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Medical Volunteer Helene Against SGBV

Trigger warning: this text is about sexual and gender-based violence.
Cultural mediators work together with medical volunteers in the SAMEN project to offer the best possible support to migrants facing issues related to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). While cultural mediators share a migrant background with migrants, medical volunteers bring in the necessary medical expertise. Together as a team, they provide guidance for migrants who have experienced SGBV. The SAMEN team spoke to Helene, one of the medical volunteers working on the SAMEN project, to discuss her experiences.


 From Vet to Doctor

“My name is Helene, and I work as a medical volunteer at Dokters van de Wereld in Amsterdam. My background is a bit unusual – I previously also worked as a veterinarian, including in Afghan refugee camps. This might sound strange, but people in refugee camps depend on their cattle to sustain their livelihoods. Besides, vets keep an eye on public health in the camps.

While working in the camps, women often approached me with their problems. For instance, they survived sexual violence and were not allowed to use contraceptives. The stories of widows also stuck with me, especially because of their difficult socioeconomic status in Afghan society and all issues deriving from this status. Noticing the potential for doctors to offer critical support for these women, I decided to study medicine.”

In the SAMEN project

“I often work from the Healthcare Café at Dokters van de Wereld: a low-threshold open consultancy hour where migrants and homeless people seek psychological or medical support. People who prefer not to go to a regular doctor or find it difficult to talk about their mental health can easily find us. We have time to listen to their experiences and make sure to guide them to suitable healthcare support in the Netherlands. To do so, we need to build a relationship of trust, which takes time. While time is scarce for many regular healthcare providers, cultural mediators and medical volunteers do have time on their hands.

At the Healthcare Café, people often approach me with questions about SGBV. For example, I sometimes talk to migrant women who have been abused during their journey by fellow migrants or smugglers. Some women I speak to came to the Netherlands under false pretenses. Upon arrival, they were locked up and sexually abused. We try to support them in the best way we can. Through the SAMEN project, I have gained better insight into where people with these kinds of experiences can go for support. This allows me to act sooner, for instance, to prevent a case of female genital mutilation.”

Helene Dokters van de Wereld SAMEN project2Culturally Sensitive Approach

“Cultural sensitivity is integral to our work. The medical volunteers and cultural mediators regularly participate in training and peer review sessions to ensure that we handle cases with cultural sensitivity. The presence of cultural mediators, who share backgrounds with patients, fosters comfort and understanding. Cultural mediators would also do well in other healthcare services, for instance, during consultancy hours and hospital intakes.

Furthermore, our team ensures to get to the core of the problem: what is it that the patients really want to discuss with us? What expectations do they have? And what is needed? Of course, we sometimes face challenges in getting to the issue’s core. For instance, speaking directly about one’s feelings or experiences is not always easy. Yesterday, a lady approached me for help with a wound on her leg, while the appointment allowed her to talk about another bad experience.

Then, there are different definitions to be aware of; what does someone see as abuse? Some visitors of the Healthcare Cafe are used to girls being married off at a young age, but in the Netherlands, this is considered an offence to their rights and lives. We open this conversation in the Healthcare Cafes.”

Communication and Collaboration

“Essentially, it all revolves around communication. We maintain regular contact with the women. We check in on how they are doing regularly and make sure that they know that we are here for them. But mostly: that their stories matter, that they matter.

The importance of collaboration is captured in the SAMEN project: there are many support organizations, but they do not always find each other. The wheel is then reinvented again and again. So, besides these women in need of support, organizations sometimes also struggle to find each other. The SAMEN project emphasizes collaboration among support organizations, preventing duplication of efforts and ensuring effective resource allocation. I like to see so many people being involved in relieving the pain of others. I am proud to be a part of SAMEN’s mission.”

If you've experienced SGBV and would like to discuss it or seek support, please find more information on how to connect with the Migrant Ambassadors and medical professionals of Dokters van de Wereld here.

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