“MUM, you are a doctor, go and do something.”
Those nine words from her then five-year-old son were enough to jolt Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood out of her comfort zone. Not that it was too difficult, the obstetrician and gynaecologist was already distraught by the war in Kosovo that had been on the news cycle non-stop from 1998 to that moment in 1999, and she was burning to do something about it.
“We were watching news of the war in Kosovo, and there was devastation and despair everywhere. People were being driven out of their homes, there was so much bloodshed and children were starving. I was trying to explain the helplessness of the situation to my five-year-old son when he put it all into perspective with a simple statement, ” she recalled the moment in Mercy Malaysia’s new coffee table book Echoes Of Mercy: A 20-Year Journey Of Unexpected Kindness.
As recorded in the commemorative book, Dr Jemilah started calling every major international humanitarian organisation she knew to offer her services.
“I have always dreamed of working in the humanitarian field, and that was the reason I studied medicine. But like so many people, I got caught up in the paper chase and climbing the career ladder. I was at the peak of my career but I did not like what I saw around me. The world was clearly suffering, and we purportedly caring people, seemed oblivious to the despair around us. We were busy measuring our own success and development by our material wealth, ” she is quoted in the book.
When no international body but one responded to her passionate rally, again her family nudged her to her destiny. This time it was her husband.
He pointed out to her that if she really wanted to make a difference as a humanitarian and a Malaysian, as a woman and a doctor, what she should do is to create a new organisation.
And this was how the Malaysian Medical Relief Society – better known as Mercy Malaysia – Malaysia’s pioneer international humanitarian organisation first came to be 20 years ago, fittingly on the same date as Malaysia did, Sept 16.
“I realised that you hardly ever see an Asian organisation in the humanitarian sector. I felt I had to make an effort to change this – perhaps to prove to myself that my dreams were achievable, and that an organisation from my country could be put on the world map as a provider of effective and responsible humanitarian assistance, ” she said.
“I had a vision to build a platform where Malaysians could come together to do good. I believed that race and personal belief systems did not have to separate us, that we should share a common vision and purpose about global solidarity. It was about growing people and yourself in the process.”
With a call to her like-minded friends, Dr Jemilah started organising for their first mission to help the war victims of Kosovo. They did everything themselves, including financing the trip to the ravaged eastern European territory, where they provided mobile health services to displaced children and women.
That was in June 1999, and a few months later, the organisation was officially registered.
Over the last two decades, Mercy Malaysia has grown with various missions to disaster-stricken and conflict-torn zones, where in each place Mercy worked with the local community as equal partners.
“We should be there to support people when they need us desperately in emergencies. Remain to support communities while their capacities are enhanced, and leave as they become independent. We should avoid creating dependency as it only weakens nations and communities. This is the way Mercy Malaysia works, ” Dr Jemilah stressed.
Nothing got in her way, not even a stray bullet in Iraq in 2003, when Dr Jemilah and her convoy carrying medical supplies to children’s hospitals got caught in a crossfire between two communities.
A bullet had gone through one of the volunteers, Dr Baba, and straight into Dr Jemilah’s left hip. What saved her was a thick Reader’s Digest book in her pocket.
Two people were killed, and two doctors were severely injured in the attack even though their ambulances were clearly marked with white flags denoting humanitarian services.
This might have given a lesser person pause, but what crossed Dr Jemilah’s mind – reportedly as she stitched herself up – was, “Why am I complaining about this bullet in my hip? We can’t fight our destiny. There must be a reason why I’m here. If I gave up, I wouldn’t be doing justice to those who gave their lives.”
Yet, like any good mother, Dr Jemilah left her baby in 2009 to allow it to tread its own path and grow into an independent “adult” – now Mercy Malaysia is a respected humanitarian organisation worldwide with over 500 members and some 5,000 registered volunteers.
Dr Jemilah meanwhile has gone on to share her knowledge and experience as head of the World Humanitarian Summit secretariat at the United Nations office for coordination of humanitarian affairs and currently as the under secretary -of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Deservingly, Dr Jemilah will receive a humanitarian leader award, the Anugerah Tokoh Peneraju Kemanusiaan, at Mercy’s 20th anniversary fundraising dinner at the end of the month.
Sunday Star caught up with Dr Jemilah at the recent 2019 International Humanitarian Conference in Sunway University:
> How has the whole journey been in the last 20 years?
I think the whole journey has been incredible, because I think the greatest achievement is that we did something that was not done before, having a strong organisation for Malaysia by Malaysians and for the world.
You know, the support we’ve been getting, it’s something you’d never imagine. But what’s really nice to see is that the journey continues. And the leadership continues to take the organisation forward. I think that’s really important.
> What do you hope to see in the next 20 years?
In the next 20 years, Mercy, in my opinion, should be an enabler. I think if we are true to our vision, that it is about dignity and it’s about empowering local communities, Mercy Malaysia can be an enabler like this, you know, not just in terms of conferences, but mentoring smaller organisations to become strong organisations, so that every country in Asia can have strong local institutions.
The journey for Mercy Malaysia has been quite a unique one in the sense that from nothing, it grew into something. But if we can do it, anyone can do it.
> Which mission or place has touched you most?
There are a lot of stories that I can tell about my missions. But I think the one that really inspires me is our work in the Indian Ocean tsunami in Aceh and Nias, particularly in Nias, because very few organisations went to Nias. And, you know, our teams were able to rehabilitate and reconstruct the health system in Nias to what is strong now and has generated a secondary economy for health, and health tourism.
And I think this is exactly where we wanted to be: an organisation that is empowering, that is about high quality standards and bringing the expertise from Malaysia to share and build relationships with our neighbouring countries.
It really inspires me that our volunteers took time out to do this and they are continuing to do this now all over the world.
> Is there anyone that you met on any of the missions that has left a strong impact on you and you will never forget?
There are many people I remember, there is a young girl I met in Kosovo... She was running up and down the mountains to provide food for people during the conflict. And now she’s an accomplished woman. She’s running a business in Kosovo, she’s successful and now already, you know, helping other organisations as well.
So there’s another, another young man who we hired to work with us, who’s now become a doctor, because we supported him through his education, and one of our longest-serving staff in Afghanistan. His son is now here, and we supported him to get an education in Malaysia. So it’s good to see that people who we were helping then are now able to do well.
If you are interested in owning a piece of Mercy’s history, ‘Echoes of Mercy’ please email firstname.lastname@example.org