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One Doctor's Mission to Bring Healthcare to Refugee Women

About This Episode

After trading jazz for a Harvard education, this doctor chose to support refugees by not only working in a refugee camp in Turkey, but also by developing an app that supports refugees’ unique healthcare needs.

One of the major challenges of being a refugee is the lack of access to real healthcare, particularly for refugee women. But through the power of empathy and tech, there are now more avenues for refugees seeking proper care for their basic needs.

This week, we are joined by Aral Sürmeli, a Harvard educated refugee healthcare provider. Sürmeli has worked to offer solutions through public advocacy and digital solutions for refugees seeking shelter, pregnancy care, and much more. After starting his Masters in Public Health at Harvard University in the fall of 2018, Aral launched the HERA app — a mobile app connecting refugee mothers and children with preventative healthcare.

Before discovering his passion for refugee work, Aral spent his high school years in Turkey working for nonprofits and providing care for vulnerable communities. After losing his father to pancreatic cancer, however, Aral decided to study medicine and developed a focus in public health. In this episode, he shares how he became interested in refugee health after a visit to Turkish refugee camps — and how he’s exploring and working to solve the unique complications for refugees accessing healthcare through tech.


Guest: Aral Sürmeli, humanitarian and founder of HERA
Visit HERA’s website, project-hera.com.

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Transcript

Branden Harvey
You're in Istanbul, Turkey, right now, and you're working to support refugees. And I think a really good spot to start might actually just be talking about the journey that the refugees you serve have gone through. How do they end up in Turkey? What does that journey look like for them?

Aral Sürmeli
So the Syrian crisis started in 2011, and you might notice, but it is deemed as the largest refugee crisis since World War II. And Turkey is an immediate neighbor of Syria. And pre-war, we would actually visit like, Syria a lot. And they would visit Turkey a lot. So I think it was kind of normal that once there was a pushback and conflict, they kind of flee to Turkey. And one good thing that I'm quite proud of my country is that Turkey implemented an open door policy, so they didn't really stop refugees in the borders, but they allowed them to get in.

But it is still a huge trip and a traumatic experience for them because they left their houses quite urgently. So it was not a -- they didn't really have much time, and they came through the borders. And some of them the lucky ones, were relocated in the refugee camps near the Syria border. Some of them had to kind of flee to the larger cities because it's almost 4 million people that arrived in Turkey. And you can imagine it's not that easy to put everyone in a refugee camp and serve them better.

So what we saw is that a lot of them had to relocate to large cities like Istanbul, which harbors almost 1 million Syrian refugees.

Branden Harvey
Oh, wow.

Aral Sürmeli
Yeah. And they're basically trying to find a job and housing and to navigate the life in Turkey as refugees.

Branden Harvey
I've gotten to spend a good amount of time in refugee camps around the world, especially back when I was a full-time humanitarian photographer. And I know that there's a good amount of diversity in what housing for refugees can look like. I've seen anything from essentially tent village communities to kind of more temporary structures to communal housing. And then, of course, I've got friends who are refugees here in Portland, who just -- they live in a house across town with their family, and they live in an apartment.

You say there's a million refugees in Istanbul itself. What does the housing situation look like for the people that you're serving?

Aral Sürmeli
Majority of the refugees in Istanbul live in the the suburban parts of the city, right near the border of the city in usually unsafe houses that were either to be demolished or very unhygienic and unsafe. And one thing maybe to mention about Istanbuls is Istanbul is a city of 20 million people, and it is under a huge risk for natural disasters and everything. So what we usually see is people living in places that no one should live under.

Branden Harvey
How did you come to the point of serving the refugee community and Turkey?

Aral Sürmeli
It was a long process. I would say my experience working with vulnerable populations started in high school, working with different nonprofits.

Branden Harvey
And where did you go to high school?

Aral Sürmeli
It's in Turkey. American Robert College. So we had community projects and everything. Funny thing is, I was actually planning to go to Berkeley to study jazz. Jazz guitar.

Branden Harvey
Wow.

Aral Sürmeli
Yeah.

But then I lost my father to pancreatic cancer, and for some reason, not really consciously, I decided to study medicine. That's all. I wanted to serve the communities. And then I got interested in public health and, you know, humanitarian aid, working in disasters, earthquakes around Turkey and other countries. But what I saw the most working in the clinics that serve these populations was refugees experienced a huge trauma of fleeing their homes. And that's how I guess I got involved in working with them first in the clinics, refugee camps, and then kind of starting my own nonprofit where I can serve them in a different way.

Branden Harvey
I think that sounds so understandable that there would be this trauma from fleeing your home country and moving into a new community, especially when it comes to health. What did some of the challenges look like that were particularly unique to refugees who maybe didn't have access to the care that they needed?

