Progress Report 2010: Sahara Fund Medical Mission

Ms. Yoko Atsumi is a 5th year medical student at Kagoshima University in Japan. She is a recipient of the 2010 JMSA-Nishioka Foundation scholarship, which supported her work with the Sahara Fund Medical Mission. Ms. Atsumi spent a month providing healthcare at refugee camps in Algeria. Please click “Read more” to read her progress report and view photographs from her mission.

Sahara Fund Medical Mission

Date: Feb.27- Mar.27, 2010


1. A clinic at Tifariti (Western Sahara)
2. A clinic at Tindouf (Algeria)


1. To learn about the lives of those in refugee camps and Western Sahara
2. Medical volunteer work at the refugee camp clinics and Western Sahara

Background and history

Western Sahara is a disputed territory in North Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Its surface area amounts to 266,000?square kilometres (103,000 sq?mi). It is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert. The population is estimated at just over 500,000.

Large areas of Western Sahara have been occupied and claimed by Morocco, but most other countries do not recognize this territory as belonging to Morocco.

When Morocco invaded Western Sahara, many people were forced to evade to the neighboring Algeria. This is how refugee camps developed in Algeria.

Local life in refugee camps

– In Tindouf, there are four main refugee camps and each has a governor.

– Almost all people are Muslim and pray at the specific times during the day.

– The refugee camps have been in existence for more than 35 years and their lives depend on donations of food, articles for daily use and so on, from the United Nations and other countries. The refugees therefore do not suffer from hunger.

– Although the land is largely a desert, there is ample underground water.

– Some people own camels and goats, and they eat them during special celebrations.

– Industrial and educational systems have not been developed enough yet at the camps.

– There are almost no resources in Western Sahara, and the people rely on imported and donated resources from other countries.

Medical volunteer work

– There is an astounding shortage of physicians in the area

– Almost all physicians who worked there were the volunteers from other countries, mostly from Europe.

– In Tifariti, it was hard to get the support of the volunteers because of its location (in the middle of the desert).

– The nurses were a valuable asset, and they were doing the best possible, however, their medical knowledge was limited and there were occasional errors in selecting treatments or medications for patients.

What we did as medical volunteers

We consulted the patients in each clinic every day (Tindouf and Tifariti) and provided treatment for the patients as needed.

About the common diseases in Western Sahara and refugee camps

In contrast to what I was expecting, no patients were suffering from malnutrition due to starvation. The three most common problems were actually obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes mellitus.

The reasons:

– Fewer opportunities to exercise because of harsh desert environment.

– There is a tradition to drink tea with much sugar. (It used to be a ceremony, but it has become a daily habit now)

– Lack of education about health maintenance

Our advise to the patients with those conditions

(Obesity, diabetes and hypertension)

– Avoid eating too much oily food

– Drink much water (3 bottles of water daily)

– Avoid taking too much salt

– Walk as much as possible

Since there were not enough doctors and clinics, to control those problems with medication was not ideal.

The most important and effective thing was to change their life styles.

Other common conditions

Constipation: because of dry lands and not drinking enough water

GERD: because people tend to eat late (10 to 11 pm) right before going to bed. It seems to be a part of their tradition.

What I felt and thought during the mission

I asked myself this question many times while I was there. It was; ‘What is the best support for the developing countries?” In spite of my guess before visiting the refugee camps, the people there were not suffering from the hunger. To my surprise, the three most common problems in camps were obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. They were provided enough food and daily supply by the UN and other countries. However, ironically, those foods were mainly oil and carbohydrate (rice and bread). Also, because of the harsh environment, people tend to avoid going outside and stay inside of their tents. Therefore, because of oily food and lack of exercise lead people to obese and disease such as diabetes and hypertension.

There was another problem. Because of the easy access to the food and other supplies, there is no need to work for the people in refugee camps. Therefore, they seemed to have lost the motivation to work, and many people stayed home and drink tea all day long. However, we shouldn’t blame them for the situation. I think this situation has been caused by the developed country that have provided donations for more then 35 years without thinking critically about what the people really need. As a result of being dependent for the supply from other countries, the people lost the specialized skill such as sailing and fishing, and new generations lost their opportunity and motivation for the education and work. It is very difficult now to be independent from the support of UN and other countries.

As I visited and learn the situation at the refugee camps, I felt that the ongoing support by the UN and other countries are not ideal way of support. When we try to support someone, we really have to think about what they really need, instead of just provide money or supplies. To do so, it’s very important to know about their background and situation, the future outcome of the support, and the endpoint of the support (goal). We have to see the situation from the local people’s point of view and find the best way for their future.

The overall experience was really valuable and I gained lots of knowledge. It’s not only medical knowledge and skill, but also about problem in the international corporation.I’d like to thank for JMSA for supporting my mission. It was impossible to complete the mission without JMSA’s help. I would love to participate and get involved in the future program at JMSA as much as possible. Thank you again for the support.