Posted by on June 16, 2014 in Blog

By Emily Cooke
Summer Intern, 2014

While there is nothing remarkable about the six cents often found on street corners or in the forgotten depths of couch cushions, Batoul Abuharb harnessed the unlikely power of a six cent text message and launched Dunia Health, a global initiative to aid overburdened medical clinics throughout the Middle East.

The inspiration for Dunia Health came in 2012 when Batoul, an optometry student at the University of Houston and graduate of Rice University, traveled to Gaza, where clinics staffed with just 25 people bore the insurmountable task of administering medical care to more than 800 patients daily. 

This troubling theme of overworked clinicians and understated global health initiatives in the Middle East resonated with Jordan Schermerhorn, a Rice engineer and co-founder of Dunia Health. After a few Google searches on establishing a nonprofit, some preliminary paperwork, and a trip to the Texas Secretary of State’s office, the rest, Batoul certified, was history. 

Today, Dunia operates as a nonprofit organization that increases clinical efficiency in low resource areas in the Middle East. While Dunia is currently piloting their initiative in Amman, Jordan, Batoul and her team also plan to operate on a more global scale in the future.

A low cost, innovative text messaging system that distributes vaccination reminders has been the hallmark of Dunia’s success. Text alerts provide patients with notices of missed vaccination appointments and announce vaccine shortages, ultimately decreasing unnecessary trips to clinics.

For clinicians, the benefits of this versatile messaging system are measurable—in clinics where vaccines run out of stock, automatic appointments can save health workers an average of 150 minutes per day.

The response to this initiative has been overwhelmingly positive, and back home in Houston, Batoul spoke to AAI about the journey that transformed her inspiration into a concrete reality. Batoul employed what she called Texas’ “best kept secret” – a sizeable and interconnected Arab American community with instrumental ties to the healthcare sector. Beyond the valuable insight and experience the Arab American network in Houston offered Batoul and her team, the Houston Chapter of the Arab American Medical Association in particular continues to assist Dunia Health as the nonprofit’s largest donor.

While the Arab American community in Texas provides indispensable support at home, Batoul noted that her Arab American identity contributes to her success abroad. A shared culture and understanding guides Batoul’s interactions during visits to clinics in the Middle East, and a common heritage provides a mutual trust that allows the Dunia Health team to fulfill their mission. The relationships that the Dunia Health team forges throughout the course of their work have allowed the organization to transcend barriers and relate directly to the families and clinicians they serve. 

The journey to Dunia’s success was also profoundly personal. Batoul, whose parents both come from Gaza, explained how this aspiring health initiative exemplified a chance to explore the unique advantages of the Arab American identity that she previously cast as a “double-edged sword.” In the Middle East, Batoul proves that it is possible to be Arab, American, and a brilliant, driven young woman all at once.

Back in the United States, Batoul utilizes her identity to address American perceptions of the Middle East that often endorse exaggerated depictions of life in the region. She said, “there is this disconnect between what people know about the Middle East and what the reality is, and I think that is the biggest hindrance to people doing aid work.” Batoul’s Arab American identity affords an unmatched opportunity to portray the Middle East as what it really is—a region that is not entirely foreign or inhospitable, as it is too often perceived. 

As Dunia Health prepares to operate in more clinics and expand its focus to noncommunicable diseases, the future is decidedly promising for the organization’s work. Dunia recently paired with the UN Relief and Works Agency to launch their initiative in a refugee camp outside of Amman, and the team is also immersed in encouraging talks with UNICEF.

While Jordan Schermerhorn, Cherie Fathy, and Seja Abudiab have all performed indispensable fieldwork to further Dunia’s mission, Jordan and Seja are currently representing and facilitating Dunia’s efforts while stationed abroad. The objective of Dunia’s discussions with UNICEF is the expansion of Dunia’s text alert system. This broadening attempt is designed to cater to parents with children under the age of five who display signs of malnutrition by encouraging exclusive breastfeeding and alerting Syrian refugees about food aid deliveries. 

Mounting concerns for Syrian refugees displaced by war expose the Dunia team to a host of new challenges and a renewed sense of urgency. Batoul noted that Syrian refugees are suspended in what seems like an interminable transition phase, and many are often left undocumented or without access to the viable cell phone service Dunia relies upon in their work.

Amidst the challenges that lay ahead, this passionate team, driven by the direct and meaningful impact of their work, is determined to provide hope and enhance the livelihood of families in the Middle East through a small, but undeniably invaluable, use of technology.

Keep up with the Dunia Health team as they expand their aid efforts by following them on Twitter. Learn how you can help the Dunia team continue to fulfill their mission here.