Azerbaijan Interviews: Amal Mekkioui

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
  • French 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 found interesting. 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 programs. 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 education. 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 represent.