Turk­ish med­i­cal vol­un­teers win hearts in Africa

Daily Sabah (Turkey) - - National -

“White doc­tors are here”, they wel­comed us cheer­ing,” Bil­ge­han Gün­tekin re­calls an ear­lier visit to Ethio­phia. Gün­tekin, an oto­laryn­gol­o­gist, is founder and pres­i­dent of Friends of All Africa As­so­ci­a­tion (TADD), es­tab­lished by a group of vol­un­teers in 2015. With doc­tors in its board, Is­tan­bul-based non-profit fo­cuses on health projects for dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties in Africa.

Gün­tekin de­cided to or­ga­nize a vol­un­teer mis­sion af­ter he worked as a vol­un­teer in Chad four years ago. This visit was prompted by a photo that im­pressed him. That photo was Pulitzer-win­ning Vul­ture and Lit­tle Girl by Kevin Carter shot in South Su­dan in 1994. “This was like a sign of an end of hu­man­ity,” he says. Af­ter a ten­day stint in Chad, he de­cided to do more for Africans in need and es­tab­lished the as­so­ci­a­tion. “I ex­am­ined some 1,000 pa­tients in ten days. It was too many and it was too hot in the ‘health cen­ter’ we worked at. It was ac­tu­ally a build­ing with­out a floor and elec­tric­ity. It wasn’t fur­nished and only mod­ern equip­ment was the ones we brought from Turkey. Pa­tients were very grate­ful. They were cry­ing and bless­ing us. They were poor but not com­plain­ing of their lives,” he re­calls.

Start­ing out as a med­i­cal aid project, TADD to­day reaches out to Uganda, Su­dan, Niger, Tan­za­nia, Ethio­phia and other coun­tries with dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties, through a di­verse ar­ray of projects. Vol­un­teers drill wells for ac­cess to clean wa­ter, in­stall so­lar pan­els in ar­eas with­out ac­cess to elec­tric­ity, hand out live­stock to sup­port im­pov­er­ished farm­ers, pro­vide scholarship to stu­dents and fi­nance the care of or­phans in African coun­tries.

“They are in dire need of health ser­vices. Our team was in Ethio­phia’s Afar re­cently, a state with a pop­u­la­tion of more than 5 mil­lion peo­ple. Yet, they only have one doc­tor serv­ing in each med­i­cal field at a hos­pi­tal at the cen­ter of the state. Peo­ple lined up for med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion when we ar­rived there,” he says, not­ing that some pa­tients trav­eled as far as from towns lo­cated some 400 kilo­me­ters from the hos­pi­tal. He says that al­though they in­creased aid projects, Africa needs self-suf­fi­ciency. “They need more hos­pi­tals and trained med­i­cal per­son­nel,” he un­der­lines. Thus, TADD fo­cuses its grants to stu­dents to those pur­su­ing a ca­reer in medicine. “The hu­man­ity is in­debted to Africa. We have to help them,” he says.

Dr. Ser­hat Onur, an urol­o­gist and a board mem­ber of TADD, “tricked” into vis­it­ing Africa in 2008 by his friends promis­ing “a sa­fari.” His doc­tor friends were ac­tu­ally there for a health char­ity, to treat poor pa­tients. See­ing “tough” con­di­tions, Onur vowed “not to re­turn.” Yet, he says that grate­ful looks of chil­dren he treated made him to come back again. “Since then, I made 23 trips. It has been a pas­sion for me,” he says. Onur per­formed some 1,050 surg­eries for pa­tients in var­i­ous African coun­tries since he joined TADD.

“They were shy of us at first, be­cause we were white guys af­ter all. Once they get used to our vis­its, they em­braced us,” Onur says of his pa­tients. “They have a per­cep­tion that white for­eign­ers are there to ex­ploit them. We ended this. They were sur­prised to see ‘white Mus­lims’ help­ing them,” he re­counts.

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