Afghan doctor helps refugees fight COVID-19, one phone call at a time
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in Iran, Afghan refugee Fezzeh Hosseini has been working tirelessly to help local and Afghan patients affected by the virus.
Dr Hosseini with Afghan patients at the Razi health centre. She treats both refugees and Iranians from the local community (20 November, 2019).
© UNHCR/Mohammad Hossein Dehghanian
At the end of a long shift, once the waiting area has been emptied of its stream of patients and the consultation rooms disinfected for the day, Dr Fezzeh Hosseini goes back to her desk to catch her breath before she begins the second part of her workday.
Fezzeh, a 38-year-old Afghan refugee, was recently appointed to head up the coronavirus public outreach programme in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s central Esfahan province. On top of her usual duties as head physician at the Razi health centre in Khomeini-Shahr, an area of Esfahan, she now provides phone consultations to Iranian and Afghan patients suffering from or at risk of contracting the virus. For months now, she has stayed well past opening hours with her team of five medical personnel to make phone calls to some 200 families every evening.
“The coronavirus made me feel powerless, like other doctors around the world,” she says. “These phone calls became an invaluable way for me to reach out to people stuck at home who may need medical advice and services.”
During these calls, Fezzeh and her team talk to patients who have COVID-like symptoms, before checking up on those who have tested positive for the virus but are not sick enough to be hospitalised. Before heading home, the team speak to other families about health and hygiene precautions to limit transmission.
“In Iran, people are tired of the coronavirus and, unfortunately, not enough people maintain health precautions and social distancing. But all those we call, especially in the Afghan community, would listen to our advice because it was coming from Dr Hosseini,” says Ameneh, 30, an Iranian midwife working in Fezzeh’s team.
Fezzeh arrived in Iran as a one-month-old baby after her parents fled conflict in northern Afghanistan’s Sar-e Pol province. Leaving everything behind was not an easy decision for them, but they hoped that in Iran, their children would be able to grow up in safety and have a brighter future. “My mother would say that education is more important than food and clothes,” Fezzeh recalls.
Refugee children in Iran can attend public schools and follow the same national curriculum as Iranians. Encouraged by her mother, Fezzeh successfully completed her education and, at 19, passed the competitive entrance exams to be admitted to medical school. But at university, she had to overcome the prejudices and socio-economic barriers that deter many refugees from going on to higher education.
“The expectations I had for myself were so low – I only wanted to become a midwife. But my teacher convinced me that I could do anything I set my mind to,” she says.
Fezzeh went on to graduate with flying colours. Still, as a refugee, her future as a doctor was far from certain. While refugees in Iran can access jobs in an increasing number of sectors, they are still excluded from certain professions, including medicine.
Without a medical license, Fezzah volunteered for years at a hospital and organized discussions with the Afghan community to talk about hygiene, nutrition and diet. “I was happy to be able to make a difference in the lives of Afghans in Iran, but I knew I could do so much more,” she says.
Finally, in 2016, her exemplary work was recognized by the Government of Iran and she was exceptionally given a permit to practice medicine. She became the first and only refugee doctor in Esfahan province, home to about five million inhabitants, including some 100,000 refugees.
"Sometimes, my Afghan patients are surprised when they find out that I am also from Afghanistan."
“Sometimes, my Afghan patients are surprised when they find out that I am also from Afghanistan. It is as if they have forgotten that they too can succeed,” she says.
Today, Fezzeh oversees half a dozen medical staff at the Razi health centre, constructed with support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Every month, the centre’s doctors and nurses treat nearly 10,000 Iranian and Afghan patients. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, they have been screening, testing and treating patients for the virus and referring more serious cases to provincial hospitals.
Since the first confirmed coronavirus case was reported in Iran in February, it has spread to all 31 provinces of the country, affecting both refugees and host communities. UNHCR has flown in much needed medical and hygiene items to support the government’s efforts to fight the virus. Refugees have also contributed by sewing masks and gowns for health workers and helping to distribute aid to the poorest members of their communities.
In Iran, refugees have access to free primary health care and they have been able to get the same COVID-related tests and treatment as Iranian nationals. While they are at no greater risk of contracting the virus than locals, they have been particularly hard hit by the economic reverberations of the pandemic with many having lost their livelihoods.
On top of her tireless work at the health centre, and the extra shifts she volunteers for at pop-up COVID-19 clinics, Fezzeh organises regular group calls with Afghan women and girls in her community to share information about hygiene and health practices and to lend a caring ear to those feeling the indirect impacts of COVID-19.
“An increasing number of women over the last months have told me that they are experiencing more and more domestic conflicts, due to increased stress as a result of the loss of livelihoods to COVID,” she says.
“Being an Afghan like my patients, they feel they can open up to me as we share the same culture and experiences,” she adds. “But what makes me most proud, is that people see me as someone who can help them, not just as a refugee."