A life devoted to public health

Zuhaina Abubacar lives out her dream for public service by empowering medical frontliners in Marawi City
Zuhaina Abubacar lives out her dream for public service by empowering medical frontliners in Marawi City

As a little girl from Pikit, North Cotabato, Zuhaina Abubacar dreamed of becoming a doctor. However, her family was among those in Mindanao that were displaced by armed conflict, violence, and death.

“My education was delayed, and my parents could not afford to send me to medical school. For many years, we struggled financially—we were barely surviving but my parents were innate altruists. They inspired me to pursue a career in humanitarian aid and public health,” said Zuhaina.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in secondary education in 2013, she took a job at Oxfam as a public health promotion officer. In 2015, she served as a water sanitation and hygiene officer for the Typhoon Haiyan Emergency Response in Eastern Samar.

Despite having a fulfilling job, Zuhaina still longed to gain more knowledge and technical expertise in public health. For her, public health is more than just a career. It’s an advocacy and a passion.

While she had scant resources with which to pursue further education and training, she saw an opportunity in the Australian Government’s In-Country Scholarship Program (ICSP). “This would be my chance to pursue my dream and even study in a prestigious university for free,” she recalled.

Pursuing a dream

After hurdling ICSP’s application, vetting, and validation process, Zuhaina was awarded a scholarship and took up a Master of Health Social Science at De La Salle University in Manila. Being a migrant from Mindanao, Zuhaina found it challenging to adjust to life in a bustling metropolis. She not only had to adapt to a different culture, but she also dealt with negative stereotypes and inaccurate preconceptions about Muslims.

Still, she rose above all the challenges and succeeded in establishing rapport and friendships with her peers. She focused on her goals, worked hard on her academics, and finished her program even earlier than expected.

As an ICSP scholar, Zuhaina was also empowered to pursue her advocacy through her re-entry action plan (REAP). REAPs provide opportunities for the scholarship grantees to apply their learnings to implement projects that meaningfully contribute to Philippine development.

Staying true to her passion for public health, her REAP worked to strengthen the leadership capacity of members of the Bangsamoro Barangay Health Emergency Response Team in Marawi City who are also front liners during the COVID-19 pandemic. This a significant contribution because local communities were still recovering from the Marawi Crisis of 2017 when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Her REAP informed efforts at contact tracing and surveillance, translating and disseminating health and safety information, controlling and managing local COVID-19 transmissions, and addressing the stigma against those who contracted COVID-19.

Zuhaina’s REAP is being implemented as part of her work as Health and Hygiene Promotion Supervisor for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), more popularly known as Doctors Without Borders, an international non-government organisation of doctors that helps communities beset by wars and disasters. She joined MSF after completing her postgraduate studies.

“The ICSP has been instrumental in enabling me to pursue a career in an international public health organization. It has helped me pursue my advocacy while also providing for opportunities for me to see the world,” she mentions. But beyond these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, Zuhaina is grateful ICSP for providing her with the knowledge and skills that have helped her make a difference in the lives of people.