Going for a vaccination with my cousin Emina
“Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt, it just stings a little. It’s easier if you look the other way,” says Emina to Irma as they fix each other’s hair. This is an important day for Irma Fafulić, who has already prepared a clothing combination to wear and asks us to wait for her while she changes in another room. Both girls soon return to the living room of Irma’s humble home, dressed up and with their hair done to their liking, but now they are faced with another dilemma: they are not sure if their protective facemasks will match the rest of their outfits so they deliberate on which one to wear to the vaccination point. The atmosphere in the living room of the Fafulić family in the village of Varda near Kakanj is almost festive: they are visited by Edin Sejdić, mediator from the Kakanj-based Roma Support Centre “Romalen”. Six-year-old Emina and her mother Fatima Dedić from Visoko are currently visiting the Fafulić family, so the girls have been inseparable for days. “I call her sister even though we’re actually cousins, and I’m a little older than Emina,” says Irma with a smile full of crooked milk teeth and explains that she has completed her second grade online due to the COVID-19 situation. Now, she says, she is deservedly enjoying her school holidays after a very challenging period when she had to compete with other relatives for access to a single shared mobile device so that she could attend her online classes. When asked what she liked most about school this year, she retorts right off the bat: “My teacher Dženita!” The rest of the Fafulić-Dedić household listens attentively to Edin, whom they have known for a long time, and who has stopped by today to escort their Irma to the local health centre for a vaccination. Statistics show that only four percent of Roma children in BiH are vaccinated Roma girl UNICEF/ Majda Balić Raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of immunization in Roma communities is one of the regular activities implemented by the Kakanj-based Roma Support Centre “Romalen” Edin is kind of a link between the health-care system and the residents of this small community, and as a true man of the people, he explains the advantages of immunization, dispelling misconceptions and rebutting arguments of even the most fervent opponents of vaccination in the audience. He is one of the 16 mediators trained to do outreach work and help Roma communities with vaccination procedures in four cantons with sizeable Roma population (Zenica-Doboj, Sarajevo, Central Bosnia and Tuzla). Raising awareness of the importance and effectiveness of immunization in Roma communities is one of the regular activities implemented by the Kakanj-based Roma Support Centre “Romalen” under the project Immunization for Every Child in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), in cooperation with UNICEF BiH. Edin is a link between the health-care system and the residents of this small community. Edin is a link between the health-care system and the residents of this small community. He admits that doing outreach work is not always easy, adding that people often confuse going to the doctor for an injection for receiving vaccines, and that there are still those who remain unconvinced of the benefits of immunization. But Edin has a way with people, patiently walking them through the entire process, emphasizing benefits and dispelling fears. By the end of the project, as many as almost 1500 families in the four cantons will have been informed about the benefits and effectiveness of immunization, as well as vaccination procedures and options. Mediators like Edin also provide assistance by escorting the youngest members of the community to vaccination points. “Thanks to this project, you can also retroactively receive the vaccines you missed,” says Edin, adding that many Roma are not at all aware of what needs to be done, or when. Mediators are therefore an invaluable asset to the community as they motivate, inform and mobilize people, and prepare the ground for the child’s immunization. Each mediator has a vaccination schedule for every child, and reminds parents when it is time to go to a health facility. Mediators are carefully selected from among their communities, they are persons of trust, and are usually involved in supporting the community through other projects – so they are familiar to the people they interact with and have already gained trust of the local residents. The same is true of the Fafulić family, who are now ready to have their Irma vaccinated after receiving relevant information from Edin. Mujo Fafulić Mujo Fafulić, president of the Kakanj-based Roma Support Centre “Romalen” “Roma mediators have a vital role to play in Roma communities. Statistics show that only four percent of Roma children in BiH are vaccinated. This project aims to raise this immunization rate, even using statistics on the mortality of unvaccinated children as one of the arguments,” explains Mujo Fafulić, president of the Kakanj-based Roma Support Centre “Romalen”, the organization implementing the project. “These are one-on-one conversations, with mediators visiting communities to check on the spot what the vaccination rates are and whether children are vaccinated at all, as well as which vaccines they have received, while also motivating parents to have their children immunized if they have not done so before. "By the time they reach adulthood, children should complete the vaccination cycle, and mediators are doing outreach work to explain the benefits of on-schedule immunization, as well as the adverse consequences of failing to do so." Mujo Fafulić Emina has already received the vaccines scheduled for her age, and she confidently shares her last words of advice with her cousin Irma before they leave, so that there are two parallel conversations going on in the living room – adults talk about