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Team Of Seven Help Thousands Of Refugees Access Medical Care Across The World

When all that most of the world can do is watch, pray or donate money, a small team of hands-on Adventist volunteers are saving lives on the ground in regions like Iraq, Ukraine...

When all that most of the world can do is watch, pray or donate money, a small team of hands-on Adventist volunteers are saving lives on the ground in regions like Iraq, Ukraine, and aiding other humanitarian crises by giving refugees and victims of war access to free medical care. 

They proudly call themselves “Adventist Help”. 

Recently, vice president of Adventist Help, Michael-John von Horsten, and country manager for Iraq, Hilde Camacho, sat down with Adventist News Network for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the incredible work done by their core team of only seven volunteers.

WHAT DOES ADVENTIST HELP DO?

“We’re a very small organization,” says von Hörsten. “Our team consists of a group of health administrators, nurses and doctors. We like to do pertinent medical assignments in areas that need help the most. We’ve been operating since 2015—so that’s seven years already!”

Starting their operation in Greece back in 2015, Adventist Help was born on the island of Lesbos, managing acute trauma and medical emergencies for refugees arriving from Turkey via Syria and Afghanistan. 

“We were in the right place at the right time,” says von Hörsten. “The beachfront where our bus clinic was situated ended up being one of the busiest arrival points for refugees crossing a treacherous sea channel in small boats. We also set up an operation in mainland Greece, running a primary clinic in an Afghan refugee camp.”

Then in 2016, World Church president Pastor Ted Wilson asked Adventist Help to move into Iraq. The refugees in this area have been a central focus of their work ever since.

“We arrived during the war when northern Iraq was trying to liberate the region from ISIS. We partnered with ADRA and set up one of the biggest primary and emergency units for the five camps east of war-torn Mosul and provided essential medical services to a population of over 100,000 people—mostly the elderly, women and children. They’d all lost their homes and many family members in the fighting,” says von Hörsten.

 

[Photos Courtesy of Adventist Help]

At the height of its operation, the Iraq project had a 9-bed emergency room, a primary care unit, a mental health unit and a dental service. More than 150 doctors and nurses had passed through the clinic, each visiting for three weeks or more during their leave.

In 2018, due to some political issues in the country, the facility was temporarily closed. At the same time, Adventist Help was invited to partner with ADRA to build a field hospital in a refugee camp in Uganda.

Hilde and his wife Leah—who works as a full-time volunteer nurse manager for Adventist Help—were quick to move to Uganda for the project. 

“We were there to help a massive refugee camp called ‘Kyaka II’, home to more than 150,000 people. We went to build a field hospital, and while we were there in 2019, our first son was born,” he says. Although COVID forced the hospital to close, it is expected to have funding to reopen this year.

Before lockdowns made traveling difficult, the Camachos moved back to Iraq to rebuild the presence of Adventist Help, and to run other projects. To do so, Adventist Help established a solo operation by registering themselves in Kurdistan as a new local NGO.

“Our new sub-organization in Iraq is called ‘AdventRelief Medical Care’,” explains von Hörsten. “We have recently reopened our emergency room in the Hasan Sham U2 camp. There are still around 20,000 people stranded there with no access to emergency medical care. So, we’re back to fill that gap!”

“It can be very stressful and intense,” continues Camacho. “We need to be available 24/7. In the camps, there is no medical care after 1 pm, except for one nurse from another organization who stays until 8 pm most days. All he does is tell people to come back tomorrow, so we met this need and have started by offering medical care from 6 pm to 8 am. We’re hoping to go 24/7 by April or May this year.” 

In the past few weeks, Adventist Help has also expanded its operation into Ukraine, given the current humanitarian crisis in the region. 

“We sent our first team members to assess the Ukraine border this week, and it looks like we’ll be setting up a clinic in Moldova, about 100 meters from the border to Ukraine. Refugee camps are being established there, so there’s an influx of people expected,” explains von Hörsten, as he also prepares to visit the area. “There’s more refugee support in the north on the Polish border, but Moldova is poorer and less able to handle the influx of refugees so we’re basing our operation there.” 

HOW DO THE FACILITIES OPERATE?

As mentioned, ADRA and the UNHCR have historically provided funding or resources for Adventist Help to continue their work, however now running mostly independently in Iraq, the organization relies strongly on the generosity of donors and volunteers. 

“Most of our fundraising is to pay local Iraqi doctors and nurses a salary to work in our clinic,” explains von Hörsten. “Then we bring in international staff to augment the team. This allows us to do bigger projects for less money. We like to hire local teams and pay locals a fair wage.” 

