Jordan.

First Free Clinic Sows Good Seeds in Refugee Camp Containers

The Tzu Chi free clinic was held on the 27th December 2016, at the Azraq Refugee Camp’s women’s centre, which was housed in freight containers. Originally, the Tzu Chi team had planned to loan only one container for free dental services, however, the women’s centre had instead generously offered five containers for other medical services to be included as well, such as internal medicine, surgery, paediatrics, and pharmacy. The entire medical team was pleased with the new arrangements as the centre was spacious and the containers were kept clean and in good condition by the locals.

“The women’s centre is used for various activities. Since the Tzu Chi medical team is holding a free clinic here, we did our best to provide the venue. We are very pleased that Tzu Chi has come to help the refugees,” said Maher Smeran, who is in charge of the centre.

As soon as the free clinic started opening its doors, patients began arriving in increasing numbers. The earliest arrivals were the women and children, to be followed by the men.

Volunteers at the registration and health screening area soon had their hands full with the incoming flood of patients. In the light of Islamic practice and traditions, the men and women had to be segregated into two separate queues, and Maher Smeran was quickly put in-charge of handling the incoming male registrations.

Honouring Local Culture and Respecting Local Traditions

Queuing among the males was 40-year-old Naser Halil, who came to the clinic because of an upset stomach and nausea. He was attended by Dr Zheng Shun Xian, who hails from Taiwan. Dr Zheng, who doesn’t understand Arabic, was able to communicate with Naser effectively through various combinations of hand signs and gestures, and as a result Mr Naser relaxed and was able to flash a smile of relief that the foreign doctor understood his ailments.

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As the patients queuing to receive treatment gradually swelled in numbers, volunteers at the registration counter had their hands full, meticulously checking the records of every patient. (Photo credit: Tzu Chi Taiwan website)

Halfway through his consultation, Dr Zheng suddenly stood up; pointed at Naser, and did a scratching action. Naser nodded in reply, pointing at his buttocks unabashedly. It was an aha moment for Dr Zheng who lightly slapped his own forehead and exclaimed, “So he actually has a pinworm infection. There is poor hygiene here and the locals have the custom of eating with their hands, that’s why…..”

Naser was very pleased with his consultation experience and thought that the doctor was very warm and kind; and best of all, the services were provided free of charge. He had fled from his war-torn homeland, Syria, together with his four children, to Jordan, traversing across the border in a vehicle with 50 other refugees. Presently, he is living with his family in the Azraq Refugee Camp. Fully aware there is little or no chance of returning to war-ravaged Syria, he does not even dare to ponder about the unforeseeable future.

“What do you mean when you say your whole body is suffering from inflammation?” Dr Chen Jian Hua asked a masked woman who was accompanied by her husband.

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Naser Halil( middle), came to the free clinic because of stomach pains and nausea. Dr Zheng, who isn’t conversant in Arabic, managed to calm the anxious patient down with animated gestures and empathetic eye contact. (Photo credit: Tzu Chi Taiwan website)

Her soft voice was barely audible through the veil, that it was only through the aid of an interpreter that Dr Chen finally understood her condition -- she had been feeling pain in her lower abdomen for four days.

With this realisation, Dr Chen asked the woman’s husband for permission to conduct a physical examination on her. Even though the husband knew of his wife’s intense suffering, he refused the doctor’s request. Out of respect for the local culture, Dr Chen had to restrict his consultation to purely asking about her symptoms. Although, he felt sorry about not being able to conduct a proper examination on the woman, he could only hope that her abdominal pains were not due to something more serious and that she would recover quickly.

Dr Xia Yi Ran, the head of the oral and maxillofacial department at Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital, always looked calm and composed throughout the entire medical mission. He shared his vivid memories of intense joy and emotions after a little Syrian girl kissed him on the cheek on the first day he arrived in Jordan with his team.

A Roman Catholic, Dr Xia expressed his deep gratitude to Tzu Chi, for giving him the opportunity to participate in a truly significant overseas relief mission, and even praised the Buddhist NGO for its inclusiveness in allowing volunteers of different faiths to participate in its relief operations.

First Hand Experience in Relief Work, No Longer an Observer

Long queues formed quickly outside each of the containers, with different medical specialties. The dental clinic was one of the most well-equipped, and every member in the team worked feverishly right from the start due to the flood of patients queuing for their free dental treatments. The clinic was also constantly filled with horrific screams and loud cries from frightened young patients receiving dental treatments.

33-year-old German national, Benjamin, volunteered at the dental section throughout the free clinic. As an engineer by profession, he was able to set up a dental chair unit after viewing just one demonstration.

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Young German volunteer, Benjamin, who personally experienced medical relief in action, had a life-changing encounter through this experience. (Photo credit: Tzu Chi Taiwan website)

Although he couldn’t speak Arabic, Benjamin comforted nervous patients by holding their hands and did what he could to help. A dentist, who was impressed by the young man’s efforts, couldn’t help but praised him for his intelligence, hard work, kindness, and pro-activeness.

Benjamin got connected with Tzu Chi through Wu Mei Zhu, a volunteer from Jordan, and first participated in a relief rice distribution event (organized by Tzu Chi Jordan) in August 2016. When he learned that Tzu Chi was going to hold this free clinic, he specially took leave to join the event. In addition, he even brought 60kg of winter clothing that he had collected to distribute to the refugees.

Benjamin’s personal involvement in the free clinic and aid distribution event was a life-changing experience for him.

“A couple of years ago, while watching news about war and refugees on TV, I always felt distant and unrelated to those tragic events. But after I personally witnessed the suffering of these people through relief work, I knew in my heart that I could no longer remain a casual observer,” he shared with much conviction.

Although he had no idea when the war in Syria would end, and when the refugees might return to their homeland, Benjamin vowed, “I will keep on helping, and never ever stop!”

Moments before the free clinic’s scheduled ending, the clear skies turned dark quickly and a cold wind started blowing through the Refugee Camp. Before long, heavy rain started pelting the free clinic site. However, in the midst of the heavy storm, busy dentists were still treating their last two patients, and two pharmacists in the dispensary were still busy at work, grinding pills into powder form for the young patients. Right from the start to the end, the dedicated pharmacists worked non-stop to grind pills into powder for the many young patients that the medical team had served. They practically had little or no time to rest.

Within the span of three hours, the Tzu Chi medical team treated about 170 refugees. Besides operating the free clinic, another team of Tzu Chi volunteers headed to a school, about ten-minutes’ drive from the women’s centre, and distributed stationery, soccer balls, and winter clothing to some 1,300 elated refugee children. Volunteers also brought joy and laughter to the children by leading them through lively sign language songs and movements.

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