Canadian Medical Student Community Unites to Save Sight For Rohingya Refugees

This fall, the Orbis Future Vision Leaders will partner with the Canadian Ophthalmology Student Interest Group (COSIG) to help Orbis Canada provide sight-saving cataract surgeries for Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority ethnic group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, are escaping what the United Nations has described as genocidal violence that follows decades of persecution and human rights abuses.

The Orbis Future Vision Leaders is a community of Canadian medical students, ophthalmology residents and university alumni who are passionate about eye health and supporting Orbis in our fight to end avoidable blindness globally. Similarly, COSIG is a student-led organization that works to enhance the learning of medical students interested in ophthalmology by sharing resources, facilitating connections, and supporting research and advocacy efforts. This specific outreach spoke directly to their members’ passion for helping deliver eye care to those who need it most.

As governments and humanitarian agencies support critical care needs and malnutrition in the camps, Orbis Canada, with support from OBAT Canada, has responded to the overwhelming eye health needs of the Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazaar. Through the first two phases of the initiative, eye screening outreach programs have reached close to 15,000 Rohingya refugees and provided sight-saving surgeries for 1,500 people.

Below: Some images taken prior to COVID-19.

“When visiting Cox’s Bazar two years ago, I saw for myself the full impact of our work. At the screening session, I saw hundreds of individuals come through the doors. A few days later, I visited our partner hospital where the cataract surgeries took place. I saw 10 women I had met at the screening, previously blinded by their cataracts. I was there when the patches were removed from each woman’s eye. I saw the look of both disbelief and joy as one by one, they looked around the room in awe at being able to see again,” says Orbis Canada’s CEO, Lisa McKeen.

“As a result of the pandemic, there is a significant backlog of patients waiting for cataract surgery – at least 2,000 in total. They have been screened, now their surgeries just need to be scheduled. As the country continues to manage the impact of COVID-19, we need to raise the funds to cover the cost of these sight-saving surgeries.

We are thrilled that OBAT Canada has stepped up with funding to support a portion of the costs, and now the Orbis Future Vision Leaders and COSIG are coming together to help support this work as well.”

For COSIG, this cause is one that is highly meaningful for its members, many of whom hope to do volunteer work around the world. The Rohingya refugees are in particular need, explains COSIG Executive Director, Anne Xuan-Lan Nguyen of the group’s decision to support this program. With cataracts, this simple 10- to 20-minute surgery can restore someone’s vision and entirely change their life for the better.

Anne Xuan-Lan Nguyen

Executive Director, COSIG

It’s a quick pro­ce­dure per­formed by oph­thal­mol­o­gists, some­thing that med­ical stu­dents know, and which is acces­si­ble here but is a major cause of bur­den elsewhere,”

This fundraising campaign will connect medical students from across Canada to raise the funds needed to support the ongoing work in Cox’s Bazaar. Each of the 17 medical programs across Canada has a representative from COSIG leading fundraising activities at their own universities and helping to spread the word about the importance of the campaign through social media.

An elderly Rohingya woman has her eyes checked during a screening program in Cox's Bazar

COSIG Director of Communications and Orbis Future Vision Leaders President, Dominique Geoffrion, knows this will bring together medical students and ophthalmology residents to make real change.

Dominique Geoffrion

COSIG Director of Communications and Orbis Future Vision Leaders President

Cataract surgery is one of the most com­mon­ly per­formed pro­ce­dures in oph­thal­mol­o­gy and it dras­ti­cal­ly improves people’s qual­i­ty of life around the world. For these rea­sons, it res­onates strong­ly with stu­dents and res­i­dents work­ing in eye health. What we will be able to accom­plish through this fundrais­ing cam­paign is real­ly impact­ful and every sin­gle con­tri­bu­tion will make a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence. This can be done because we have the priv­i­lege of work­ing with a group of high­ly moti­vat­ed stu­dents who are tru­ly pas­sion­ate about oph­thal­mol­o­gy and restor­ing vision.”

Want to get involved? Learn more, become a member of the Orbis Future Vision Leaders, or make a donation to the campaign by clicking HERE.

If you’re interested in learning more about COSIG, visit and follow their social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter).

Or, if you’re interested in supporting Orbis and would like to start a fundraiser of your own, visit our Fundraise for Orbis page, or contact Emily at [email protected] to learn more.

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