Two weeks, thousands of thoughts.
I am sitting on the boulevard watching the Danube sparkle in the sun. I am wondering how to describe everything that happened in the past 2 weeks. I already read a few articles telling how to write a perfect post, but it seems that writing a blog is a little like cooking – you can read the cookbook but nothing can prepare you for real cooking like getting into practice. So, let me start from the beginning.
I got a really warm welcome in Bratislava. The first few days upon my arrival were exceptionally hot and sunny. By the way, Bratislava, is a very beautiful place with impressive architecture, medieval old town, castle with great views over the Danube valley from its fortifications and of course unique UFO-style New Bridge!
The first days in the NGO office were very busy, so I had to instantly fit in. I received amazing support from Elena, a PULSE volunteer from GSK Ukraine, who has worked with the Association for Culture, Education and Communication (ACEC) since early July. Everyone was getting ready for the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) annual conference which was about to take place and everything was focused on preparation of leaflets, information materials and handouts, rehearsals of presentations and logistics. Eventually everything was completed and we were sitting in the plane flying to Brussels.
Participation in the EPHA conference was a great experience and unique opportunity to get insight into the perspective of key opinion leaders in the field of Public Health. There were a number of rousing speeches and hot discussions around burning issues and topics of major interest to the EU – health inequalities, healthcare for irregular migrants, tobacco consumption, new legislation around food information to consumers, e-health and economic value of healthy society.
After the main agenda, there was a side event dedicated to Roma integration and connecting Roma people living in isolated communities to basic healthcare. The event was organized by EPHA in collaboration with GSK’s ‘Together for Better Health’ (T4BH) Programme. Based on the report issued by the European Commission, the Roma population is one of the most disadvantaged communities living in Europe, with very limited access to basic healthcare, high prevalence of major infectious diseases e.g. tuberculosis, hepatitis, a high rate of infant mortality, malnutrition and a low level of immunization uptake. During the sessions, representatives of NGOs, local and national authorities and representatives of Roma community discussed aspects of Roma integration into the public health system, the role of Roma Health Mediators in the facilitation of this process and use of European funds. The most inspiring and significant was a voice of the Roma community itself. A representative of Roma health mediators presented the story of his life and showed how this work helped him not only improve the situation in the local community but also the status of his own family. The field coordinator of the Slovak National Project “Healthy Communities” further reinforced the key role of Roma health mediators in coordination of immunizations, prophylactic check-ups with mobile units and facilitation of communication between doctors and patients from Roma communities. The most important message coming out of this discussion was that creation of human resources directly in the settlements is the best way forward! Health mediators achieve great results not only in the area of healthcare, but they also inspire and motivate community members to increase effort in addressing their difficult social situation.
After the conference we had an opportunity to meet Paul, who set up and leads the T4BH programme on behalf of GSK, in addition to his daily business activities. He brought us to the beginning of this initiative. The whole story started when Paul had been working as a General Manager of GSK Slovakia. During that time he learned about the difficult situation of Roma communities in Eastern Europe. Upon one of his visits in the Roma settlements he initiated cooperation with ACEC in Slovakia, which subsequently spread to other countries to finally commence with T4BH, a European partnership programme. Currently, T4BH operates successfully in four countries bringing together four NGOs under a common umbrella to synergize their effort and increase impact within Roma communities. There are two more countries likely to join this initiative in the next few years. The network of health mediators is still expanding, and thanks to their daily work thousands of people in need are approached with direct help. Today a lot of people contribute to the overall success of this programme, but this story is also an amazing example of how powerful the domino effect can be, how one person can start a wave of positive change and how one good decision triggers a series of follow up actions!
During our stay in Brussels we still had some free time to enjoy. Although at first Brussels seemed to me gray and overwhelming, after a few days I realized it is a vibrant and very special city – a place of citizens of the world (apparently, up to 50% of the population have non Belgian origin). Brussels has many faces, not only hosting European and international institutions, politicians and diplomats, but also students, artists and master-chocolatiers. We managed to visit main attractions such as the Grand Palace, Cathedral, Royal Palace, Manneken Pis, Atomium (over 100 meter high model of an iron crystal) and very inspiring exhibition of famous Belgian surrealist artist – Rene Magritte, which I would recommend to everyone, during visit in Brussels.
Travelling back to Bratislava we landed in Budapest, and we were about to continue our journey by train.
In Budapest, on Keleti railway terminal, we became witnesses of the drama of Syrian refugees. It was one of the most difficult scenes I have ever seen. I saw desperate families forced by conflict and violence to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere. This moment really challenged my perspective towards life. The problem of migration is complicated for the institutional, financial, political and socio-economic reasons, and requires complex solutions. But there is also a lot of people, who are trying to help. I was really pleased to read information about GSK support for “Save the Children”, to help refugee families arriving to Europe. I am sending my special greetings to everyone working for ‘Save the Children’, donors and PULSE colleagues currently volunteering for this organisation. You are doing amazing work!
Please note, that opinions and observations presented in this post are my personal reflections.