Aral Sürmeli
So I mean, the easiest way to think about is everything that we experience health wise, any disease that we experience that are usually not very morbid or really important in our lives, they experience it much worse than that. So I wouldn't say it says specific diseases, but rather how they experience the diseases or how serious that their disease progress goes. Obviously, with the children and women, which are usually my focus. We see a lot of infections that are vaccine preventable, which we have had the solution or the treatment for the last 50 years.

But now that we don't have the vaccines for them, it became a huge issue again, with the women being pregnant in a refugee camp or while you're a refugee is a very lonely process. You don't really have people to understand your needs. You can't communicate with the doctor when you go to the hospital. So those are the largest issues that we saw. And obviously wanting to add here is the mental health cost of being a refugee or fleeing your home. So I would say those are the biggest issues that I saw in the field.

Branden Harvey
I'd love to zoom in just one step further. And maybe you can help me understand why everyday health concerns that you or me might have experienced might disproportionately affect refugees. What is it that they are uniquely facing that somebody who's maybe local to Istanbul may not experience in the same way?

Aral Sürmeli
It starts with the access to healthcare. So when you or may have a disease, we can either go to the pharmacy and pay for the drugs or quickly go to a doctor or talk to our primary care physician and get what we need. So it's not really that easy for the refugees if you don't know the language. If you don't know whether you can receive care without paying anything or how much you need to pay, that becomes a whole issue. On top of that, and one of the reasons that we are doing what we are doing is when you are in a new country as a refugee, you have to navigate a lot of things.

So you need to find housing. You need to find a job to take care of your family. You need to find schooling for your child, and that's when your health needs loses their priority until they become a serious, very serious issue when you cannot really do other things anymore. So I think those are the critical points that we saw and obviously living in unhygienic or unsafe conditions do bring a lot of health risks with them, especially for infections. You know, the chronic diseases where they cannot get the the medication they need for a longer time and everything. So yeah.

Branden Harvey
I think it's really helpful to hear some of these specific, unique problems that refugees may be facing once they arrive in a community, because I feel like for me, when I think about refugees, I just think about all right, let's help people get to a final destination. That's safer. Let's help them resettle. I think that's been a big focus with what's going on with Afghan refugees right now. I'm mostly thinking about how do you get people to safety. But the reality is, once somebody reaches a point of, quote, unquote safety, they still have so many more obstacles to overcome, but maybe a little bit less attention.

So first of all, I'm just very grateful that you are providing that attention to serve this community. But second, I think it's just helpful for me and listeners to hear that there are these unmet needs that there are opportunities to create solutions for, and you work to create solutions as a physician. But it sounds like you saw an opportunity to go one step further beyond your role serving people, one on one to ultimately create a tech tool that can help more people. Maybe you could tell me about HERA.

Aral Sürmeli
Yeah, definitely. Before I go into HERA, maybe one thing to mention is when you're in medical school, everyone has something that they're fascinated with. Like many of my friends were amazed by how we do the brain surgeries for really small tumors and how you pull that out and everything. One thing that kind of fascinated me was learning that if we can get everyone or every child to wash their hands with soap, we would decrease the number of infections or hospital admissions due to infections by health. So that's I guess how I was obligated from serving people to communities rather.

But from there we came to HERA a couple of years ago and basically what we try to do here is help them access vital or vaccines and pregnancy care through their mobile phones. So how it works is refugee mothers or pregnant women download the app and it automatically calculates when they need to go for a vaccine appointment for their children or pregnancy. Check up if the woman is pregnant. In addition to that, they can navigate the closest health center or call emergency services if they need one.

And HERA can also keep their medical records in a secure and digital way in the app. So we're essentially just putting the health back into the hands of the refugee individuals themselves.

Branden Harvey
So what I'm kind of pulling out of this and let me know if I'm wrong about any of this or if I'm missing other things because I'm sure I'm missing other things. It sounds like one. This is just creating a helpful hub to say, "This is the information you need to take care of your own health and to take care of the health of your children and family." Making that just more easily accessible is like huge. And then two, it sounds like just because of the experience the refugees have of maybe continuing to be mobile and moving to a different community, or maybe being really busy trying to find a job in housing, etc. It's providing resources like reminders or is providing resources like giving you all of your medical information and a mobile, easy to kind of transport way so that you can take control of your health even in the midst of unique circumstances. What am I missing? What other cool good news is there?

Aral Sürmeli
Yeah, you've summed it up perfectly. And the idea behind it is the solutions we provide for mobile populations have to be mobile because as you mentioned, they tend to move a lot and they move between cities between countries, and they just need a source that can help them navigate to healthcare services that are available to them. And we do kind of pride ourselves on being not replicating other solutions that exist, but rather help them connect them with the healthcare sources that they can actually receive.

Branden Harvey
I think that's huge. I think that that's a big thing that I hope to see a lot of growth in in the next decade is instead of folks creating nonprofits or tools that already exist, saying, how can I help support the things that already exist and make them better and more effective? And so you've been able to do that in a really unique and creative way. You created this. I believe you are a medical student. Did you have any sort of tech background to this? Like what skills did you bring to the table? Because building an app is hard.

