Every year Muslims around the world observe the month of Dhul Hijjah in which we try to fulfill the meaning of sacrifice by demonstrating piety in the form of charity. We sacrifice an animal to remind ourselves that Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) was about to sacrifice his own son Ismail to show his submissiveness (obedience) to Almighty Allah (swt).

Following Prophet Ibrahim’s footsteps, sacrificing an animal once a year is a symbolic act which we need to carry in every part of our lives. By practicing this ritual we should be able to give up anything and everything that is dear to us to not go astray and forget the real reason of life.
Money, prestige, family, career, worldly matters or just plain ego can destroy our real focus in life. To stay on the very task that Allah (swt) has appointed us, we constantly have to sacrifice. Sacrifice our time, money, maybe even career opportunities… The purpose of human life is to serve in the cause of Allah (swt) and show compassion to His creations.

Reach Out

We live in a world where even in this 21st century; humans suffer from a lack of basic rights, food, shelter, health care, education…  We say Islam is a religion of compassion not just to humans but to all living things and animals. If we want to walk the talk we as Muslims need to step up and take responsibility in reaching people who need help. Mostly people who are at war, who are ruled by dictatorships, who are poor suffers a great deal in our time. Our hope is to reach all humanity, but we need to take it one step at a time.

What is VIDA?

I recently went on a trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua for a medical mission sponsored by a non-profit organization called VIDA. VIDA aims to provide relief for acute medical diseases in third world Latin American communities. I went on this trip not really knowing what to expect because I was recommended from a friend who had gone on the trip the previous year. I had no clue what I was getting myself into or what would even be expected of me. Even though I have some medical experience, everything I knew was in English and I wasn’t sure how much of it I would be able to use in a Spanish speaking country. In most of the big cities I had been to in Türkiye and some in Europe, the general population had a working understanding of English, enough to help the average stranded and lost tourist get by. But when I landed in Costa Rica, I knew this was not going to be the case. No one spoke English except for our group coordinator and our translators. Not even please and thank you. I was very concerned and becoming more and more nervous as we approached the first clinic day.

Her story and a new perspective on my part;

Before we started our clinic work, however, we had to attend an 8-hour mandatory introductory class. The doctor who led this class was 24 years old woman and it was during this session where I learned so much about the Costa Rican public health system as well as the personal journey of how our lecturer became a doctor. I’ll start with her story.

Her name was Dr. Salazar. She told us that she had applied to medical school at 17 and when she was 23 she graduated as a fully licensed doctor. This meant that at 24 years old she was qualified to practice anywhere in Costa Rica and more than qualified to be the head doctor on our trip. I’m already 21 years old and I haven’t even applied to medical school yet. While I felt like I was wasting so much of my time in college learning things that I would either have to be retaught in medical school or things that I would never even need to know in my desired field, Dr. Salazar told us that she wished she could have gone to college first instead of having to decide her future profession at the age of 17. She said there is a huge problem of having too many doctors in Costa Rica, young people who don’t have jobs and many more who don’t even want to be doctors anymore. She said in her graduating class from medical school, 60% of her classmates were already on their way to changing their profession. This gave me a very different outlook on having my Bachelor’s degree first.

Get to know your patients;

Dr. Salazar also told us a great deal about Costa Rica. She explained all the policies from insurance companies to government investment in public health to the private sector, to non-profit organizations, etc. She told us in order to understand the issues with the health system and the common illnesses, we needed to learn about the diet, the type of work that most people living in poverty will do, the places they live in, the money they make, the education they have, their access to health care, and the societal values, or lack thereof, placed on being healthy and going to see a doctor regularly. I learned that Costa Rica has no military. The government decided to pour their money and resources into health and education programs instead. These facts became even more important later after we crossed the border to Nicaragua and we could see the very apparent difference between poverty in Costa Rica and poverty in Nicaragua.

Choices define us!

While in Costa Rica, I met families living in dirt homes with tin roofs with no running water, but somehow, someway, they had wired electricity in their homes to be able to install flat screen TV’s bigger than me. It was about looking and feeling wealthy and having furniture items that gave status.
Meanwhile they had no health insurance, the kids weren’t being sent to school because uniforms were too expensive and sometimes they didn’t even have jobs because they were illegal immigrants from Nicaragua. Poverty was very different in Nicaragua and the types of medical conditions and a disease I was exposed to was much more diverse and much more severe.

Even though health care is available and accessible in Costa Rica, the culture doesn’t place emphasis or importance on medicine. In fact, it seemed like many people were afraid of taking medicine or going to a doctor. I met a little boy who needed to have a circumcision surgery due to inflammation, but the father was against the surgery for fear that his only son wouldn’t be able to bear children in the future. He was willing to risk his son’s complete well-being for a circumcision operation, which in the United States, we all know is an extremely minor and very safe operation. I realized that in Costa Rica, the biggest problem was the people not being educated enough and they had become obstacles to their own health and well-being.

Costa Rica versus Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, not only were the people uneducated, most people had either never been to school or had “graduated” after elementary school, but also they didn’t have the same access that people had in Costa Rica. Health care was not guaranteed in Nicaragua the way it was in Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, anyone under the age of 18 as well as pregnant women had access to all private and public health sectors for free. No such policy existed in Nicaragua. In fact, Nicaragua was dealing with a mortality crisis for pregnant women because even rudimentary public clinics were too few and too far and many women would die before they could get help. In Nicaragua, I saw a lot of domestic violence cases, many children who were marginalized by their parents due to genetic conditions such as Down Syndrome and Vitiligo (white patches on the skin). I met a lot of 14 year old pregnant and many who had already moved out and were living with their significantly older boyfriends.

Asking the right questions

In addition to all of this, I learned how to properly observe, diagnose, and prescribe relief for my patients. I had a medical translator helping me and two head doctors to check back with as well. I learned how to give a physical exam when necessary and learned about emergency procedures for out of the ordinary cases. However, I would claim that the most important thing that I learned was HOW to ask questions to my patients. You can’t ask someone who lives in poverty if they are eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables when an apple costs two dollars and the family only makes $1.75 per day. You can’t ask a woman with bruises on her neck if she needs help getting away from her husband when her husband is sitting right next to her staring you down. You can’t ask a pregnant woman who doesn’t have a car why she hasn’t gone to her checkups when the nearest clinic is more than ten miles away. You have to ask the right questions in order to quickly and accurately help your patient. In addition, you have to teach your patient how to stay healthy after you leave which seems like the biggest challenge of all. You just have to pray that they heard you and maybe one day the advice you gave will click and help to improve their health.

Despite Challenges

This experience was beyond rewarding. I understood for the first time in my life what it felt like to actually be making a difference in the real world instead of sitting in a classroom where the lives lived in poverty are far away and only a vague reality.

Esma Arslan