Unification News for October 2002

IRFF Medical Project in Albania

by Aleks and Zsuzsi Sulejmani

We all gathered at Tirana bus station in the morning, April 20, and at 8 o'clock we began our journey to the southern part of Albania. We estimated that there was 6 to 7 hours of traveling ahead of us. The first 2 hours didn't seem uncomfortable at all; we enjoyed the new and only highway in the Albanian road system. At 1 o'clock in the afternoon we arrived at one of the biggest cities of south Albania, Tepelena.

Our original plan was to stop one hour outside of this city and cross the River Vjosa by boat in order to reach our first project site, but the water level had risen and the boat couldn't cross. So, from Tepelena we got a minivan and just squeezed in all of our belongings, and added another hour and a half to our trip. We arrived at our accommodation at around 3 o'clock.

The rest of the day we spent offering gifts to our 2 Albanian host families, and exploring the local area. We concluded the day with a group meeting as preparation for the next, the first day of service.

At 7 o'clock next day we gathered for breakfast, planning to leave at 8 o'clock for the first village. Our schedule for the visits had been prepared by the local mayor. We arrived at the first village, Dhemblaj at about 9.30, later than we expected, our arranged transport having failed to arrive. Many people were there waiting for us together with the mayor.

The population of Dhemblaj is between 500-600 people, about 100 families. We were given a place for the free medical service, the building that had been the museum of Enver Hoxha, a former communist leader. The mayor arranged a nurse to help us and was amazed at the way people just kept coming. It was difficult to get into the doctors consulting room; it was only possible after pushing strongly through the mass of noisy, smiling villagers.

On this first day, 45 people came and were treated by the doctors, this was more than on a normal day in the hospital. Gradually, as we got more information we started to understand these people better. For example, people would say things like "I've had this problem for 3 months" and "my 2 year old child has been sick for 2 months." The problem on surface is that the doctor from the government doesn't often come, but I'll explain more later. At 3 o'clock that afternoon our doctors finished their work and decided to return the next day because there were many school children, and it was important to examine them.

A local family prepared lunch for us with mutton, a popular and typical meat of Albania. This was the first time that some of our group had tried food prepared this way. The joy and respect they felt made this day like a celebration for them. The unique, soft character and songs from the Japanese volunteers from the IIFWP brought tears to the eyes of the people.

The next morning we went again to find some transport. People who want to travel usually arrive early because the roads are so bad, and there is no transport available later. We waited, but unfortunately no van came, but while we waited, we had a meeting with the local mayor. He expressed his gratitude for this project and left us in no doubt about its necessity. Actually, he said not even one doctor wants to stay here, not because it's a poor area, but because it's a so-called "dead" place. There is no cinema here, no restaurant, or even a pub or anything that brings the people out of their homes. Life is monotonous.

Finally we found a car, we were 8 people seated in a jeep designed for 5, but we were happy to go, we knew that people were waiting for us. At around 10 o'clock we arrived. On this day our doctors checked 30 students from the village school and some others who could not get treatment the day before. Some of the children were very sick, and this made us sad. Others just had small problems.

The next day we went to a truly beautiful place, called Motohasanaj. It is situated on top of a small mountain and waiting for us was a fabulous view of the whole area. A local family offered their house for us to use as a clinic and soon after people started to gather. This is a difficult place to get to and though there are 150-160 houses, there are only 50-60 families living here. The rest have left to find a better place with better prospects. This is typical of the degeneration of this area, there were still high schools here in 1995, but today there are only primary schools.

As we continued our service we came to realize our stock of medicine was inadequate, the doctors had already started to give prescriptions. People here are very open and obliging, and patiently waited for their turn. At around 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the doctors finished their work and after gathering with the rest of the group, we traveled back to our accommodation.

The next day we stayed and worked at Sinanaj, the central town of this area and with the best infrastructure - the reason why a government doctor had visited 2 months previously. This town has a new clinic, the only one having 5 treatment rooms and full-time nurses. Around 30 people came including children from the neighboring school.

The doctors managed to finish their work around 2 pm. That was when we faced a big dilemma concerning how best to continue the project. The nearest village was larger and about 2 hours away, and we didn't have staff for a bigger place. The only other place was a small village nearby that had seen its population decrease to 10% of what it was in 1997. Just 6 or 7 families remained, so we questioned whether it was worthwhile going there. Somehow we felt, if we simply neglect that place, we are not finishing our job here, our mission would not be complete. So, we decided, next day, early in the morning we would go there, as our last location.

So, for the rest of the day we went for a walk, to get to know nature in this part of the country. Typically this part of the country is mountainous, so especially in summer time there are not so many green spaces. Only in the spring can we see meadow flowers and green grass here. At other times everything is burned dry and brown by the sun. (photo 11) But there was a surprise, unexpectedly, even for our Albanian participants, 200m down in a valley we found forest with tall trees on the banks of a stream, it was like another climate. This environment could resist even the highest temperatures in the mountains.

In order do not lose time, we decided we would visit the last place (Mamugjinaj ) and travel back immediately after we finished. We arrived at the village before 8 o'clock and just went to one of the houses. The people didn't know that we were coming but gathered there within half an hour. Every one of them had something to discuss with a doctor, it was necessary to refer some serious cases for further analysis at the hospital. We could give medicines in just a few cases; others received prescriptions. By 9.30 we had finished and we went back to our accommodation.

During the week not only our foreign participants but also Albanian ones could feel as if they were on an expedition, meeting with different customs and backgrounds. Our journey back emphasized this even more. We chose another way from the way we came; as with our original plan, we went through the river that we couldn't cross coming here. We managed to save 3 hours by traveling by this route, and what a pleasure it was!

Crossing the river without shoes, by donkey and by boat, hiking across hills covered with bushes, this was the last opportunity to say good-bye to this unforgettable and beautiful place, Albania.

Finally, what was the overall result of this project, of course we could provide valuable assistance to people, but could we change the circumstances of their life?

It is true that doctors visit this area only rarely but also people are moving away from their suffering and their need. They don't have any hope to rise out of their circumstances in this area. Families can eat fruit and vegetables such as carrots for example only in 2-3 months of the year and the local shops can only supply the most basic things, like noodles. Items such as fish, preserved fruits, honey, and jam are already scarce. People are bored with dull and mundane things, and young people feel trapped.

Scientific research has shown that one cause of many sicknesses is isolation, separation from the world and from other people. We visited just a few places but they were in desperate need of help.

A person who knows the dusty and dirty Capital and other cities of Albania, also knows that this area is one of the treasures of the country with its beautiful mountains, clean environment and strong family traditions.

Could there be more investment in this part of the country?

The government plans to build a hydroelectric power station here, that would provide jobs for local people and the area could begin to open up. But those plans now are no more than dreams if we think about that how long it took to construct the only national grade road, and only 1/4 of that has been completed! New roads would give the possibility of connecting with the rest of the world.

This region could be a national tourist attraction and the traditions and purity of these people would be seen as national treasures.

I would like to encourage anyone reading this report and seeing the photos to assist in finding way to make those road links possible.

We would like to offer our gratitude for the sponsorship and support of IRFF and IIFWP, and for Dr. Massimo Trombin for making this project possible. We would also like to thank IRFF Austria for supplying most of the medicines. Thanks too for the kind cooperation of Njazi Bega, the mayor of Tepelena villages. Finally, thanks to the many people who made their contribution with the preparation, translation, transportation and accommodation etc.

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