Behind the mountains: An intern reflection

By Reem Abu-Libdeh


Reem Abu-Libdeh

Each year, PIH's Institute for Health and Social Justice organizes a summer internship program. Below is an intern reflection from Reem Abu-Libdeh, who spent June and July with PIH's communications department.

A few weeks ago I went to a Haitian restaurant in Somerville, in a part of town not serviced by the subway. The restaurant stood on the corner, and big red block letters announced its name: HIGHLAND CREOLE CUISINE, the peach-colored walls were covered in Haitian art.  An aquarium was tucked in one corner, a small bar in the other. Haitian music played softly in the background. The menu was in both Creole and English.

I was there with a large group and we were celebrating, or maybe mourning, the end of our summer internship with PIH’s Institute for Health and Social Justice. We had all met seven weeks earlier in a conference room, where we went around the table saying our names and where we were from (New York, California, Massachusetts, Peru, Tajikistan, and more). We smiled a lot, made small talk, tried to remember names and who was from where. Now, at the restaurant, the conversation was different—lots more laughter, lots more (very friendly) debates. We moved easily from discussing Haiti’s history to someone’s year in West Africa to asking who had seen that dancing wedding video on Youtube.

We had a lot to talk about.

For the past two months, in between our own projects—which ranged from grant-writing to working on curriculums for community health workers to researching cardiac care in Rwanda—PIH staff from all corners of the organization had sat down with us and talked about their work, their projects, their research. A young doctor from Lesotho described his successful male-targeted HIV testing and outreach initiative. He had engaged people in a way only someone from the community could. PIH Medical Director Joia Mukherjee, in between urging us to eat the doughnuts she brought, discussed the World Bank, the IMF, and structural adjustment loans. We spent an hour and a half with Paul Farmer, where we were given free rein to ask whatever we wanted. Ophelia Dahl spent three important mornings with us, including our first and last days. The communications team (with whom I worked) revealed the magic behind the website. Project managers from Peru, Haiti, and Russia traced the sites from their origins to today, sharing lots of public health lessons along the way. Epidemiologists and anthropologists working at PIH sites across the globe broke down their research, and the community health promoters at the Prevention and Access to Care and Treatment (PACT) project left us in awe.

Even the normal rhythms of the office were stimulating. I tasted nourimanba, the peanut butter–based ready-to-use therapeutic food Zanmi Lasante, PIH’s partner organization in Haiti, uses to treat malnourished children, at a brown bag lunch. A patient in the Right to Health Care program from Haiti, who had undergone cardiac surgery at Brigham and Women’s, briefly joined the interns and their mentors in the conference room our last day. Under the bright fluorescent lights, we all clapped for him. Then there was the undated letter from Paul Farmer to early PIH supporters someone had slipped into a plastic sheet and thumb-tacked to the office wall, after highlighting a few sentences of loopy cursive: “We had our first case of AIDS in the village,” he had written. “[ . . .] I spent the rest of the January running around, looking for a place to hospitalize and treat him. All to no avail. The doors were closed.”


Reem and her fellow Summer 2009 IHSJ interns

And still there was more, but too much to tell. By the time I found myself at the Haitian restaurant, trying fried goat for the first time (I recommend it), I felt as though I was wrapping up a seven-week-long conversation that spanned not only health care, but history, anthropology, economics, public policy, international relations, food security, and the environment. Here I’ll echo what a fellow intern said our last day: we got much more out of PIH than we put in. We had received an extraordinary glimpse into the organization and a stellar education in social justice—and how you practice it.

And there was something else I took away, some fundamental piece that tied all the bits together, that cemented not only the scope of PIH’s work, but also its dedication, vision, successes. It took me a few days to name.

Early in the summer, while waiting in the kitchen for my lunch to heat up, I started talking to a coworker about books on Haiti. Later that afternoon he brought me Krik? Krak!, a short story collection by the Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat, whose unadorned prose can make your stomach flutter. I turned to the book the internship’s last day, after lots of good-bye hugs and promises to stay in touch.

And there, in the first few words of the first story in the collection, “Children of the Sea,” I found that fundamental piece.  

“They say behind the mountains are mountains. Now I know it’s true.”


[posted August 2009]