Hand-Washing Day!

8 Dec 2015
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I would like to show you some pictures. Pictures taken by and distributed with permission and much thanks.

For our team, these pictures tell two stories. One is the story of health promotion activities in two Lebanese informal tented settlements (ITS). The story of children coping, for all we could see, with the grave restrictions on their rights, as children are wont to do: with admirable persistence and positivity. (Of course, until they don’t . . . But that is a story for another day . . .).

Global Hand-washing Day is an annual October 15 campaign designed to increase awareness and understanding about the importance of hand-washing with soap as an easy, effective, and affordable way to prevent the spread of disease; a simple way to save lives.

MSF’s Tripoli health promotion team conducted awareness sessions for Syrian children in the informal tented settlements via song, games, and a puppet show. The education sessions were followed by the distribution to each child of a hygiene kit containing soap, toothpaste, and a toothbrush.

Poverty. Complexity. Smiles, fascination, interaction, gratitude, education.

You can’t replace the humility you feel when a child accepts a gift of toothpaste and soap with such excitement. No more words are needed for this tale. The pictures say it all.





The second story behind these pictures is a little more subtle, and without detracting from the reality of these children’s life and circumstance, I attempt to tell it. It’s the story of the team working there that day, including those like me who were non-core to this aspect of the health promotion team’s work, but warmly invited to be part of the hand-washing festivities.

Our project here is long-standing and many of the national, permanent team members have weathered seemingly unending challenges, changes, and developments. To a newcomer like myself, this is part of the magic of MSF. Being on the front line, able to assess and reassess needs, and alter programming accordingly.

Those team members living and working here permanently cope with a constant flow of shorter-term, international team members, with the energy and challenges they, as any individuals, bring, and with the goodbyes as they move on, tugging at the team each and every time.

Being here the longest, in a crisis such as this, our permanent team colleagues have also witnessed the realities of the deterioration of the living situation of many Syrian refugees. Thus they weave into their lives their own stories of resilience, finding ways of enjoying and thriving.

They have my staunch admiration.



When I look at my photos of Hand-Washing Day, I smile to see so many of our team so happy. Members of the logistics team, the administrative team, and the medical team laughing and learning from some generous kids and families. Clamouring to be there, for they knew how good it would be for their own souls!

The delightful role of laughter in the well-being of patients, health workers, and community members alike.

The families in these settlements face challenges I cannot ever pretend to fathom. Acknowledging the lesser degree, still themes of resilience, mindfulness, survival, and laughter envelop the lives of us all.

Some days, tired days, when a lot of illness surrounds you, there can be a feeling of illness being the norm. For indeed it has become your own norm. Working in the chronic disease program, the children I see are, by definition, chronically unwell. Being here as an expatriate doctor in a supervisory role, the children in whose health I get most involved are then the sickest and most vulnerable of those.

To be a little bit sad, and to allow yourself to be cheered up by the marvellous health promotion team and their proactive activities is not a bad thing. It’s a reality of medical and humanitarian life and warrants acknowledgement. Humanitarians, like medicos, have learned over time that they need to invest in the mental health of their workers. Hand-washing Day, for me among a number of others, allowed a natural ebb and flow of positivity and resilience.

A close medical friend messaged me, "We are not designed to effortlessly witness human suffering."

A colleague in the humanitarian sector explained that when she needed a boost in a previous project she’d trip to the delivery suite. Seeing life emerge is an irreplaceable reminder of positivity and of the worth of what we are trying to do.

And thus here, in a setting where we balance challenge and a keen awareness of our own fortune, I watch our team need each other, and experience gratitude too for the energy the refugees, children and elderly alike, generously return to us.