How Vaseline Is Helping Syrian Refugees

Almost two years ago, when many people in the U.S. were still blindly unaware of what was really happening in Syria, two dermatologists, Grace Bandow, MD, and Samer Jaber, MD, went on a medical mission to the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. You might be thinking, Why derms? People in the camps need food, water, and medicine, but skin care?

Skin care may not seem as obvious as those other necessities, but the close conditions in these camps can cause many skin-related issues. Before they left, Dr. Bandow and Dr. Jaber armed themselves with the necessary medicine to combat lice, scabies, and parasitic and bacterial infections. But what they didn't expect was that the item they found themselves needing most, as well as the one most requested by their patients, was Vaseline petroleum jelly — yes, that unassuming jar sitting in most every American's medicine cabinet.

“Until we were working in the refugee camps ourselves, we didn’t realize how important and useful Vaseline was,” explains Dr. Bandow. “Vaseline is used as a skin protectant to help soothe eczema, psoriasis, burns, and dry, cracked skin and lips. Refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war are walking miles through hot deserts, often in open rubber sandals that leave their feet exposed. We saw many patients with deep, painful cracks in their skin, which made walking or working painful, and sometimes impossible… Thousands of Syrians are living in crowded tents and cooking over open flames and sadly, burns are commonplace. Vaseline provides protection and an emollient effect to the burns as they are healing.”

Upon their return to the States, the derm duo cowrote an article for The Washington Post detailing their experience. They told stories of a man with burns on his hands, another with deep and painful cracks on his feet, and a 12-year-old girl with blistering skin — all of whom benefitted from something as basic and inexpensive as Vaseline. In this type of environment, even issues more minor than these, like small cuts and dry skin, can become serious or even life-threatening if not properly cared for. "The primary problem we encountered was severely dry skin," says Dr. Bandow. "Dry skin is not only uncomfortable, but it leads to greater problems including fissures, or deep cracks that won’t heal, secondary infections like impetigo, and worsening of primary skin diseases like eczema or psoriasis."
Courtesy of Vaseline Healing Project.
After the article was published, Vaseline brand director Kathleen Dunlop was flooded with emails about the story. The Unilever-owned company was already very involved in philanthropy, but this showed that there's a need for its product, not just its profits. And if it could help people in refugee camps, it could also benefit victims of natural disasters and those living in extreme poverty. And thus, the Vaseline Healing Project was born.

Vaseline decided to partner with top international aid organization Direct Relief in an effort that would provide dermatological care, Vaseline products and other medical supplies, and health-worker training to people around the world. "Direct Relief’s mission is to improve the health and lives of people affected by poverty and emergency situations by mobilizing and providing essential medical resources needed for their care," explains Dunlop. So this partnership was a no-brainer. Dr. Bandow and Dr. Jaber joined the endeavor.

"One of the most important aspects of the project is teaching local healthcare workers how to identify and treat basic and common skin conditions," says Dr. Bandow. "Current mission efforts, although well-intentioned, often provide brief, temporary relief. By teaching local caregivers on the ground, the Vaseline Healing Project can provide a lasting impact for these communities."
Last March, the Vaseline Healing Project went to Jordan on its first mission (pictured directly above), where the two docs treated 1,000 people, most of whom were Syrian refugees, in six days. Next, they went to rural Kenya (pictured top left) and an area in the Philippines that had been particularly affected by 2013's Typhoon Haiyan. The project aims to heal the skin of five million people by 2020. In 2015 alone, one million units of Vaseline personal-care products were donated through the initiative.

Today, the project is launching Not So Ordinary, a short film that shows just how much a little jar of Vaseline can do — which you can watch exclusively on Refinery29, above. The company has also just named Viola Davis (who narrates the video) its first celebrity spokesperson.

If you want to help, head to Vaseline's website, where you can build a medicine kit that contains a jar of Vaseline plus whatever supplies (rubbing alcohol, gauze, hand sanitizer, and more) you choose to donate. These basic things can truly make an extraordinary difference.

Refinery29 is committed to covering the human beings behind the headlines of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis. Read the full multimedia feature Behind the Headlines: Daughters of Paradise here. More coverage on the human faces of the world's refugee crisis can be found here.

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