the benefits of immunization and health care, and the little girls, holding hands, have their own conversation about what the needle looks like and where on the hand the nurse will give Irma a jab. Rubbing their hands with disinfectant, with their facemasks on, the girls extend their hands to the mediator, ready to go – Emina, being more experienced, will escort Irma to help her go through this whole experience as painlessly as possible. Irma’s parents Jasmina and Nermin are staying at home and waving to the girls from the window. Holding hands, with their fingers intertwined in a clasp that shows care and love, the children set out together on their trip to the health centre. The trip they are taking is one that is recommended to everyone as it promises better health and protection against diseases that are still lurking about and are far from being eradicated. Dr. Rownak Khan, UNICEF Representative in BIH confirms that by saying: “Vaccination is the best protection from communicable diseases. Unfortunately, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s low immunization rates, 68% full immunization and only 4% among Roma children, mean that children in this country are at high risk of getting vaccine preventable diseases resulting in outbreaks, particularly measles outbreaks. Currently, UNICEF is working with two Roma NGOs, Kali Sara and Romalen, to raise awareness on the importance of vaccination in Roma communities, by connecting with health institutions, Public Health Institutes and ministries with Roma communities through Roma health mediators to reach the most vulnerable children. This will also reduce equity gaps and will protect all children in BiH from vaccine-preventable diseases.” All children, regardless of the country or circumstances in which they live, have the right to develop and thrive. As a key component of the human right to health, immunization saves millions of lives and protects children against vaccine-preventable diseases. Immunization saves two to three million lives each year. Vaccines now protect more children than ever before, but nearly one in five infants miss out on the basic vaccines they need to stay alive and healthy. Low immunization levels among poor and marginalized children compromise gains made in all other areas of maternal and child health. This material is produced within the initiative Increase awareness on the importance of vaccination with special focus on Roma communities - Immunization for every child! UNICEF Country Office in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s programme on immunization, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through UNICEF Headquarters. We would also like to thank UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Regional Office for their support.
Precious support in the game of life
Thanks to funding from the European Union ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative, UNICEF works to ensure that all refugee and migrant children in Bosnia and Herzegovina have access to primary health care, including paediatric services and, in the case of 10-year old Maisa, a vital pair of glasses. “I will wear these glasses all the time. I hope I won't lose them during the next ‘game’", says 10-year-old Maisa.* In Maisa’s world, the word "game" does not mean playing with her friends. It is the slang she uses to describe the attempts she and her family – originally from Iran – have made to cross the border from Bosnia and Herzegovina into the European Union in search of a more a promising future. To date, all of their attempts have failed. But they will keep trying. Maisa is at the opticians in Cazin, trying to decide which eyeglasses suit her best, having been brought here previously by a team from UNICEF and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), with funding from the EU’s ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative, to have her eyes tested by an ophthalmologist. Trying on glasses while wearing protective face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is an additional challenge, making it difficult for her to judge how the glasses look. Her dad, Zerin*, helps her choose and she is delighted with the purple-framed glasses that will come ‘home’ with her to the Sedra reception centre in Bihać. A pair of glass might seem like a small thing, but for Maisa, this is a joyous moment that will enhance her view of the world around her. Human lives are at stake in the game played by Maisa and her family. She has endured so many challenges since she left her native Tehran a year ago. At the time, she still had multifocal glasses that were suitable for treating her strabismus. However, the unpredictable life on the migrant route meant that Maisa lost her glasses long before the family arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her new glasses will allow her to continue her treatment for strabismus and help repair her damaged vision. Maisa at the pediatric clinic Maisa at the pediatric clinic of the Sedra Reception Center, her medical examination before heading off to the optical shop to get new eyeglasses. Back at the Sedra reception centre, Maisa talks about her hopes. She can't explain exactly why she wants her wanderings on the European continent to end happily in England, but maybe the staff of the reception centre are partly responsible for that: "They teach me English and thanks to them, I speak better because I want to be able to express myself clearly” she says to her Farsi translator, who helps to enhance communication between children like Maisa and local health services. The family’s attempts to cross the border to find a better life somewhere in the north of Europe have taken their toll on Maisa’s education. Nevertheless, her English flows with such ease and eloquence that one almost forgets she is sitting in the reception centre’s modest and crumbling paediatric clinic. She could be doing her