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French Version

Officials from region discuss AIDS/HIV awareness issues

Meeting focuses on youth education to combat disease
Representatives of the Red Cross, Red Crescent and UNICEF join a 3-day meeting to tackle the spread of the disease in MENA countries

"People in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have very strong opinions about AIDS/ HIV related issues," said Mona Girgis, an independent consultant working at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies (IFRC).

"The Red Cross and Red Crescent's origins are on the battlefield in Europe and it doesn't matter who the soldiers fight for, we help them all," Girgis said, "If they're lying wounded on the battlefield, we help them and we don't ask them who they were shooting five minutes earlier and it has to be the same for HIV/AIDS."

"If someone is vulnerable, if they are at risk of HIV/AIDS, we do not ask them what they do and we do not judge them. If we think it's wrong, we keep that to ourselves," she said.

Girgis was one of the guest speakers at the First HIV/AIDS MENA Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Network meeting, that began on Thursday at Le Bristol Hotel in Beirut.

Organized by the IFRC, the three-day meeting gathered senior Red Cross, Red Crescent and United Nations officials from the region to discuss HIV/AIDS awareness-related issues with respect to Red Cross and Red Crescent activities.

Girgis, who conducted an assessment on IFRC-supported HIV/AIDS activities in Iran, Jordan Lebanon and Syria, said that "some excellent work was happening in the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in the region, particularly because they are focusing on the youth and peer-to-peer education."

The region's major asset, according to Girgis, is that "we have a very strong volunteer base of youngsters who have enormous challenges to fight the very high stigma of HIV/AIDS in the region.

"These young volunteers are finding new ways of talking about these issues with their peers to protect themselves in the future," Girgis said.

The volunteers' work focuses mainly on humanitarian values.

"The Red Cross and Red Crescent have 7 principles; one of which is humanitarianism; another one is impartiality ... We keep those at the forefront of everything that we do," Girgis said.

Another guest speaker, George Ionita, head of United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Amman, said that, there were around 200,000 Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers in the region who are currently working on peer-to-peer HIV/AIDS education.

There currently is not a single piece of land in the region which was spared from the HIV/AIDS infection anymore, Ionita said, giving the example of Djibouti.

"Even in Djibouti, you have up to 5 percent of the population living with HIV," Ionita said, adding that the social impact of the disease was still very deep in the region.

"When we, at UNICEF, started a program for the prevention of parent-to-child transmission, mothers and pregnant women would come in, get tested, and if ever they were positive and we promised them free treatment, they would still not come back to give birth to their babies to benefit from medication because they were ashamed," Ionita said.

Ionita continued with another example regarding the social taboos of the disease in the region.

"In Egypt ... a United Nations agency once held a media workshop about HIV/AIDS and someone (HIV positive) came up to speak, an Egyptian. One of the regional papers did not follow the guidelines and printed that person's name. He killed himself," he said.

"What we're unsuccessfully trying to do at the UN is hire HIV-positive people as workers," Ionita said. "The problem is that for us they have to at least be bilingual, with some college education. This is proving very difficult."

The UNICEF regional office in Egypt, for instance, has already started hiring HIV-positive staff members.

"The UN is trying to be the leading example for other institutions to follow," Ionita said.

According to Bernard Gardiner, representing IFRC Geneva, the role of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent was to do the difficult work.

"If something is easy, it's not really our role," Gardiner said. "So we have to ask the hard questions, and look at people who are vulnerable and left out."

The two organizations' roles were also to prevent human suffering, Gardiner said.

"That's why we exist, and that's why we actually conducted such a meeting, to actually have the discussion of how to do the difficult thing and how our experience has helped us to do it," she added.

Aghapie Anghelopoulos, AIDS/HIV program manager in the health education section of the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC), said that HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns began in LRC in 1990.

"We currently have 451 Red Cross volunteers who are eligible to become peer-to-peer educators," Anghelopoulos said.

Rana Kabalan, HIV program manager of the youth section at LRC said that it was very important that the youth understand that no one was spared from being HIV-positive.

"Everyone is at risk," she said.

Zakaria Zaydan, secretary general of the Syrian Red Crescent said the Syrian government had committed itself to offer free treatment to HIV-positive people.

"I think that's the only way for any government to know the exact number of HIV patients," Kabalan said.

Social stigma and discrimination fuel the epidemic, said Anita Andersson, a health consultant working with the Swedish Red Cross, adding that people in the MENA region would never dare to find out if they were HIV-positive, and that if they did, they wouldn't dare to open up and disclose their the fact.

"It happens now and then that due to isolation from communities they think of suicide or drug addiction because they find no solution for their problem," Andersson said, adding: "At the community level, when people don't disclose their status to the community, the later has no way of finding out how many people need help. That's what we call the 'killing silence.'"

Omar's testimony

Omar, 55, is a member of the support group of people living with HIV at the Soins Infirmiers et Developments Communautaires (SIDC).He is HIV-positive, a father of six and has been repelled by his family. Omar was present at the meeting on Thursday to tell his story. He was not ashamed to disclose his entire name and was loudly applauded for his bravery. However, for fear for his family, he asked to remain anonymous.

"It's been a year-and-a-half now," Omar said. "OK, I admit that I did something wrong, and I'm getting the punishment I deserve, so I really do not see why society has to punish me all over again. My children won't recognize me. neither will their mother.

"When I got the disease I was working in an Arab country and when the authorities found out, they gave me a week to leave the country. I found out by mere coincidence that I was HIV-positive. I was undergoing some regular blood tests for visa procedures.

"Now I have no place to go. I live in the streets. I used to sleep at Sanayeh Garden, but then the security felt suspicious about me and they kicked me out.

"I can't have a home because no landlord would let me have a shower in his bath, so I go to SIDC's offices to have a shower," said Omar.

"An employee at the Health Ministry disclosed my name and it was spread all over the place. For now there are no visible symptoms of my disease, but I was told to expect the worse. But I'm not scared. I have nothing to lose anymore. I lost everything. And I wish to be dead tomorrow," he added.

Beirut 27-09-2004
Jessy Chahine
The Daily Star

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