Assamala’s life is worth the extra mile
How one little girl is bringing hope to her community in Bangladesh
By Paola Barioli
It is 9:30 am when we arrive in front of the clinic, half an hour before the opening to the public. Yet, she is already here. With her bold, red t-shirt and her tuft of black hair, she confidently trots past the entrance and into the clinic. Seeing Dr. Jafar, she rushes to him and clings to his leg: “Uncle, uncle!” she exclaims. Her grandmother, an older lady dressed in a beautiful pink veil, tries to calm her.
“This is Assamala Bibi,” Dr. Jafar tells me. “She is always the first to arrive in the morning, then the last to leave in the evening at closing time.” For a second, I think back to my childhood. I was always afraid of the doctors whenever my mother brought me to their office. “Ah, but it has not always been like that,” Dr. Jafar continues, as if he could read my thoughts. “The first time this little girl came to the clinic, she could not stop crying. She was terrified of the doctors here.”
It is Nurshwaima, her grandmother, who tells me the rest of the story. “Assamala Bibi and her sister joined us in Bangladesh in August 2018. My husband and I had fled Myanmar the year before.” Nurshwaima and her husband are among the more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees who have crossed the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh in the aftermath of the August 2017 violence.
“When we left, my daughter and her husband wished to stay. But, a year later, they realized that the children were no longer safe in Myanmar. They asked their neighbours to bring Assamala and her sister here with them to Cox Bazar to stay with us.”
I think of the despair and helplessness parents must feel when they are forced to separate from their children, with no guarantee of seeing them again. “They wanted these two little ones to have a peaceful future,” continues Nurshwaima. “They would now like to join them, but the trip is expensive and they do not have enough money.”
“When Assamala Bibi arrived, she was very sick,” Nurshwaima recounts. “She had a high fever, could not sleep at night, and would not eat. We did not have medicine to relieve her pain and did not know what to do. One day, a man in our community told us that a clinic had just opened at the top of the hill and was seeing patients at no cost. I brought Assamala here to the clinic, but she wouldn’t stop crying. She did not want the doctor to come anywhere near her. Dr. Jafar had to be very patient.”
“It turns out, she was suffering from a bad case of tonsillitis that had not been treated,” says Dr. Jafar. “I gave her antibiotics and scheduled a check-up a few days later, but I thought that would be it. I never thought I’d be seeing so much of Assamala!”
While I continue my conversation with Assamala’s grandmother, I smile as I see the little girl wandering around the clinic asking a thousand questions to the staff.
“What’s that for?” she says as she points to the stethoscope. “What are you doing?” pointing to a lady having her temperature measured.
“We all love her here. She is only three years old, but she is so bright! She speaks all the time. She was shy at first, but not anymore!” says Dr. Jafar.
The little girl turns and runs towards me. She looks at my Medair badge and asks me with a huge smile, “Are you my new doctor?” I smile back. Then as quickly as she came, she scuttles off to talk with other members of our team and play with the children waiting their turn at the entrance of the clinic.
When I see the light that radiates from this little girl, even in such a difficult situation, I realise the importance of this clinic for the people living in this remote area of the refugee camp. Here, not only do they also have access to doctors and life-saving medicine, but it is also a safe place to come and be treated with love and dignity. A place to forget, if only for a brief moment, what they have been forced to leave behind.
I ask Dr. Jafar what he likes most about his work and I’m not surprised by his answer. “I like everything, absolutely everything about this work.” When I ask him if he misses living in Dhaka, the capital, along with his friends and his comfortable job and lifestyle, he answers. “Of course, I miss it sometimes. But when I look at my patients, when I see Assamala Bibi smiling waiting for me in front of the clinic, I am convinced I made the right choice to work here.”
The hours pass quickly, and the clinic is still full. “Today we had 98 patients,” says Dr. Jafar. When we leave the clinic, it is almost 4 hours and Assamala Bibi is still there. As I leave and say my goodbyes, she sends me off with a smile and a wave.
I get back in the car after what has been a long, hot, and tiring day. Nevertheless, I cannot help but smile on the drive back, convinced that this work is making a difference. We may not be able to change the whole world, but we can change one life. Assamala is a reminder of that.
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