medical examination before enrolling in a prestigious international school. The healthcare professionals at the Sedra clinic cannot estimate exactly how many children it is serving at the moment, as children so often go to ‘games’ with their families. Some return, some don’t, and new children arrive, with different health issues, of different ages and from different backgrounds. The reception centre is occupied mostly by families with children, so there has been a clear need for paediatric services for a long time. Maisa entering the pediatric clinic Maisa entering the pediatric clinic of the Sedra Reception center, where along with her medical check-ups she is practicing her English skills and conversing with the medical workers. According to its team of paediatricians, children most often come to the clinic for general health examinations, or because of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Babies are also taken care of, in addition to examinations, therapies and dressing services. If the outpatient clinic can’t provide the care that is needed, children are referred to the Bihać Cantonal Hospital or the Cazin Health Center. And it is thanks to this referral system, supported by the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative, that Maisa was referred to the ophthalmologist. In total, more than 750 children were helped by the paediatric clinic between January and September 2020. "Thanks to the support of the EU ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative, and the work of the DRC and our partners working within reception centres, the quality and number of services provided to children in need of health care have increased significantly since we founded the pediatric units in Sedra and Borići”, says Amila Madžak, Education officer at the UNICEF office in Bihać. “This has had a positive impact on individuals and families, and on migrant communities, as well as on wider public health. Help is also provided for unaccompanied children living in the reception centres in Bira and Miral. In addition to basic services, the paediatric care on offer also includes immunization services, systematic examinations, ophthalmological and dental services, consultations, training and coaching for children and adults. We also went through the first cycle of immunization with 500 children in the USC, and we are continuing with the next cycle in the Una Sana Canton, as well as in Sarajevo Canton." Fortunately, Maisa's problem was much easier to solve than many other health problems faced by the children of migrants, refugees and by unaccompanied minors. For many of them, this is the end of the road, with no prospect of going any further. And going further is what Maisa has been dreaming of since embarking on this unpredictable journey: the London rain, the British accent and the ability to use her eyes to their full potential. *Names changed to protect identities. This story is part of the Project Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South Eastern Europe, Co-funded by the Health Programme of the European Union (the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative). Logo The content of this article represents the views of the author(s) only and is his/her sole responsibility; it cannot be considered to reflect the views of the European Commission and/or the Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency or any other body of the European Union. The European Commission and the Agency do not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.
Oasis of health and joy
"I want to be a photographer, and you know that the most valuable tool for any photographer is their eyes," says 17-year-old Ferhat* as he contentedly nods to his reflection in the mirror, adjusting his glasses. It has been three years since he left his home in Tehran together with his parents and younger sister in search of a better life in Europe, and after years spent crossing different borders, he is no longer sure where the most serious game for a better life will take them. Game is the word that migrants use as a synonym for an attempt of crossing the border. Ferhat is currently residing in the temporary reception centre Sedra with his family. Last year they were all staying at a reception centre in Sarajevo, and according to him: wherever life brings them, everything will be fine as long as they are together. With the support from UNICEF, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) staff, Ferhat came to the opticians shop in Cazin. "After they took away all my personal belongings at the border, including the glasses, the doctor at the Sedra Pediatric Clinic estimated that I needed an ophthalmologist's examination and a new set of glasses. Next I was assigned an appointment, a team from DRC and UNICEF came to pick me up and took me to the ophthalmologist, and when my dioptre was determined on examination, they also took me to an optician's shop to choose the appropriate frame. Today, after a procedure that lasted several days, I received my new glasses. "Thank you to everyone who helped me and everyone who helped my family, and to others from the centre, for their work and desire to fulfil basic human needs even in such conditions," says Ferhat. Refugree and migrant children take part in a dental workshop Refugree and migrant children take part in a dental workshop Unfortunately his family members were frequent patients of the medical centres whose services are provided by UNICEF and DRC through DG Health funding: his mother's hand healed only a few days ago when her cast was removed - she had previously broken her arm while trying to cross the border and his father is a regular patient given his continuously high blood pressure. During his previous attempt to cross the border Ferhat damaged his old, precious glasses that he has worn for the last four years - ever since doctors discovered his hereditary vision problem. He