Reaching Out

Bringing color to caring - that's exactly what Teresa Smith de Cherif, MD, is doing as a resident at the UNM School of Medicine. Smith de Cherif's idea to manufacture and sell scrubs made from cloth dyed in the traditional West African method has brightened up units at both UNM Hospital and the New Mexico Veteran's Affairs Medical Center (VA), and is providing much needed employment for people in Africa.

Smith de Cherif, who lived and worked in 15 different African countries before coming to UNM in 2002, has a fascination with Africa - not only for its beauty - but also for its health-care challenges. In 1991, she started a charity called the Sahara Fund, Inc., which is devoted to helping West Saharan refugees and responds to the HIV/AIDS challenge in South Africa via its "African Scrubs Project."

HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death in South Africa. There are approximately four to six million people living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa. But, said Smith de Cherif, it is the plight of South Africa's children that is the most tragic. The 2003-2004 South African Review estimates that AIDS-related illnesses are responsible for 40 percent of deaths of children under five years of age, yet those who survive face severe hardships.

While working in the Western Sahara of Africa, she was introduced to the beautiful, brightly colored, hand-dyed fabrics made by women in villages and refugee camps. She liked the fabric so much that she started using African hand-dyed batiks to make dresses, but the idea to make scrubs out of the material didn't come to her until she was in her first year of medical school at the University of Miami.

"One of my son's West Saharan relatives made me an outfit akin to a set of scrubs from traditional African batik. Other distant relatives in the rural areas of Timbuktu, Mali also made me a few sets."

She proudly wore the "African Scrubs" on the hospital wards and received mixed reviews. "I believed that wearing the scrubs was a great way to promote Africa," she said. "People either thought that it was great or that I was crazy."

In 2001, she and her son traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, where they delivered Christmas stockings to six orphanages. She said she felt so welcomed in Cape Town that she decided to direct future efforts toward jobs creation, rather than gift delivery.

Of the six HIV/AIDS orphanages she visited, the Fikelela Children's Center needed funds to operate a clinic in Khayelitsha, Cape Town's largest township. Smith de Cherif decided she would try to sell African Scrubs to nurses, technicians, and doctors in the United States in order to support the Fikelala clinic.

As she began her residency at UNM, news of her plan spread like wildfire throughout the departments at the UNMH and VA Hospital, as Smith de Cherif regularly reported for duty in batik scrubs. "I was receiving calls from doctors and nurses who had heard what I was doing and wanted to help," she said. "This has definitely been a team effort, with the entire medical intensive care unit (MICU) at UNMH leading the way."

Within her first year marketing the scrubs, Smith de Cherif was able to meet all her costs and still send the Fikelela Children's Center a check for $2000. And this is only the beginning. She hopes to continue to help with the HIV/AIDS crisis through the African Scrubs Project and encourages others to come up with their own "Fikelela."

For more information, contact Teresa Smith de Cherif at (505)SAHRAWI.

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