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Why This Health CEO Hopes His Business Won’t Exist One Day

“If you were to think of [refugees] as a country population, their health outcomes would be worse than the poorest country,” says Aral Surmeli, Founder and CEO of HERA Digital Health.

HERA Digital Health is connecting refugees and other displaced people to health resources via a WhatsApp chatbot or mobile application. It serves as a stable resource for NGOs to inform populations where their mobile services are located and for displaced people to navigate a local region's health services. The application and WhatsApp Chatbot rely on AI to translate in real time.

The HERA app allows users to call emergency services, store medical records and directs users to accessible medical facilities like clinics and hospitals. Surmeli, a trained medical doctor, shares that physicians typically don’t need full medical history to effectively care for patients. “I need simple things. If a child comes with a fever, it’s good to see immunization cards. If a woman needs help and I know she had a risky pregnancy, I can work with that. Collecting data is not the main point of our app,” says Surmeli.

One Syrian boy Surmeli’s team encountered was vaccinated for polio six times simply because his family did not possess vaccination records.

Vaccination records can also expedite the time a refugee spends at a port of entry. Surmeli shares the example of Ukrainian refugees attempting to enter Poland. Poland was vigilant about guarding against tuberculosis, and if Romanian refugees had proof of vaccination, it could assuage Polish concern for certain infectious diseases. While HERA is not currently existent in Poland or Ukraine, Surmeli hopes the same principles will apply as HERA enters new regions.

HERA employees hold a workshop after the 2023 earthquakes. They teach about sexual and reproductive rights and introduce the HERA app

Currently, HERA operates in Türkiye and Syria. Türkiye serves as one of the leading refugee-hosting countries with over 3.4 million displaced people. A large majority of these refugees come from Syria. Two major earthquakes–felt in Southeast Türkiye and Northern Syria–in February 2023 led to death, destruction, and additional migration.

Earthquakes are only a small reason Surmeli is concerned with the well-being of displaced people in the region.

“All throughout the world, our health care systems are designed for people who are born and die in the same place. But we know with conflicts and the climate crisis, people are having to move, either within their countries or to different countries. We need health systems that can respond to moving populations,” Surmeli shares.

The World Bank’s Groundswell Report II estimates there will be 216 million climate migrants across only six regions of the world by 2050 (South Asiam Latam, Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia).

“Displacing 200 million people will happen before 2050. The problem is exponentially increasing. We have to adjust health interventions to that reality,” says Surmeli.

While HERA is not focused on tracking data, Surmeli explains that the team has noticed the impacts of the climate crisis from a small subset of users. “We are working with seasonal migrant farm workers in Türkiye. Every year, they will move around the country in a circle to harvest onions, bananas, etcetera. Their route is changing due to climate, and we can see this.”

Regardless of the reason for displacement, Surmeli and his team believe sustainable health interventions must be a collaborative effort with the populations in need. While Surmeli admits there are useful ways to utilize volunteers in social impact work, he does not work with volunteers in health contexts. “We are doing health care. Health care is not a volunteer thing. If I can’t hold people accountable. I don’t want to work with them.” He adds, “We want to get away from the idea of angels coming from heaven to help people. Instead of doing things to [refugees], we work with them. It’s an issue of equity and partnership rather than helping people.”

Part of HERA’s custom approach to working with displaced people includes making people aware the app exists and making it accessible.

Social media and smartphones are no longer a luxury, Surmeli shares. The HERA team leans into using targeted ads and Facebook refugee groups in hopes of familiarizing HERA with displaced people so they can arm themselves with health resources before migrating.

HERA was a winning solution to MIT Solve’s 2023 Global Challenges and the 4HerPower Challenge supported by the UNFPA and Organon. HERA is primarily deployed in Türkiye, but with its succession of accolades and support, it’s planning to pilot in Lebanon and Latin America.

“HERA doesn’t have any ownership or trademarks or anything like that,” says Surmeli. “We want anyone and any organization to have the mentality they can exist without us. Every non-profit, in my opinion, the end goal should be to not exist at some point.”

Interested in partnering with health solutions like HERA? Get in touch with MIT Solve to learn how.

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