From left to right: Abraham Vela, Akin Ekunkonye, (2016 ELAM graduates), Kunle Ekunkonye (director of Community Doctors), Abeeku Ricks, (2016 ELAM graduate) and Elianne Martínez, third year nursing student at the Salvador Allende Faculty. Photo: Lisandra Fariñas Acosta

Kunle Ekunkonye begins by stating: “This is not a story about me”; and the one hour and 39 minute-long documentary that follows confirms that this is indeed the story of many. Of a period in their lives which led them to spend six or seven years, facing the sea, in what was once a naval academy, and today is “the world’s most advanced medical school,” according to Ban Ki-moon.

Kunle Ekunkonye speaks to us, stringing together the wheres, whens, whys... and the story becomes his too, as Community Doctors, a documentary that takes an inside look into Cuba’s medical scholarship program at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), was his idea. While the film has much to tell Cubans and others across the world, it was especially aimed at the U.S. audience, to explain what ELAM is, does, its aims and achievements and the experiences of hundreds of U.S. youth who have been trained as doctors in Cuba.

The documentary looks back at unforgettable events in Central America, beginning with the passing of Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Mitch was a Category 5 hurricane, the highest level on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, with a maximum sustained wind speed of 290 kilometers per hour. It is said that the eye of the storm advanced parallel to the coast of Honduras and Nicaragua, hitting the countries with excessive rainfall and disastrous floods to become the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record.

The result was almost 11,000 dead, thousands missing and millions left homeless.

Before Mitch, the powerful Hurricane George had struck, hitting land on seven occasions, in different countries, during its long journey between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, to become the second most devastating storm of the season.

The destruction left over 600 dead.

It’s said that one learns something, or that something good comes, of every bad experience. In 1998, this catastrophe gave birth to new hope.

Cuban medical brigades were quickly prepared to go and help the affected population; as none of the island’s doctors could remain indifferent to the pain of others.

But Fidel’s ideas went further than simply sending Cuban health professionals to Central America, and he proposed to begin training doctors from these countries in Cuba. Thus, the first students arrived from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico.

Just a few months later, the Latin American School of Medicine was inaugurated, in whose classrooms youth from the Americas, Oceania, Eurasia and Africa today learn the art of healing.

Over 24,000 doctors from some 120 countries have graduated from ELAM. Photo: Yaimí Ravelo

The results of this project speak for themselves; over 24,000 medical graduates from some 120 countries.

Kunle Ekunkonye is a young man from the U.S. He smiles. At times he is silent, thinking, trying to communicate the “extraordinary experience” of delving into the daily lives of the young U.S. students at ELAM.

He tries (and succeeds) to ensure that they are the protagonists of the film. And the viewer quickly comes to understand why they wanted to study medicine on this island, across the Florida Straits; this diverse and “contradictory” Cuba, “of which they know so much and at the same time so little.”

The documentary takes the viewer from one side of the Straits to the other, as the story includes several graduates now working as doctors back in their home communities. They provide testimony of everything they took from their experience in Cuba, a country which welcomed them.

Kunle has a brother who studies at ELAM. “I knew he had come to this school to become a doctor, but not much more,” he explains, until he decided to visit him.

It was then that he learned about the Cuban health care system, with results “equal to or better than in the United States. It is also surprising how Cuba carries out this entire project. We can learn much from the health system here.”

As a software engineer, film is just a hobby for Kunle. However, ELAM awakened such passion and interest that he decided to dedicate a period of four years to making a documentary that would help inform the world about the project.

“I wanted to show that this program trains very high-level professionals, people who are doing very good work in the United States. It is an opportunity for very low-income people who can not afford to enter medical schools and here in Cuba have the opportunity to become good doctors for free,” Kunle Ekunkonye states.

We asked about those who have already graduated, and the answer is clear: “Inserted, working in low-income communities. They are carrying out the purpose for which they studied.”

All that is required of young people who come to ELAM is not to forget where they come from; their poor, marginalized neighborhoods. All that is asked is that they return home and implement what they have learned.

From its beginnings, the aim of this school has been none other than to train doctors with a focus on primary health care as their main field of work. The priority is to ensure that they have access to high-level scientific, humanistic, ethical and solidary training, in order that they may meet the health needs of their peoples and contribute to sustainable human development.

“I could see in various communities, many forgotten, one common factor: Cuban doctors or doctors trained in Cuba, are there helping to save lives,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on visiting the island.

He also referred to ELAM students.

How is it that 20,000 young people ended up studying medicine in Cuba and are now transforming their communities, including more than 140 from the U.S.? The answer lies in ELAM, offering six years of medical studies, plus free accommodation and food. How can one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere do such a thing without expecting anything in return?

These are some of the first questions posed by Community Doctors before revealing their story.

“Today we live in a global dilemma of health inequalities. Income and social status can determine whether individuals receive health care or whether they have access to quality care. In the United States we spend more than the entire planet on health care: $3.46 billion in 2014,” the documentary begins, before immediately concluding that “Despite all that spending we are not healthier and health disparities persist.”