Aral Sürmeli
It is hard. And to be honest, I really didn't have any technical background. I'm still watching YouTube videos on how to code just to learn. So there is this problem and how can we solve it. And then we started with more physical solutions, like distributing templates or talking to people one on one. But then we realized tech would enable a huge scalability for what we are doing. And that's when we realized this makes sense. But we really didn't have the experience to develop it ourselves. So we relied a lot on external service providers or advisers to help us on that.

But I'm still learning, I'm an aspiring coder.

Branden Harvey

That's amazing. And you just answered what my follow up question was going to be, which is that I love that you started small. I think that every single organization, movement, social impact tool that exists started way smaller than it is today. And it's actually just really encouraging to hear that you saw a problem. And you said, maybe I can help solve this with pamphlets. And then you said, oh, I could help solve this problem for more people by just taking this to the next level. And who knows what that next level will be after this, too?

Aral Sürmeli
Yeah. That's definitely the way we went about it. And that's how I think solutions that we have for vulnerable populations have to be, they have to like to say, come from the field. So not from the solution to problem, but rather problem to the solution.

Branden Harvey
So what does the future look like for this right now? It sounds like you are specifically serving refugees in Turkey over time. Could you see this being expanded to supporting other refugees, or maybe expanding the resources that are inside of this app?

Aral Sürmeli
Yeah. So I would say every forward step that we take, I kind of think of them as proof of concept or a pilot for something bigger. We did start with Syrian refugees, and one of the biggest problems that we saw were with child and maternal health. But there are actually a lot of users for mobile tools for other kind of diseases. But more importantly, I think our future is or the way I like to put it is have HERA as a tool that can be used in even in nearly occurring humanitarian disasters, where we can distribute forms to the refugees and help them connect to the health care they need and also connect to the people around the world that they have friends or their friends or their families.

So I think that's the ultimate goal for me. So the Syrian refugee crisis has been a huge experience for us. And now we are expecting a influx of Afghan refugees over the next couple of years. And we're also kind of seeing if we can pilot with other populations in India, Nigeria, and Iraq, whether this would be useful.

So I think that's the process or the future that we see with HERA.

Branden Harvey
And Afghanistan is either a border country or super close to Turkey, right?

Aral Sürmeli
Yeah. We don't actually share borders with Afghanistan, but we are pretty close.

Branden Harvey
How welcoming will Turkey be to Afghan refugees, do you know yet? Is there any kind of indication what that's going to look like?

Aral Sürmeli
I mean, I think it's hard to know for sure. There are a lot of political and economic gears on the move. One thing that I know is the Syrian refugee community in Turkey is the largest refugee population in the world.

Branden Harvey
Oh, wow.

Aral Sürmeli
And we did kind of the services. The public services were overstretched, so I'm really not sure how it's going to play out with the influx of Afghan refugees, or better. It will take a long time for them to resettle in Turkey. And to my knowledge, there is still nothing certain on whether Turkey will accept anyone or whether they'll move to another country. So it's really hard to kind of think about serving them at the moment.

Branden Harvey
That makes sense. I can imagine there's a lot of moving parts, and I'm just very grateful that you and your community are serving this community of refugees right now. I think that's really cool to hear. And I'm hopeful for more for the future and grateful for your technology, which will hopefully scale to have more of an impact. As we close our conversation, I want to wrap with one more question, which is just that for others who are perhaps serving a community or have a certain care for some cause that matters a lot to them, and they know that they want to start something that makes a difference that's maybe a little bit outside the box, a little bit creative.

What advice would you give to them as somebody who has created something outside the box, a little bit creative and ultimately built to help people and make a difference?

Aral Sürmeli
I think one thing I saw an experience throughout my journey in a humanitarian or nonprofit sector is the pivots. So I would recommend not being afraid of pivots because it was a huge part of my journey. And this doesn't mean that the solutions that we come up with are not important, but they -- all of them kind of build up to the point that we come at the end. So I would say, don't be afraid of pivots and always be on the look for opportunities or even the pain points that you see in the community that you want to work with.

Branden Harvey
That is such helpful and encouraging good news and Aral, this has been such a great conversation. I'm just so grateful for you and the good that you're doing, and for you taking the time to be on the show today. Thank you so much.

Aral Sürmeli
Thank you so much for having me.

Episode Details

September 20, 2021

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Sounds Good is the weekly podcast that hosts hopeful conversations with optimists and world-changers about the headlines we can be hopeful about — and how you can get involved and make a difference.

Every week, Good Good Good founder Branden Harvey sits down with the people driving positive change against the world's greatest problems. Each episode will leave you with a sense of hope about the good in the world — and a sense of direction on how we can all be a part of that good. Episodes are released every Monday.

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