Medical student writes of experience working at women's clinic in Syrian refugee camp

February 11, 2014

By David Martin

Hannah Anderson
Hannah Anderson

A University of Kansas School of Medicine student spent the break between her first and second years of medical school working at a women's clinic inside a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. She wrote a powerful account of her experience, and it was published recently in The Atlantic online.

The student, Hannah Myrick Anderson, traveled to Mafraq, a city in Jordan at the center of the refugee crisis, last June. Most days, she hailed a taxi or traveled with aid workers to Zaatari, a refugee camp near the Syrian border. She worked alongside a midwife at a reproductive health clinic much of the time.

The Department of History and Philosophy of Medicine provided a fellowship that enabled Anderson to travel to Jordan. The Clendening Summer Fellowship is open to first-year medical students. Many fellowship recipients use the $2,500 award to pursue international projects.

For Anderson, the six weeks she spent in Jordan was a sort of homecoming.

Anderson grew up in a family committed to missions work. Her father, Timothy Myrick, M.D., is a family physician. The family lived in England, France, the Comoros Islands and Tunisia before moving to Jordan.

Anderson attended middle school and high school in Mafraq, a city in northcentral Jordan. She returned to the United States to pursue her bachelor's degree at the University of Missouri. (Her parents and younger brothers, meanwhile, moved to Kenya.) While at Mizzou, Anderson interned with Voice of America. Writing health care stories for Voice of America's TV to Africa programs convinced her that she wanted to work in health care and not merely report on it. She took some science courses, shadowed a doctor and applied to medical school.

The civil war in Syria grew out of the Arab Spring protests of 2011. The conflict has pushed 500,000 refugees into Jordan. Zaatari, just outside of Mafraq, is the largest settlement in Jordan. Watching the events unfold in the news, "I sort of felt like, that's my home," Anderson says.

Anderson planned her trip to Mafraq during her first year of medical school. Working through the United Nations, she found a Jordanian agency that provides health care to Syrian refugees as well as poor Jordanians. She knew she wanted to volunteer at a clinic that served women. "Growing up overseas," she says, "I could see how difficult life could be for women, particularly in terms of inadequate health care."

In Mafraq, Anderson stayed in the house of an American family that was away. The refugee camp was only a few miles from the house. She worked in two reproductive health clinics. In The Atlantic story, Anderson describes taking patient histories, assisting with baby deliveries and helping the midwife distribute birth control. Many teenage girls in the camp are wives and mothers.

"When asked, the Syrian women tell me that marriage between the ages of 15 and 18 is common and expected in Syria," Anderson writes in her story. "They also say girls are married even younger in the camp. Here, the social structure that existed in Syria is almost entirely broken down. In the midst of a fragmented society, women are not surrounded by a large protective extended family. "

At one clinic, she noticed that the women frequently complained about abdominal and lower back pain and burning urination. She learned that women in the camp develop urinary tract infections because they visit the bathrooms, which they know to be filthy and fear to be unsafe, as little as possible.

The Arabic that Anderson learned when she was younger enabled her to communicate with the patients and their Jordanian caregivers. "I wouldn't say that I'm fluent," she says. "But it came back enough that I could talk to people."

Anderson's husband joined her in Mafraq for the first two weeks of her stay. Her father visited for a time, as well.

Though she has chosen medicine as her career, Anderson continues to love to write. In January, she emailed The Atlantic, a publication she admires, with idea of writing an account of her experience in Jordan. She was put in touch with the health editor. The story was published Jan. 24. 

The story details the despair in the refugee camp. Anderson concludes that in addition to difficult living conditions, the women face a lack of community structure. She writes:

Here, in the midst of chaos, in a camp full of displaced people fleeing a war torn country, it's easy for the women to feel forgotten, as though they've entirely lost their place in the world. Gone are their homes and their possessions. Gone are some of their family members and friends. Gone is their membership in a specific community. They struggle to create some kind of normalcy. They set up shops. They move their tents close to people they knew in Syria. They try to find jobs working for the aid agencies. But their society is still fragmented.

Last modified: Feb 13, 2014