Despite this, the cost of hiring qualified staff and medical overheads quickly adds up.

“The problem of health is that it’s expensive,” says Camacho. “Doctors and nurses are professionals. The refugee camp is about 45 minutes out of Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi-Kurdistan region, so without a normal salary, medical professionals have no reason to come and work with us.”

“Keeping medical equipment running is expensive as well,” von Horsten adds. “They were going to charge us $2500 last week just to change some software, money we don’t have.”

Operating with only the most essential equipment and medicines, Camacho explains that it can be a difficult experience for international volunteers to adjust. 

“You need to be willing to get out of your comfort zone,” he says. “Most volunteers who come from Western countries are used to working with certain equipment and in certain conditions. When you come to these projects, you need to be creative. We might not have all the medicine and equipment they’re used to, but what we have is enough. Most volunteers are very kind, generous and understanding, but sometimes people are surprised.”

Despite this lack of resources, the clinic in Iraq typically treats more than 10,000 people every year, most of whom von Hörsten describes as having “seen the face of hell”.

 

[Photos Courtesy of Adventist Help]

From seeing family members and friends being decapitated to captured as ISIS sex slaves, to starving or dying from hypothermia or heatstroke, most refugees in Iraq—even children—have suffered acute trauma, either physically or emotionally. 

“It changes the way you think,” explains von Hörsten. “To just sit with someone in their tent and drink tea and listen to their story means so much to them. It’s priceless. It’s been really rewarding to go with a small budget and see how far we can stretch it to help people.”

HEALTH—THE RIGHT ARM OF THE GOSPEL

“People are also often surprised by how welcoming the refugee community is to Adventists,” says Camacho, explaining that most refugees are Muslim but very friendly and open to conversations with people from other walks of life.

“We have a lot in common,” says Camacho. “They have a lot of curiosity. Although Muslims don’t believe that Jesus died, they believe there will be a great controversy or battle between good and evil at the end of time. It’s a great discussion to have with them sometimes,” laughs Camacho. “With groups like ISIS around, lots of Iraqis are searching. They question everything. And they ask us, ‘Why are you different? You’re not like other Christians.’”

In this respect, Adventist Help approaches ministry by bringing physical healing and bringing hope in whatever way they can. The team says that they’ve seen the Holy Spirit work powerfully through their ministry. “As they say, health is the right arm of the gospel,” says Camacho.

“We are very close to the refugee community here. Many of the people that visit our clinic love and trust the word ‘Adventist’. They feel they are part of a community. This tells how much they love us, and we’re so happy to have that witness!” says Camacho.

It’s not just the patients, but also the staff who are exposed to Adventists through their health ministry. 

“We do a devotion in the team house every morning with whoever wants to be part of it. We don’t force people, but they’re always welcome. There are lots of volunteers who work with us who aren’t Christian. Most aren’t Adventists. We’ve had volunteers come in and some of the local staff, for example, the translators, have joined us in the past and asked us if we would pray for people. It’s a great opportunity to share in that sense,” says Camacho.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

As well as expanding their services in Iraq, and soon establishing a clinic in Moldova, both von Horsten and Camacho have big dreams for the future of Adventist Help. 

“We’re trying to start a dental service,” says Camacho. “And we’d love to start some mobile clinics for both dental and primary health care. There are also opportunities for community health education—health seminars and workshops. These refugees have been living in camps for five years or more, they’re not in a state of emergency anymore. So, we need to teach them how to prevent health problems, as well as treat their immediate ones.”

In June this year, a team of volunteers—including some dentists—are scheduled to visit Adventist Help in Iraq, and it is hoped that the dental and mobile clinics will be established when they come.

As well as working full time for Adventist Help, Hilde and Leah are artists, and they’re currently planning a vision to bring communities together by painting murals in a refugee camp in Syria. 

“We want to bring international artists to come and paint the camp, as well as businessmen and women to run seminars and teach the refugees how to support themselves with their own businesses,” he explains. “The idea is to bring visibility to their lives. We can change the way people think about refugees by finding a way to incorporate them into the wider community. We hope that this art project will bring them happiness, hope and joy. 

If you’d like to volunteer with Adventist Help or support the ministry financially, please visit www.adventisthelp.org. If you’d like to be involved in the painting project, you can contact Hilde Camacho at artodidacta@gmail.com or message him on Instagram at @hagaiel.

 Adventist Help emphasizes that all volunteers must have medical experience to join their team. While they appreciate the good intentions of non-medically skilled people to volunteer, they require volunteers who have experience working as a nurse, doctor or dentist.

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