In the quiet suburb of Maadi in south Cairo, the Mersal headquarters seems like a beehive buzzing with energy.
Mersal is a health charity NGO that provides free treatment to all nationalities and without any discrimination, including refugees, and will treat any patient, regardless of how serious their condition, Moreover, it does not resort to advertising in order to keep its patients’ data completely confidential.
It provides a wide range of health care and carries out campaigns to support patients with specific diseases, such as its prolonged Story of a Voice campaign that funds cochlear implant surgeries to children in need.
Officially established in 2015, Mersal has several branches in Cairo and Alexandria, the two main cities in Egypt, but also operates all over the country.
The organisation’s activities and scope expanded enormously in recent years, drawing attention locally and internationally and garnering acclaim due to the principles that govern its activities.
After Heba Rashid graduated from the Faculty of Al-Alson, Ain Shams University and obtained a master's degree and certificates in the field of project management, she worked for thirteen years in the private sector, after which she volunteered to work in charities, especially associations interested in treating low-income people, for ten years.
Then she worked to establish her charitable foundation, Mersal, defying all the obstacles she faced, whether from the patriarchal society or the bureaucracy, and registered her foundation in 2015.
Ahram Online: Tell us about yourself, and what motivates the work of your NGO?
Heba Rashed: I worked in the private sector till around 2014, but I was missing the motivation and passion that I aspire to.
In addition to my work, I volunteered in several fields, and I felt that the health field in particular was in dire need of further help from the civil society.
I started Mersal, and back then and to this day I feel that some people's lives depend on something that we offer, and this is what gives me the enthusiasm, motivation and passion to wake up every morning.
AO: What is different about what you offer in the health service?
HR: The main thing is that we emphasise our principles.
First, we do not discriminate between patients; everyone gets the opportunity for help and treatment, regardless of his age, nationality or disease condition.
We are keen on the slogan “treatment without discrimination.”
Second, we are very keen on the privacy of the patient, so we do not talk about people’s information. Nor do we reveal photos or [use them to] advertise. Our employees know that patient data and privacy is a red line.
AO: What are the current challenges in charitable and volunteer work?
HR: Charitable work in the field of health has greater number of challenges. It is expensive and requires the cooperation of doctors and specialists, and it involves many details.
The main challenge is the budget, of course, and we try to meet the needs of those on the waiting list, but unfortunately we do not succeed in serving everybody, especially with limited resources.
The other thing is that expectations were raised high after what people witnessed us accomplish during Coronavirus crisis. That made them think that we are capable of everything, and that we have a magic wand.
At the end we have about 250 employees, while major charitable institutions in Egypt reach 3,000 employees or more. Our human capacity has limits.
The other challenge was that having a woman at the helm of charitable work – especially when I started at the age of 34 – was problematic, but things are improving after the trust we garnered year after year of course.
AO: Mersal has been acclaimed internationally many times. What was the impact of that?
HR: The Swedish, Canadian and German embassies supported us while working during the Coronavirus pandemic.
I was awarded the Immigrant's Friend award from the UN’s International Organisation for Migration.
Many foreign newspapers wrote about us, including the Washington Post, and undoubtedly it is nice to feel appreciated and supported from one's country and from outside it.
AO: Why did you start offering psychotherapy services?
HR: Psychological treatments began more than two years ago, after we noticed an increase in the number of people suffering from mental problems and were unable to bear the costs of treatment and medication.
We witnessed many lives threatened because of suicidal tendencies.
We now provide diagnosis and medication for free, and if the situation calls for, we provide a place in a health facility for free as well.
AO: What have been some of unforgettable moments working at Mersal?
HR: Hundreds and hundreds of cases provided many unforgettable moments.
But I do not forget, personally, a specific case I met in Lebanon when I traveled in 2019 to see the conditions of Syrian refugees in the southern camps.
The case was a girl who lost her father in the war, then her baby brother died while he was selling tissues in the streets. Then she lost her hearing due to gunshots, bombs and the sounds of planes, and she needed a cochlear implant.
We in the institution have already conducted more than 300 cases of cochlear implants, but this child's case was difficult due to her circumstances, the death of most of her family, and her presence outside Egypt.
And I remember how the honourable Egyptian ambassador in Syria cooperated with us and facilitated the transfer of the child until the operation was performed and we saw the joy on her and her mother's face.
AO: What drew world's attention to Mersal in particular during the COVID-19 crisis?
HR: Before COVID-19, we had experience in helping people find places in emergency rooms for treatments.
Accordingly we were pioneers in continuing this effort as much as possible during the pandemic and at its height, we were at the forefront in this matter in the field of charitable work.
AO: What made the foundation start a children's hospital project even though there are many hospitals already?
HR: The need and demand is much greater than the supply, especially in the fields of nurseries and bone marrow transplants – which cost from EGP 200,000-400,000.
Abu Al-Rish Hospital provides a tremendous service, but of course the number of patients is much more than their capacity, and we are trying to establish a free hospital for children that resembles Abu Al-Rish, and ensures the reduction of the costs of operations that we provide to the needy, thus achieving continuity and sustainability.
AO: What is your hope for the future of women and charitable work in Egypt?
HR: This year was named by the government “the year of civil society.” This in itself is a huge support, and we are waiting for more support and relaxing of restrictions. There are things that are still going on in the manner of 30 years ago in the bureaucracy of employees in charitable societies.
Charitable work has played a huge role in society at this time, so we need more facilities, everything must be digitised.
There should be a platform that electronically collects the data of patients in all charities, to ensure the efficiency of charitable work and the absence of repetition in helping one case or another,.
Huge achievements have already taken place, but we still need more women to lead the field of entrepreneurship, and more amendments in many laws related to alimony and divorce. Through our work, we see the suffering of Egyptian women in this regard.