Monday, March 03, 2008


Doctors rally to offer free care for refugees

Connie Levett Immigration Reporter, smh

March 3, 2008

RAMZI BARNOUTI is a quiet knight for asylum seekers in Sydney, organising free medical care which they cannot afford and the Federal Government does not offer.

The Iraqi specialist has gathered a small team of pro bono doctors to provide GP, specialist and dental services for between 80 and 100 families on the Red Cross Asylum Seeker Program who do not meet government benefits criteria. He wants drug companies and laboratories to come on board too.

Dr Barnouti, 70, a retired urologist who migrated in December 2005 but was unable to practise here, approached the Red Cross in 2006 and they developed the pro bono scheme together. "I chose refugees because these are people who need help very much," he said.

"I said 'just call doctors and they will agree, anywhere in the world, 99 per cent will say yes'."

He found his team through the Yellow Pages, sending out 500 letters asking for volunteers to treat asylum seekers unable to obtain medical benefits.

Twenty doctors - GPs and specialists - replied. He sent 600 letters to dentists, and heard back from 16.

"I met a family who have been like this [without access to free medical care] for the last seven years," he said.

Yet Dr Barnouti is not shocked. "When you are there [in Iraq] and see the '91 war you think being seven years here without medical care is nothing. I have seen much worse things."

He was in the United Arab Emirates during the 2003 bombardment of Baghdad.

Dr Dawood Haddad, 47, who practises in Fairfield, was one of the first GPs to sign up for the scheme. "A lot of my patients come from refugee countries," he said. "I know how much suffering they have been through.

"I don't want them to have more suffering by depriving them of very basic health needs. Taking one patient out of 30 without charging is no big deal."

He has one or two pro bono families on his books at any time.

Nicole Cunningham, the Red Cross's refugee services co-ordinator, said the value of the program was in making health care accessible.

"I am focused on early intervention rather than crisis intervention," she said. "I have met asylum seekers with very advanced stages of cancer and wondered what if we had treated them earlier."

Ms Cunningham said the Red Cross program provided $140 a month to asylum seekers who did not qualify for government assistance.

She said the most common reason they did not qualify was that they had not applied for asylum within 45 days of arriving in Australia.

Dr Barnouti is getting out the Yellow Pages again, this time to write to pharmaceutical, radiology and pathology companies, because after diagnosis, the patients are unable to pay for the prescription or tests.

"Drug companies will spend $10,000 on one lunch for doctors, to show them new products," Dr Barnouti said. "They can afford to help."

Dr Haddad backed the campaign. Most of the things needed, such as antibiotics, were not sophisticated, he said.