A Personal Journey – Why Genuine Engagement Matters in Health Initiatives

Afsaneh Nejat, MD
Afsaneh Nejat, MD

Trainee, EuroHealthNet, Belgium

Mr. KR, originally from Afghanistan, has been living in Greece for more than 20 years. His journey has been one of adaptation and perseverance. *

Fleeing the Taliban’s regime as a teenager, KR found refuge in Greece, where he immersed himself in the language and pursued studies in electronic engineering. However, due to the economic crisis happening at the time, he pivoted to entrepreneurship, establishing a successful mobile phone and computer shop. Today, he is a devoted father to two children, an 11-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter.

Beyond his business endeavors, KR’s multilingual proficiency in Greek, English, and Pashto positioned him as a valuable resource in various settings, from courts to hospitals, facilitating communication for other migrants.

His path intersected with RIVER-EU when a friend introduced him to Prolepsis Institute in Athens. RIVER-EU, an initiative aimed at reducing vaccine inequalities across Europe, particularly targets underserved communities. It addresses health system barriers to HPV and MMR vaccination services. In Greece, Prolepsis Institute serves as RIVER-EU’s partner, leveraging their expertise in research and health promotion to advance vaccine equity among migrants and refugees.

Initially, he joined the project as an interpreter, intending to support Farsi-speaking parents during the educational sessions held by Prolepsis. However, as none of them attended, he chose to remain and engage as a participant parent, driven by a genuine interest in the programme’s content and its relevance to his own family.

Reflecting on the programme’s impact, KR shares, “The programme was interesting to me because it informed me about how necessary vaccines are, when they should be done, and what diseases they prevent. The information was excellent.”

His participation in the programme prompted a newfound awareness of the importance of vaccines for his children. “Now, I know that my 11-year-old son should be vaccinated as well as my one-year-old daughter. Before this project, I did not know about MMR and HPV vaccines. This was the first time I participated in a programme about vaccination knowledge,” KR acknowledges.

Recalling his own experiences as a newcomer to Greece, KR remarks on the significant changes over the years. “I don’t remember that there was a project about health or vaccines. At that time, the situation was very different. These programmes did not exist at all,” he reminisces.

When questioned about the challenges faced by newcomers today, KR highlights communication and language barriers as primary obstacles. “They have problems with communication and language. It is very difficult for them to communicate with doctors, nurses, and figure out where to go for tests, do things,” he notes.

Regarding healthcare workers’ attitudes towards immigrants, KR observes, “It depends on the person. Generally, it is good, some people may not like foreigners and may not treat them properly and be bored. But not everyone is like this. It depends on the management of each hospital.”

In addressing the need for immigrant-friendly healthcare systems, KR emphasises the necessity of tailored information and language assistance. “There is general information, but there is no specific information for migrants. If you don’t know the language, they won’t guide you, and you need someone to explain it to you. Doctors don’t have much time, even if you understand Greek well, they don’t have time to explain everything,” he asserts.

Finally, KR shares his viewpoint on attitudes towards vaccines, indicating parental commitment to childhood vaccinations while noting skepticism towards adult vaccines such as COVID-19 and influenza. “Regarding the HPV vaccine that is injected during adolescence, parents do not know about it yet, but if they do, they will not have a problem. More than 40 parents came to this awareness-raising session, being from different nationalities such as Syria, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and no one had a negative opinion,” he shares.

In Mr. KR’s story, we see the journey of an immigrant navigating through healthcare systems and the significance of vaccine education. His experience highlights why projects like RIVER-EU matter; they bridge gaps in health equity.

Embracing a participatory approach is key to creating healthcare solutions that leave no one behind. By actively involving community members and listening to their stories, these initiatives become more effective and relevant. When communities are engaged, trust grows, empowerment follows, and real change unfolds.

*This interview was conducted in Farsi and subsequently translated to English for dissemination. For anonymity purposes, the interviewee has been referred to by the acronym KR.