Bringing help and hope to war victims: When Shennong meets Avicenna in Iraqi Kurdistan
Anne-Lise Prigent, editor in charge of development publications at OECD Publishing.
Can a Chinese herbalist emperor ever meet a Persian thinker of the Islamic Golden age? Well, you’d be surprised… “If my strength is needed, then I must go forth.” “I hope I can be of aid.” These are the words of Shennong, the father of traditional Chinese medicine. It is also the calling of Shennong & Avicenne, a French medical NGO. Shennong & Avicenne combines traditional and modern medicine, Western and Eastern approaches. A scientist and a philosopher, Persian Avicenna was the father of modern medicine, the 11th century’s famous Muslim “prince of physicians”. More than a thousand years after his time, new warfare seems to be emerging – it is agile and powerful, mobile and violently radical. Shennong & Avicenne helps war victims in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The UNHCR estimates that there are 2.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons in Iraqi Kurdistan. Many of them are Yazidis and Christians who have lost everything fleeing Daesh; others are Muslim. Some were made prisoners by Daesh and managed to escape. Despite efforts by the Kurdish authorities and the international community to build camps to shelter them, the influx has been so massive and so sudden that 90% of the refugees are scattered around the territory, in isolated regions far from the help and services they need. They are living in waste dumps, empty buildings, improvised camps… where sanitary conditions are catastrophic.
Faced with this situation, Shennong & Avicenne felt they had to be next to the scattered populations who need their help. They raised funds to buy a truck in France to use as a mobile dispensary and a bus for women and children’s health care, thanks to the support of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Alliance des Femmes pour la Démocratie. Every day, Shennong and Avicenne visits more than 30 sites in the provinces of Erbil and Duhok and takes care of thousands of ailing victims.
We asked Elise Boghossian, the organisation’s founder and president, to tell us about Shennong & Avicenne and the work they are doing in Iraqi Kurdistan. Below, she talks about the philosophy behind their approach; the people they treat; the situation on the ground; and what we can do to help.
From Paris to Viet Nam through China, Elise Boghossian has become an expert “war” acupuncturist. Her recently-published book (Au royaume de l’espoir, il n’y a pas d’hiver : Soigner en zone de guerre) recounts her journey and calling. In Armenia, Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan, Boghossian demonstrates that acupuncture is an efficient and cost-effective way of relieving pain and healing patients. Acupuncture, she argues, can become part of health care services in conflict-affected zones, where medical products are often missing or fake.
In her book, Boghossian discusses the pitfalls of aid – and how to avoid them: “I think there are two main pitfalls in aid. First, our presence can lead to dependency and create additional needs. We must accept the limits of our action, and let those we’ve come to help be autonomous, free, and most importantly, we must ensure they keep their dignity. We should support them in this. Putting things right when they’ve gone wrong is essential. The other pitfall is the inverse relationship between our need for recognition, (…) and the risk of not respecting the Other, his difference, his culture, his living conditions.”
Boghossian’s infinite respect can be sensed throughout the book. One thinks of Levinas. The Other’s face is exposed, vulnerable. It makes one demand more of oneself. “The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation.” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity) Face to face with Daesh’s victims, Boghossian heals them and sometimes even seems to breathe new life into victims who have lost everything. Boghossian’s Armenian roots have not been forgotten and she will not let the history of genocide repeat itself without standing by today’s victims. As stated by Levinas, the face is what forbids us to kill. Yet, some of the scenes described in the book are horrific. “Wait” some of the refugees said to Boghossian, “you have not seen anything yet, this is only the beginning.” This was back in January 2015.
“They [Daesh] hate difference, whether it is Muslims who think differently, Yazidis or Christians (…)” (The Archbishop of Canterbury). Shennong & Avicenne takes care of victims, whatever their religion – Christian, Yazidi, Muslim. The organisation’s medical staff (doctors, paediatricians, nurses, gynaecologists etc.) are refugees themselves and they are employed irrespective of their race, ethnic origin or beliefs.
Boghossian won’t let herself be intimidated or silenced. One closes her book in awe. This woman has the determination and stamina of a Florence Nightingale. Both women have grit, “good” grit as Howard Gardner defines it – perseverance and the accumulation of valued traits, a “can-do” attitude, a positive, constructive mindset that benefits others – and brings deep meaning to their lives. Nightingale famously nursed wounded soldiers in the hellish world of Crimean warfare and revolutionised nursing practices in Britain. She was remembered as the lady with the lamp:
Lo! in that house of misery
A lady with a lamp I see
Pass through the glimmering gloom
What is less well known is that Florence Nightingale saved so many lives also because of the data she gathered and her expert use of statistics. She was passionate about data. Boghossian is not the lady with the lamp, but she has needles and data too. Data about the impact of acupuncture on the health of patients is now available (and its effect on the brain can be demonstrated). The book begs a question: why is acupuncture not more commonly used in conflict-torn areas, in conjunction with other medical practices (as is done by Shennong & Avicenne)? As Levinas pointed out, “the very relationship with the other is the relationship with the future.”
On their modest scale, Shennong & Avicenne bring a scarce commodity to those who have lost everything: a glimmer of hope. In 2015, Shennong & Avicenne was in touch with 50,000 war victims and 30,000 procedures were carried out. Grit will make a difference – it always has and always will.
Entretien avec Elise Boghossian pour OECD Insights Anne-Lise Prigent