Turkish medical volunteers win hearts in Africa

Published 13.03.2018 23:44
Updated 13.03.2018 23:45

"White doctors are here", they welcomed us cheering," Bilgehan Güntekin recalls an earlier visit to Ethiophia. Güntekin, an otolaryngologist, is founder and president of Friends of All Africa Association (TADD), established by a group of volunteers in 2015. With doctors in its board, Istanbul-based non-profit focuses on health projects for disadvantaged communities in Africa.

Güntekin decided to organize a volunteer mission after he worked as a volunteer in Chad four years ago. This visit was prompted by a photo that impressed him. That photo was Pulitzer-winning Vulture and Little Girl by Kevin Carter shot in South Sudan in 1994. "This was like a sign of an end of humanity," he says. After a ten-day stint in Chad, he decided to do more for Africans in need and established the association. "I examined some 1,000 patients in ten days. It was too many and it was too hot in the 'health center' we worked at. It was actually a building without a floor and electricity. It wasn't furnished and only modern equipment was the ones we brought from Turkey. Patients were very grateful. They were crying and blessing us. They were poor but not complaining of their lives," he recalls.

Starting out as a medical aid project, TADD today reaches out to Uganda, Sudan, Niger, Tanzania, Ethiophia and other countries with disadvantaged communities, through a diverse array of projects. Volunteers drill wells for access to clean water, install solar panels in areas without access to electricity, hand out livestock to support impoverished farmers, provide scholarship to students and finance the care of orphans in African countries.

"They are in dire need of health services. Our team was in Ethiophia's Afar recently, a state with a population of more than 5 million people. Yet, they only have one doctor serving in each medical field at a hospital at the center of the state. People lined up for medical examination when we arrived there," he says, noting that some patients traveled as far as from towns located some 400 kilometers from the hospital. He says that although they increased aid projects, Africa needs self-sufficiency. "They need more hospitals and trained medical personnel," he underlines. Thus, TADD focuses its grants to students to those pursuing a career in medicine. "The humanity is indebted to Africa. We have to help them," he says.

Dr. Serhat Onur, an urologist and a board member of TADD, "tricked" into visiting Africa in 2008 by his friends promising "a safari." His doctor friends were actually there for a health charity, to treat poor patients. Seeing "tough" conditions, Onur vowed "not to return." Yet, he says that grateful looks of children he treated made him to come back again. "Since then, I made 23 trips. It has been a passion for me," he says. Onur performed some 1,050 surgeries for patients in various African countries since he joined TADD.

"They were shy of us at first, because we were white guys after all. Once they get used to our visits, they embraced us," Onur says of his patients. "They have a perception that white foreigners are there to exploit them. We ended this. They were surprised to see 'white Muslims' helping them," he recounts.

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