It took 23 hours to fly from New York to Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, and another 5 hours to drive from the airport to Taldykorgan, the city where four other Penn students (including Jackie, a fellow M&T!) and I lived and worked for just short of a month last summer. But let’s backtrack a bit and start at the beginning of our adventure.
Last fall I joined Penn International Business Ventures (PIBV), a student-run club that provides opportunities for Penn students to consult nonprofits abroad over the summer. It was through PIBV that I first got involved with Nur-Avicenum, a nonprofit hospital that serves those in the Almaty province. The hospital acts as a safety net to those who are refused care at the state-run hospital. It’s been praised by many around the world (including the German and Japanese embassies) for its unique healthcare model and efforts to equalize access to healthcare. Since its inception in 1991, Nur-Avicenum has remained true to its promise of treating all regardless of income or ability to pay and has yet to turn away an individual in need of healthcare. However, sticking to such a promise has come at a great financial cost to the hospital and its staff. So the day after my last final, our team flew to Kazakhstan to work with the hospital to examine their finances and operations in more detail.
Over the next 20 days, we got up at 8am and took a bus to the hospital, where we would have some coffee, meat, and cheese (Kazaks love their meat, cheese, and 6% milk) before getting to work. We worked a lot, more than any of us had anticipated. But, as I’m sure many of you guys know, when you believe in the institution you’re employed by and the people you’re employed with, working is a joy and an adventure. Nur-Avicenum retains some of the world’s most renowned medical specialists; these doctors left their jobs as directors and chiefs of larger and more prominent hospitals to work at this small, but incredibly influential, nonprofit clinic, because they’ve dedicated their lives to fighting for equal access to healthcare. Their work has already profoundly changed the international community’s perception of healthcare in emerging economies. It was very much our privilege and an honor to work alongside these- as one international newspaper called them- “heroes of Kazakhstan.” At the end of our trip, we walked the administrators through our final analysis and recommendations, but we couldn’t leave until we had one last dinner with everyone! Toasts were made, tears were shed, and we were all reminded that we are not alone in our pursuits for social justice.
When we weren’t working we explored the area. We frolicked through the hills of rural Kazakhstan with a herd of free-range sheep (I felt a little bit like Julie Andrews in the opening scene of The Sound of Music), went horseback riding at sunset, watched the sun rise over the desert plain, and tried a variety of new foods from the local market (I was more than a little obsessed with the market’s meat kebabs). We also sang karaoke with some of the hospital staff after work (who knew Britney Spears was so popular in Kazakhstan?) and even took a trip to a nearby lake with a hospital administrator, his family, and the chief of medicine.
And finally, one last plug for PIBV: If consulting abroad at a nonprofit is something you would be interested in, feel free to contact me with questions or check our website at www.pibv.org. PIBV trip applications are now open, and students can apply here.