Malta: 'I have a value, they are doing this for me'
30 December 2014

An immigrant sits on a window ledge while talking on the telephone at the detention centre in Safi. (Darrin Zammit Lupi)
For me, a Muslim who grew up in an environment where Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully, it has been a good opportunity to discover more about how to live with people of different faiths, to cooperate in a friendly way and to learn from one another.
Valletta, 30 December 2014 – Mohammed Idris' contribution is a very personal one. He writes as a refugee who was motivated to join JRS because of the way JRS accompanied him when he was in detention. For Mohammed, his work as a cultural mediator with JRS Malta offered countless practical opportunities to accompany refugees, who often feel lost in a country with a language and culture so foreign to their own. The refugees who need most help are those who are vulnerable, who need to be accompanied with patience and cultural sensitivity.

For me, the help I received from JRS was a sign that I should dedicate myself to others, to volunteer to do my part. I was energized; when you get something, you have to give something back.

It's hard to find the words to explain how I felt when JRS staff visited me in detention, such a very difficult place; the fact that someone comes to you, to see you, to speak to you, to ask about your health, your case, your conditions, to give you information... makes you happy. You think to yourself, "I have a value, they are doing this for me." Even when I was released, JRS stood by me and continued to help me.

Joining JRS gave me the chance to pass on to others in need of help the hospitality I had received. JRS has taught me so much. For me, a Muslim who grew up in an environment where Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully, it has been a good opportunity to discover more about how to live with people of different faiths, to cooperate in a friendly way and to learn from one another.

I believe that a chief aim of JRS accompaniment is to be committed to refugees, especially those who are vulnerable. Many refugees in Malta grapple with mental health issues – a good deal of which develop in detention – while others have serious or chronic diseases. JRS does a lot to accompany refugees facing such hardships. Otherwise many would end up alone: when you run into big problems, no one wants to take responsibility and even 'friends' forget about you. I remember one young man who arrived in Malta with me in 2008, a sad but hardworking person. When all his friends resettled to the US, he started to develop mental health problems, and ended up homeless in the streets until we took care of him and persuaded him to go for treatment.

People who fall seriously ill in a foreign country, where the ways of viewing and treating illnesses of the body and mind are radically different from what they have known, are immensely vulnerable. They need help to understand what they are told and to communicate their own heavy concerns. A cultural abyss often separates them from healthcare professionals and this, coupled with isolation and a huge fear of the unknown, can paralyse them, preventing them from seeking the treatment they need and from taking the right decisions.

As a cultural mediator, together with the JRS nurse, I translate, I persuade vulnerable refugees to seek the treatment they need, explaining what they should do, allaying their fears and accompanying them through the whole process. We go to visit the asylum seekers' unit at the mental health hospital, a truly shocking place. The physical conditions are very harsh and many refugees find it impossible to communicate with the staff. Independent reports about the hospital have underlined the lack of adequate translation services, which means that the medical team often has a limited understanding of the refugees' history and symptoms, while the refugees have little or no understanding of the treatment doled out, even if it has possible severe side effects. When we visit the unit, we tell the refugees they must cooperate to get well, not to worry or harm themselves, and we try to give them hope for the future: today is like this but tomorrow...When our people are discharged, we follow them closely, prepare their medicine and make sure they take it.

In my work, then, I am a bridge between the refugees and the professionals, helping them to understand one another. I accompany refugees for hospital appointments, speak to the doctors with them and try to persuade them to do what seems to be the best thing, given their circumstances. Sometimes we get people who are difficult to deal with, who don't understand, and we must make a big effort to help them grasp the implications of what the doctor is saying. It's our job to save people from the problems they may encounter later as a result of the decisions they make today – in a way, to save them from themselves. When they finally realise what is at stake, they usually cooperate.

I remember well a pregnant woman who tested HIV-positive. She insisted that she wanted to go abroad, which would have meant missing out on the treatment to prevent the transmission of HIV to her baby. We tried hard to stop her and finally, only reluctantly, she accepted to stay. She went for her hospital appointments and we accompanied her from beginning to end. Her baby was born HIV-negative, and she later acknowledged that if we hadn't stopped her when we did, she wouldn't have given birth to a healthy child.

Another woman refused to take urgently needed medication because she was fasting. "After I finish Ramadan I will take medicine," she said. It was really hard for me to make her understand that she needed to begin taking her medicine regularly but, after I shared verses from the Koran with her and her husband, she accepted that she is exempt from fasting because she is sick.

Sometimes we must accompany refugees through traumatic moments of diagnosis of serious illness. When someone is diagnosed, at first it is really shocking to take in; there is so much to deal with, to absorb. When we have to break it to someone that he is infected with HIV, it is really very hard. Together with the JRS nurse, I explain everything the doctor says, reassure the patient that he has a good chance of surviving just like anyone else if he takes his medicine properly and convince him to put himself in the right frame of mind to move on.

Gradually, work experience has allowed me to share suggestions with people just learning their diagnosis. Their biggest fear is always that their own community may reject them. Sadly, many refugees can become outcasts if it is known that they have HIV. People begin to spread rumours and suddenly no one comes to visit you: this really frightens those affected. When we give them their medication, some will even say: "No, because people will suspect I am sick". They throw away the boxes or burn them. When people are afraid, upset or worried, I've learned I may need to give them time to talk, even if they do so angrily, to rest from their feelings, then when they calm down, I can talk to them and they can understand better.

It is with time that I gained experience in how to deal with things. At first I was taking people's stories home, they were burned in my memory, so it was very tough. When I heard some things, I thought, why is this happening? After crossing the desert, the Mediterranean Sea, you'd expect to be able to rest your mind but instead you find more suffering and instability. However after reading, getting experience, speaking with colleagues and learning from them, things got better. In the team, we help one another with such things.

Ours is not an easy job. It is only thanks to years of experience, of being with refugees throughout their stay in Malta, that we have won their trust and learned how to help them effectively. Generating solutions comes from knowing the refugees and their problems in detail, from being really present with them, from beginning to end.

The effort is worthwhile, because as soon as you see that the refugees, whom you have helped, are improving; when they come and say: You did a lot for me, thanks, then you realise what accompaniment in JRS is all about.

Mohammed Idris
JRS Europe (2009 – 2013)