“THE CONFLICT ZONE WAS HIS COMFORT ZONE” – Health and Human Rights Conference 2016

Day 2 of the Health and Human Rights conference was very humbling, eye-opening and interactive. Things kicked off with a special keynote from a refugee student: James T. Madhier. Born during a vicious civil war in Southern Sudan, he grew up without knowing the difference between violence and peace. He shared a very honest anecdote of his grueling experiences, touching upon the drastic differences in living conditions of people from regions of conflict.

He used to wake up and go to sleep to the sound of bullets. Mid-afternoon, he’d hear the sound of explosions and bombs destroying parts of his neighborhood. Over the years, he learned to distinguish between the sound of planes that dropped bombs and planes that dropped aid. Generally, the former flew in higher altitudes, whereas the latter would fly in lower altitudes. One day, a plane flew by really close to the neighbourhood; unalarmed by this sound, his family continued on with their daily activities, grateful that fresh supplies were being dropped off. Several minutes later, the house next door exploded. Life was never stable, always chaotic and unexpected.

At the mere age of five, James was bitten on his leg by a dangerously poisonous snake: a puff adder. Normally, the outcome of such an incident is either amputation or death. Despite a period of intense suffering, he slowly recovered. Several years later, one of his closest friends encountered the same snake; however, they did not share the same fate – they died within 24 hours. Doctors Without Borders was the only clinic available, but it was too far away and there was no means of transportation to get there in a reasonable amount of time. Regrettably, he expressed that if only someone with a medical background was around to help them out, then his friend would have probably survived.

Eventually, he fled the country and turned his life around. However, the transition was difficult for him at first. The conflict zone had always been his comfort zone. From his perspective, he had lived a “normal life,” but in the most abnormal environment, accustomed to all the pain around him. Witnessing so much trauma and inequality made James start to question why there was such a lack of services, resources, political support, information and proper aid in places like Sudan. The biggest priority for the UN is to provide rations; nevertheless, the meals were only enough for survival. It became apparent to him that health in conflict zones has been hugely overlooked and neglected.

Later on, as the attendees split up into the breakout sessions, we discovered we had students from all ends of the spectrum: economics, sociology, global health, nutrition, immunology and much more. It became obvious that the topics of health and human rights go hand-in-hand, and appeal to individuals from a wide range of polarized backgrounds. These blunt disparities seen across the globe can only be worked on from an interdisciplinary angle. The Health and Human Rights conference was a reminder that global health is not only about infectious disease control, development of effective drug treatments, or sending aid to developing countries. Global health is also an area of research on improving health equity.

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