How a pair of spectacles changed one girl’s life
How funding from the EU ‘Refugee and Migrant Child-Health Initiative’, has enabled UNICEF and its partners to improve refugee and migrant children’s health status in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
With funding from the European Union (EU) ‘RM Child-Health Initiative’, UNICEF and its partners have been supporting holistic paediatric health services that aim to reach every refugee and migrant child in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As the initiative draws to a close, we look back at some of the highlights since its launch in 2020.
2020: A pair of eyeglasses brings hope
“I will wear these glasses all the time. I hope I won't lose them during the next ‘game’", said 10-year-old Maisa.* In her world, the word "game" was the slang she used to describe attempts to cross the border from Bosnia and Herzegovina into the European Union. We met Maisa in Cazin with her father, picking out a pair of eyeglasses. She had been referred to the optician for an eye test – just one of the comprehensive paediatric health services supported by the European Union’s ‘RM Child-Health’ Initiative.
Maisa was delighted to go ‘home’ to Temporary Reception Centre (TRC) Sedra in Bihać wearing her new purple-framed glasses. To some, it might have seemed like a small thing, but for Maisa, this was crucial. She needed multifocal glasses to treat her strabismus, and her old pair had been lost during her family’s long journey from Iran to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Back at the Sedra reception centre, the healthcare professionals at the clinic outlined the challenges of keeping up with an ever-shifting population of child refugees and migrants. Many left with their families to play the ‘game’ of trying to enter the EU. Some returned, some did not, and new children kept arriving. If the clinic couldn’t provide the specialist care needed, children were referred to the Bihać Cantonal Hospital or the Cazin Health Centre. And it was thanks to this referral system, supported by the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative, that Maisa was able to get her new glasses. More than 750 children were helped by this one paediatric clinic between January and September 2020.
Amila Madžak, Education officer at the UNICEF office in Bihać commented: "Thanks to the support of the EU ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative, and the work of our partners working in reception centres, the quality and number of services for children in need of health care increased significantly since we founded the paediatric units in Sedra and Borići. This has had a positive impact on individuals and families, and on migrant communities, as well as on wider public health."
2021: holistic support for a child travelling alone
When Adil was just 10 years old, he left his small village in Afghanistan to escape recruitment into the Taliban and made his way west, hoping for a more secure future in Europe. Six thousand kilometres and five years later, he was in the TRC Sedra in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And here, UNICEF’s partners on the ground were providing Adil and other unaccompanied children with round-the-clock care, with support from the ‘RM Child-Health’ Initiative.
The needs of these children went far beyond their physical health. Children who travel without their parents or who become separated from their family are exposed to serious risks to their mental as well as physical well-being. Their identification is crucial to prevent their abuse and exploitation, and Adil was first identified as an unaccompanied child in Una-Sana Canton by a UNICEF team during regular field monitoring.
Adil was able to have regular physical check-ups at the paediatric unit in TRC Sedra, but the unit was also the hub for regular workshops on health, child protection and mental and psychosocial health organized by UNICEF and its partners. He had been to two workshops: one on the misuse of medicines and self-medication, organized by UNICEF in cooperation with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and Save the Children International (SCI), and one on the prevention of alcohol and drug abuse, organized in cooperation with DRC, SCI, Médecins du Monde (MDM) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
UNICEF and its implementing partners have worked hard to support the well-being of children like Adil – on the move, homeless, and often distressed – by ensuring that they have access to the vital services they need, such as 24/7 paediatric, mental health and psychosocial support services. Perhaps this explains Adil’s optimistic outlook on life since he arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he felt welcome and cared for. He still had a strong faith in other people: “A person who does not do harm to others will not experience anything bad from other people.’’
2022: The sanctuary of a Mother and Baby Corner
At the Ušivak Temporary Reception Centre, near the country’s capital Sarajevo, Mariam is visiting the Mother and Baby Corner with her 18-month old son. She fled from conflict in Guinea and arrived less than a month ago. She is three months pregnant and, for her, the Mother and Baby Corner is a sanctuary – a place of comfort. “We were warmly welcomed and everyone here is very kind to us,” she says. “We got clothes and food. We come here every day. My boy plays with his peers and he likes it here. We’re satisfied.”
Paediatric nurse Azra Pljevljak Kečević is in the Corner every day, providing support to women like Mariam.
“In this Corner, moms can get advice, spend time with their children and learn something useful” she says. “Also, if a child is injured or we notice they have health problems, we refer them to a doctor.”
Psychological support is crucial for the women and children, so the Corner also has a psychologist on staff. Majda Gračić Jogunčić works with her colleagues to identify possible changes in children’s behaviour. She says their main goal is to make mothers and children feel safe: “We are here to provide a natural and warm atmosphere for all children and mothers, and the experience so far has shown that they like it very much here in the Corner. It is important that we monitor their growth and development and listen to their daily needs.”
UNICEF Deputy Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Veronika Vashchenko noted that UNICEF has provided continuous support for the provision of paediatric services, nutrition for infants and young children and counselling for refugee and migrant parents and children in temporary reception centres. “Thanks to the financial support of the EU General Directorate of Health (DG Health), in 2021 more than 2,500 children benefited from improved access to paediatric health care and more than 1,800 infants, children and parents had access to health and nutrition services through mother and baby corners.”
Taking stock of the ‘RM Child-Health’ Initiative in Bosnia and Herzegovina
- 3484 refugee and migrant children accessed health checks and referrals to public healthcare services, including to immunization, with UNICEF support – almost 3 times the number targeted for the Initiative.
- 3338 refugee and migrant children accessed mother, and child healthcare, including infant and young child feeding counselling, with UNICEF support – more than twice as many as originally targeted.
- Implementing partners: Danish Refugee Council, Fenix, Medicins du Monde, Save the Children International, World Vision.
An independent evaluation of the ‘RM Child-Health’ Initiative has taken stock of its impact in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This impact was driven, in large part, by close collaboration between the Initiative and other UNICEF programme areas, particularly health, early childhood development and social inclusion, and by strong relationships with implementing partners: the Danish Refugee Council, Fenix, Medicins du Monde and World Vision.
Refugees, migrants and service providers have valued the Initiative, with surveys carried out by UNICEF’s implementing partners finding that the activities responded to needs. The beneficiaries were highly satisfied with both the paediatric services provided and the awareness raising and training delivered.
The Initiative was swift to adapt to new and emerging needs, including the COVID-19 pandemic, modifying its information and training materials and approaches to keep health services going. UNICEF and its partners obtained official approval for health workers to work in other cantons and organized transport to get them there, helping to provide cover for health workers who were infected with COVID-19. Partners also held more frequent meetings with fewer participants to maintain social distancing.
In response to requests from refugees and migrants, the Initiative added nutrition information as well as mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) services for children. Prior to the Initiative, MHPSS services had focused on adults only. Similarly, the Initiative led to the expansion of routine immunization to refugee and migrant children who had not previously been covered – with obvious benefits for the wider population as this critical immunization gap was closed. In addition, the work of the International Organization for Migration in Bosnia and Herzegovina now follows UNICEF’s protocol on the provision of baby formula milk.
Cantonal health institutes in Bosnia and Herzegovina are now better informed regarding the health conditions of refugees and migrants. UNICEF has also succeeded in integrating Roma and host communities in awareness-raising efforts on health delivered to refugee and migrant populations.
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 European Health and Digital Executive Agency (HaDEA) 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.
*Names changed to protect identities.