From Atlanta to Amman: One American Healthcare Worker's Story of Courage and Adventure
By: Holly Johnson/Arab America Contributing Writer
Perched atop a gregarious hill on Atlanta’s beltline, overlooking the magnolia tree-lined streets of Ponce De Leon Avenue, lives a woman who, as she wistfully recalls with an air of both pride and regret, “lived nine lives.”
A dog lover, hater of The Food Network, and lover of DIY home projects, at first glance, Bette Scott is your typical southern belle. Impeccably mannered and quick to offer a diet coke to anyone who crosses into her humble abode, where photos of past (and current) four-legged friends fill the wall space, as well as family portraits of her beloved twenty-something-year-old who now calls Tennessee home.
However, if you looked deeper, you would find a blanket purchased in Lebanon, that “kept her warm on chilly nights in Beirut without heat”, a papyrus scroll from her time in Cairo, and a tricolor print that she affectionately points out is the flag of Yemen.
You see, despite her quiet nights in with her Chinese takeout, daily trips to the dog park, and average daily activities, Scott’s life has been quite the opposite. A highly educated, inter-culturally competent individual, Scott has traveled to over 15 countries in an official capacity. As a representative for Doctors without Borders, Scott has worked extensively in Arab countries, often spending eight to ten months at a time on assignments.
Although Scott once worked, as she described, a “perfectly average job” in Atlanta, in 2008, she found herself with unlimited times on her hands when her daughter graduated high school early, and relocated out of state for college. Having devoted all of her energy to her daughter, Scott found herself bereft, unsure of how to spend her time.
Having obtained her doctorate in epidemiology from Emory University in 2005, Scott had often longed for a professional challenge, an opportunity that would allow her to make a true difference.
Over dinner with a friend one evening, Scott first heard about an available position within the epidemiology department of Doctors without Borders. Cautiously optimistic, Scott submitted her resume the next day Within three weeks, Scott had passed three rounds of “intense” interviews, and had accepted what she describes as her “most significant test”.
Her first assignment took her to the streets of Cairo, a place she had always wanted an excuse to visit. Her three weeks in the city were “magical”, she recalls, “because, for the first time in my life, I actually felt like I was doing something important, making a difference.”
After providing training to physicians in Egypt about the dangers of and best prevention methods for shigella (an intestinal parasite for us non-science folk), Scott’s next assignment found her trudging along the “surprisingly mountainous streets of Islamabad.
Within two years of earning her position, Scott had visited 15 countries, equipping local physicians and clinics with adequate training on disease prevention and effective treatment, as well as eradication of unsafe drinking water and food conditions.
In 2015, Scott was offered a full-time position in Jordan, which required her to relocate. “I said yes with hesitation, absolutely,” recalls Scott. “I lived for my job, putting every ounce of energy into my efforts, which met my innate need for adventure.”
For two years, Scott resided in what she describes as an “Americanized” area of Amman, finding beauty in the daily routine of prayer calls, and afternoon treks to the local fresh fruit juice stands. Scott cites Jordan’s diverse culture as one of the “many reasons she fell hard for the city’s charms”, as, when she got homesick for the states, she could visit a downtown restaurant that served the best buffalo wings west of the Dead Sea, yet top if off with a delicious batch of kanafeh, which Scott credits for her “almost ten-pound weight gain”.
Although Scott admits to moments of fear as she assimilated to Arab culture, she quickly found her footing. However, she fervently maintains that the hardest aspect to “make peace” with, was the traditional subordination of women.
Strong, fearless, and intently outspoken, Scott was unused to having to bite her tongue on matters of political, humanitarian, and international intrigue, and “never fully” adjusted to having to the local custom of being introduced by a man, seemingly invited, in order to participate in conversations.
Following five years of diligent work in Amman, and almost thirteen with Doctors without Borders, Scott made the difficult decision to return home to Atlanta, in January 2020. Although she retains an apartment in Jordan for “personal use”, and considers countless locals as her second family, Scott ultimately decided that it was time to focus on her biological family once more.
Now the doting grandmother of four young grandchildren, Scott still works for a sister company of Doctors without Borders, however, instead of helping in the field, she is now sharing her expertise through technology and “copious amounts of Zoom calls.”
“I can honestly say that I am the only one in my neighborhood to ride a camel through the western desert, hunker down in a shelter for fear of ensuing bombs Yemen, and dye my sandy blonde hair black in effort to cross the Iraq border without standing out like a German Shepherd in a field of greyhounds.”
When asked whether she would return to the field, Scott’s eyes lit up at the prospect. “I like to say”, she began in her slight southern drawl, “never say never.”
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