Community Doctors explores what can be learned from other countries that spend less but have healthier populations and provide better access to health care. Cuba is one such nation, a country with limited resources that has developed a school of medicine to treat marginalized people across the world who lack healthcare services.

Various anecdotes are offered. Dasaw Floyd, from Southern California, tells of how his interest in activism and community organizing led him to take up a medical career. Laravic Flores, from Manila, the Philippines, shows us how training in Cuba has allowed her to tackle the roots of inequality, while Diana Gutiérrez, from Queens, New York, reminds us that “As children we all want to be doctors; before society instills all that negative energy.”

Tia Tucker, from Sulphur, Louisiana, is a determined student who is studying medicine as she believes that everyone has the power to change the course of things a little.

Many more young people talk about why they came to Cuba in the film, and the reasons seem infinite, among which the magnificent reputation for training well-qualified physicians, who offer their services across the world, and the emphasis on preventive medicine, feature as the main arguments. This is a country, a school, they say, that has taught them not to see patients as potential profit.

“A truly life-changing experience” is repeated over and over, which can’t be a coincidence. Studying with people from all over the world, learning Spanish, the diversity and “the spirit of cooperation that is promoted here, which encourages us to share,” have marked these students.

Helping another student to understand represents “the future care that a patient will receive.” Learning is not about competition, but rather mutual support and a common cause.

“Studying at ELAM can be a challenge,” says Amandla Shabaca-Haynes, from Tallahassee, Florida, because you’re away from family, home, you do not know anyone and you have to learn another language. This had caused her to doubt studying for a medical degree in Cuba.

“But when Hurricane Katrina occurred, and no help came, I saw how quickly the Cubans organized a brigade of health care professionals and physicians trained in disaster medicine.”

Cuba mobilized close to 1,600 doctors and they all gathered at ELAM the day after Hurricane Katrina struck. “It was amazing to me that they could organize such help, which was later rejected, so fast. It was inspiring for me to stay here, because that's the medicine I want to practice,” Amandla recalled.

This is not the only inspiring story. Haiti offered another example, following the earthquake that transformed the land of Toussaint L'Ouverture into a living hell.

More than 300 ELAM graduates traveled to the Caribbean island by their own means and joined Cuba’s Henry Reeve medical brigade to help the Haitian people. A sign of what had been achieved.

The Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) / Pastors for Peace, founded by Reverend Lucius Walker, has played an essential role in facilitating access to the scholarship program for U.S. students to study medicine at ELAM.

The documentary also speaks of these efforts: “They have remained on the right side of history, as true champions of the people.”

The majority of the U.S. students to have completed their medical degrees in Cuba have done so through this organization.

The ELAM admission requirements are as follows: applicants must be high school graduates or hold a bachelor’s (BS or BA) degree from their country of origin; be between 18 and 25 years of age when they apply; be subject to no impediment to practice medicine; and above all, come from a low-income community.

On this point, a crucial element emerges: the blockade.

“It’s part of relations between Cuba and the United States, we couldn’t avoid it,” Kunle tells Granma, while acknowledging, “It is extraordinary that Cuba provides health and education even under this policy.”

Kunle’s brother, Akin Ekunkonye, learned of the scholarship program through Pastors for Peace, and says the excitement at forming part of such diversity has still not passed. “The coinciding factor in class, with students from different countries, was that we all wanted to learn Spanish and to do good through medicine.”

As to what has most marked him, he points to “The genuine interest of Cuban teachers” that students learn and understand the importance of creating that “connection with the patient, so necessary given limited resources.

“I like medicine and how it is practiced in Cuba. I dream of joining other students who have already graduated, working together and making a difference,” he says.

Abraham Vela, from California, notes that once you near graduation, you begin missing Cuba. “ELAM has been one of the best experiences of my life. Diversity and friends. You create a family here, and leaving that family is difficult.”
Abeeku Ricks, born in Atlanta and living in Alabama, hopes to return to his country and undertake a specialty, as he would like to help “the community where my family lives in Louisiana, in the south of the United States. Doctors like us are needed there.”

To him, ELAM represents “internationalism, an opportunity to learn about unity. It also represents ambition as it provides us with hope and the example that we can be doctors, go anywhere in the world and bring light and life. It changed us, and transformed us into true professionals,” he says.

Community Doctors is available to watch for free online, for anyone who wants to listen, learn, and reflect.

“I am grateful for the ELAM program and I hope that people understand the humanism of Cuba when they watch the documentary and accept it as something great. This country has demonstrated what can be done without much technology or money; what can be achieved with education” director Kunle says, noting that the film provides a space for those best placed to tell this story.

December 17, 2014, marked a new path toward the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States. ELAM is one of the ties that, through sheer willpower and perseverance, already exists and could be evaluated by the US government as an excellent educational opportunity for low-income youth.

Official statistics estimate that in 2013 the average cost of a medical degree in the U.S. was $278,455 in private schools and $207,866 at public universities. To date, 145 young people from the U.S. have graduated from ELAM’s classrooms, while 89 are currently studying medicine here.

It would be great if here, facing the sea that stretches from one end of the Latin American School of Medicine to the other, many more U.S. citizens could achieve their dreams of becoming doctors. It would be a better ending to this story.