An Airdrie doctor who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 has recently opened a medical clinic for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in response to increasing demand for humanitarian assistance in the world’s largest refugee camp.
Dr. Fozia Alvi began her humanitarian work in Bangladesh in 2017 following an active push by Myanmar's government to rid themselves of the Muslim minority Rohingya population in Rakhine State, forcing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee their homes.
According to Alvi, the Buddhist-majority community – and especially the military government – began killing and burning down houses of the Rohingya people. Many Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh, leading to the establishment of the Kutupalong refugee camp.
“They have been subject to long-standing persecution for almost half a century,” Alvi said. “In August 2017, we started seeing images of those people crossing the border of Myanmar entering Bangladesh.”
Alvi said her role as a family physician in Airdrie equipped and encouraged her to help the many refugees who need medical assistance in the camps, hearing word there were approximately 80,000 pregnant women at the time with no female doctor to aid them.
“I went there for a medical mission to serve people and come back, but my trip there has completely changed my life because I saw these people are the victims of almost what we call a genocide,” she said, adding the UN later called the crisis in Myanmar a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.
She said Canada became one of the first countries to declare the crisis as a genocide and in recent years there has been a positive push to increase awareness of the Rohingya refugees on the global stage.
“Since then, I’m actively involved with the Rohingya refugees,” she said. “We started supporting their medical clinics, as well as before COVID, I used to go there every six months and train local doctors.”
Alvi said she started her foundation called the Humanity Auxilium in 2018 in response to the crisis, to increase awareness and raise funds after fellow physicians reached out advising they would like to lend a helping hand to the mission.
The main mission of the organization is to provide medical relief, especially to the marginalized communities across the world, Alvi said.
According to Alvi, the new clinic, which was opened last week, aims to provide general care to the refugee population, in addition to a COVID-19 clinic that Alvi and her team started in the fall of 2020 after the first case of the virus was detected among the refugee population in May 2020.
“I felt very desperate seeing rich countries struggling with COVID,” she said. “If the rich countries – US, Canada, and Britain – are struggling to fight the virus, how will poor people who are dependent on [non-governmental organization] to get their food [fare?]”
Alvi said the COVID project has been running since then, but considering worsening conditions in the camp, she hopes the newly opened care clinic will further help refugees, following an increase in rape-related pregnancies in the camp.
“When Myanmar started this active campaign of violence, their military soldiers raped lots of the Rohingya women and when I was going there in the last three or four years, [I saw] lots of pregnant patients,” she said. “[There’s] a stigma and they feel they have lost their respect.
“They don’t admit they were raped, but now we see lots of toddlers resemble Burmese [with] features very similar to the Burmese rather than the Rohingya.”
The Rohingya refugees face additional challenges in the camp, including a yearly monsoon season that can devastate the community and cause widespread flooding and damage to shelters.
More recently, Alvi said a fire broke out on Jan. 9 that destroyed approximately 1,0000 refugee shelters in the camp. She said she has been busy since then arranging relief efforts to hundreds of thousands of people who have lost everything for the second time since their displacement.
“It’s been four years now … sometimes people say, ‘We don’t see any hope there, why do you keep on going back?’ I just want to make sure that we do our due diligence at the end of the day,” Alvi said.
Alvi, who is also the chair of the Airdrie Community Physicians Association, added the clinic is funded solely by her and a handful of other physicians and friends who volunteer with the foundation, contributing each month to help run the clinic.
“While we are struggling with our own things, we should not forget these people who are really dependent on us,” she said. “Even if nothing happens, at least it tells them that somebody cares for them far away from their home.
“We are living in a very different luxury world here, and those people are human beings like you and me.”
Alvi said she encourages those interested in learning more about the foundation and the Rohingya refugee crisis to visit humanityauxilium.com.
Follow me on Twitter @carmenrcundy