still has the right to use the services of a children's clinic, which, in addition to basic pediatric care services include immunization services, systematic examinations, ophthalmological check-ups, dental services and consultations for parents. Sedra and Borići are classic family camps: at the time of our visit, 213 people were accommodated in Sedra - of which 53 were children, and 51 families with children were accommodated in Borići. To make everyday life more tolerable for children in reception centres, UNHCR cooperates with Save the Children, Médecins de Monde (MDM), Church World Service (CWS), World Vision, and centres for social work Bihać, Cazin, Velika Kladuša, Ključ and Hadžići; and there are frequent activities for the youngest that partner organizations regularly carry out with the intention of entertaining, but also educating children in the mentioned centres. The focus of this workshop is dental hygiene, where the children are learning all the practices and putting their skills to the test with a demonstration model. The focus of this workshop is dental hygiene, where the children are learning all the practices and putting their skills to the test with a demonstration model. During our stay in the reception centre in Borići, there was a dental workshop organized in partnership with the local polyclinic Muminović. Through a series of games, children had the opportunity to learn how to properly maintain oral hygiene, how to properly brush their teeth, who to contact in case of dental problems, and at the end of the workshop, they were all given hygiene packages containing basic dental hygiene supplies. Their excitement was not disturbed by the mandatory protective masks which prevented them from trying out the contents of their hygiene packages right away. Additionally, because everyone had to wear masks indoors, the associates of the Muminović polyclinic brought out demonstration models with which the children could practically test the knowledge acquired during the workshop. Families with children are accommodated in two temporary reception centres (Borići and Sedra) in the Una-Sana Canton (USC), and the Sarajevo reception centre Ušivak and unaccompanied minors are accommodated in all five reception centres (including the Bira and Miral centres). Currently, there are about 4,000 refugees/migrants accommodated in four TRCs in the USC area, including about 500 children, unaccompanied children and children separated from their parents. Thanks to funding from the EU Health Programme (DG Health), UNICEF BIH ensures that all refugee and displaced children have access to primary health care, which in BiH, includes pediatric services as well. *Name changed to protect the identity of a minor
Strengthening the implementation of health policies
The initiative also promotes and supports multi-disciplinary approaches and teams to address the complex causes of health problems among refugee and migrant children – from trauma, anxiety and over-crowded conditions, to lack of hygiene facilities and immunization. As a result, support from the ‘RM Child-health’ initiative builds trust between refugee and migrant families and health providers. At the Centre for refugees and migrants near Bela Palanka in south-eastern Serbia, for example, the needs of refugee and migrant women have shaped the development of the Community Centre run by ADRA, with its Mother and Baby Corner for women with infants. Here, women can take part in language classes, sports activities and, crucially, in workshops about their own health and rights. “ The most important thing is that all the advice from our doctor is in line with their economic circumstances and current living situation [in Reception centres],” explains social worker Andja Petrovic. “The advice is tailored to their life and I think they particularly like that, because they can see that their situation is acknowledged. Because when they go to a doctor [in other facilities], they get advice that they can’t follow because they don’t have the living conditions for it.” Also in Serbia, funding from the ‘RM Child-health Initiative’ supports work by UNICEF and the Institute of Mental Health that looks beyond the provision of basic health care to assess the scale and nature of substance abuse among refugee and migrant communities. This cutting-edge field research will guide the development of materials and capacity building specifically for health and community workers who are in regular contact with young refugees and migrants, helping these workers to identify and tackle substance abuse by connecting children and youth to support services. As one researcher involved in the research commented: “Most of those children have spent several years without a home or any sense of stability. They can't make a single plan about the future since everything in their life is so uncertain. I can't begin to imagine how frightening that is.” By building greater rapport between frontline workers and children, and by equipping those workers with the support, skills and resources they need, the ‘RM Child-health’ initiative is helping to transform health policies into health practice. This vital work has been particularly crucial in 2020, as frontline workers have had to confront – and adapt to – the greatest public health crisis in living memory: the COVID-19 pandemic. Logo This story is part of the Project ‘Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South Eastern Europe’, Co-funded by the Health Programme of the European Union (the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative).It represents the views of the author only and is her sole responsibility; it cannot be considered to reflect the views of the European Commission and/or the Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency or any other body of the European Union. The European Commission and the Agency do not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.