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UT Senior Educates Palestinian Refugees about HIV

Published: July 13, 2010
There is a stigma connected with having HIV/AIDS in Palestine. UT’s Melissa Jiha ’10 is hoping to dispel that taboo by offering a better understanding of the disease through education. She is interning abroad with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

“I do feel I am making an impact on the Palestinian people not only by educating them and providing them with care but just by being around them,” Jiha said. “They make me feel that my willingness to come from the other side of the world to help them is more than enough since they are in great need of helping hands.”

UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide direct relief for Palestinian refugees. According to the UN, UNRWA is the main provider of education, health, relief and social services to more than 4.6 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Jiha is half Haitian, half Palestinian. She had plans to spend the summer with her relatives in Palestine and at the suggestion of her aunt, applied for an internship with the UN in the West Bank. Jiha is a public health major who spent the previous summer conducting HIV/AIDS research in Haiti, working directly with those infected. She said it was a lucky coincidence that she is able to study the same disease this summer from another angle – that of awareness and reducing the stigma.

“I think it is interesting because I get to compare and contrast the Caribbean and Middle Eastern frame of mind for the exact same disease,” she said. “Interning in Palestine enables me to integrate myself into the Arabic health world which will eventually help me to approach public health in a more global perspective.”

In spite of the stigmas associated with HIV/AIDS, Jiha said she has found the Palestinian refugees responsive to her efforts at putting a face with the disease. Jiha spends half her time at centers for women in Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem and attends meetings and workshops on HIV in Palestine led by health organizations like UNAIDS .

“I felt I have made a difference, especially in changing their mindset and in understanding the emotional part of this disease,” said Jiha, who communicates with the refugees in Arabic and English. “It was pleasing to see how attentive they were when I shared my experience with the HIV patients from Haiti on how they have touched me and taught me to be stronger and be more compassionate.”

As an intern, Jiha has attended conferences with doctors and health ministers, giving her insight into the professional world of public health. While in one refugee camp in Bethlehem, Jiha rotated through several departments including the post-natal health, pediatric and physiotherapy departments. She has learned when and how to give immunizations to children, how to perform a newborn assessment, how to use the physiotherapy machines and perform massages and exercise for these patients, and how to promote contraceptive methods.

“Interning in a world completely different from yours is no doubt the most fulfilling experience anyone can ever have,” Jiha said.

Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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