Azerbaijan Interviews: Amal Mekkioui
8 June 1999
From interviews conducted in April , 1999. Amal Mekkioui Manager of the Health and Education programme, Sumgayt
Been in Azerbaijan two years
Been working for MSF since December 1998
Why have you chosen to work in Azerbaijan?
I'm interested in the country and in the culture, because in the
beginning I thought it would be close to mine, because I'm from
Moroccan origins, but there is really no similarity. So it's a kind of
curiosity as well that makes me stay here. Culturally and socially its
very interesting to be here because it's not Europe, it's not the Arab
countries, it's not the Muslim countries that I know.
Can you give me an example of how culturally it's interesting?
They are supposed to be Muslims here and I am Muslim as well, and I
always thought I didn't have that much knowledge, or only a basic
knowledge, about religion, and I have met a lot of people here and
they say they are Muslims but they don't know anything about it. So it
has been very interesting to see Islam in a different eye. My
conception and theirs is totally different, and this is what I have
Can you highlight a particularly worthwhile aspect of your work in
public health in Sumgayt?
Well the program is important as you have a feeling that there are
some basic things that every person should know about health- which
any person in Europe would know for example - but here it seems that
people don't know. At the beginning you think, what is health
education, what does it bring to people? But when I see the results,
the health education in schools for example, and also with the IDP
women, when we go to the buildings where they live on outreach work,
then you can see that they are interested and they are eager to know.
It is clear that it is not that easy, because you are the European and
you are coming to bring your knowledge_and you have to find a way to
introduce this. It makes it easy that we have Azeris with us
(keypersons who teach the groups), and they believe in the program as
well - that's very important, and they are the ones who can explain
the idea of the program.
I have the feeling that I am doing something. Maybe it's not the most
important program in all our projects, but it's not the least
important either. It's an important part of the programs of MSF-B,
because if you want people to go to our dispensaries, then you have to
explain things. It is necessary to convince people that they have to
pay attention to their health, so it's an important part of the
Can you think of a particular situation where you remember really
thinking you could see the value of the work you are doing?
I remember my first visit in a school and I went to the class to see
our new children keypersons (children trained to teach their peers)
who were around 16-17 years old and they were teaching the younger
ones. And it was great because they were taking their task very
seriously, and they were teaching the other children something which
was important for them. Our aim was to teach the keypersons and then
for them to take over, and this is what they have been doing, and
doing it very well.
When we see this we are very happy, because then
you have a reason to go on - because if they believe in what we are
doing then they can convince the younger ones. This is not always easy
but they can do it - they know the language, they know how to explain
things to the children, some of them are their brothers, cousins or
whatever, and for them maybe it's easier to give the message of health
And how does the class react to the keypersons' classes?
Very well. Here they study a lot, they learn everything by heart and
they are eager to answer the questions, so each time a keyperson asks
something, the children want to answer the questions. And when we
spoke with the class, they all wanted to be teachers, so it's a
success in a kind of way because we taught them how to love to teach
and apparently they enjoy it.
It works, the children are very active,
and the students all take it very seriously - there is almost no
absenteeism in the public health classes, they never forget their
books, they always prepare stories about disease or whatever. If they
have homework, they will prepare it and they will be eager to show you
what they have been preparing. This is very pleasant.
What is it like to work in Sumgayt?
I see it differently now. At first, you just see everything as totally
devastated, but then you get to know the people, and when you go to
their places and they welcome you, and then you start to see things
differently. I don't see the ugly landscape anymore, maybe I try to
forget it as if you notice it too much you will get depressed, but you
just tend to see the good things in the place, I try to, and to think
about how we really can do something here.
When you first arrived in Azerbaijan, was there anything which took
some adjusting to?
Well, the mentality is different, it's not easy. When I say that I am
French, it is difficult for them to understand this - they need to
know your origin, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm not coming from
Morocco, I'm coming from France.
There was quite a lot of racism
actually. If you're not blonde, it's more difficult for you, and
especially if you look more Arab. For me it was very difficult at the
beginning to confront this, but now it's fine. They didn't greet me,
or they called me "chorny" (black), but I didn't ever have this
problem with the refugees.
As soon as I was far from Baku, I didn't
ever have a problem with this, I have never had to actually say where
I am from with the refugees. I speak French, so for them I am French
and that's it. I can't really understand this - maybe because in
Sumgayt, I have the role of the manager and I work for MSF. In Baku, I
just meet people, so they don't think about who I am or what I