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Medical Teams Blog: Stories of boldly breaking barriers to health

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  • Beware: 4 Refugee Myth Busters

    by Martha Newsome | Jan 28, 2017

    President & CEO

    Recently I had a chance to take a whistle stop tour through three of five remote districts in Uganda hosting 967,054 refugees from six nations.  Quietly and without fanfare, violence, or struggle 1,600 to 1,800 refugees are arriving at the transit sites from South Sudan every day – day after day.  They line up quietly waiting for Medical Teams International staff, working with translators, to poke at them and their children and determine their bill of health. They sit under trees or on benches for hours, barely talking, waiting for their kit of rudimentary supplies, so they can then be bused to some barren plot to build their own makeshift house and begin their lives as refugees in Uganda.  A large percent of them are women and children, having left the men behind to try and farm, to defend their land, or to fight in the ugly civil war ravaging the country side.

    South Sudanese refugees arriving in Uganda wait in line for Medical Teams to do health intake. EVERY refugee entering Uganda is seen by our staff.

    Uncomplaining staff from Medical Teams International, United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), World Food Programme (WFP), and many other non-profit organization partners work diligently for hours all clad in their branded t-shirts.  There is no time to waste as every day, more refugees arrive and need to be registered, receive their supplies and health screening and get to their small plots of land all within 24 hours.  The only hint of a security concern is that the transit site tells us they have sent the small number of Dinka arrivals to a separate and enclosed sleeping quarters – a remaining sign of the ethnic tension being fomented by President Salva Kiir in a desperate bid to stay in power. 

    Martha Holley Newsome, President & CEO of Medical Teams International, listening to the the stories of South Sudanese refugees who arrived in Uganda that day.

    The makeshift and temporary health centers are teeming with people, the pediatric wards full of wee ones on drips for malaria.  Over one-third of all patients seen have this dreaded disease but once over the border they are treated; I don’t want to think about the ones on the other side without any health services or medicines to keep people from dying.  At home in the U.S., this is a completely unknown tragedy.  While we fret about Syrian refugees and immigration, the South Sudanese have no hope of jumping across the vast ocean separating our continents.  Although far from U.S. shores, we must not ignore the burden that faces countries like Uganda, Lebanon, and Turkey as they take in thousands of extremely vulnerable people every day.  In fact, in listening to our news, I’m afraid there are some pretty mistaken notions about refugees, international aid, and our borders, and it’s time to bust these popular myths:

    1. MYTH: The U.S. and the West carry the lion’s share of the burden for caring for the world’s refugees.  REALITY: It’s actually poorer, neighboring countries the bear the lion’s share of the burden.  One in every four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee.  To understand this statistic, imagine the headline if the US had welcomed 80 million Syrian refugees across our border?
    2. MYTH: We Should Cut Our Foreign Aid. REALITY: The funds from US State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (BPRM) matter.  BPRM is providing critical aid to help Medical Teams International and other partners care for refugees in cross-border settlements.  This provides stability and even enables some to thrive while they wait for conditions in their country to improve, with hopes and dreams of returning home. The tiny percent of funds that the United States spends on foreign aid stabilizes populations, provides hope that they can return to their home countries and helps young refugee boys to get an education rather than joining guerilla or terrorist movements that offer them some limited pay and a deadly alternative vision for a better life.
    3. MYTH: UN Agencies are Freeloaders. REALITY: Au contraire. The UN, too, is our friend. Let’s be clear that some of our tax payer dollars are funding critical UN institutions like UNHCR, WFP, and UNFPA:  all of whom are at work with us helping provide shelter, food, and emergency maternal care to refugees.
    4. MYTH: Refugees are Terrorists. REALITY: While there are extremely rare examples of terrorism linked to refugees, the vast, vast majority of the 65 million refugees in the world today are not terrorists – they are innocent victims of injustice and war.  They are mothers and daughters struggling for dignity, fathers and sons desperate for the smallest crack of opportunity.  Most of them are waiting out conflict in neighboring countries, waiting to go home.  This is where Medical Teams International is working today.

    refugee-relief-malaria-treatment-south-sudan-ugandaI cannot erase the image in my mind of the South Sudanese mother who sat on the cardboard covered ground at the Medical Teams clinic at the Palaroinya Base Camp. Her infant sat in her lap, receiving lifesaving treatment for malaria. She was up all night, the nurse told me, watching the fevers ravage her baby, and like every mother everywhere, she would not rest until her child’s fever broke, until he rested first, until it was clear he would live to see the morning.

    Meanwhile the faces of the South Sudanese in Uganda haunt me, like the two young men who had traveled thousands of miles across South Sudan to make it to our health center, after one of them was shot, their scrawny and thin bodies and hollow cheeks telling a grim story of the pain they had witnessed and experienced leading to their flight.  They are the lucky ones as it’s probable that most of their family may have died.  Or like the grandmother sitting under a tree, taking care of her disabled grandchild, her eyes empty and without hope, hiding from the camera, not wanting her pain to be transcribed in a photo for others to see. How can I and we as a country enable them to heal, survive and thrive? 

    I am thankful that millions of Americans are supporting marginalized and vulnerable refugees around the world through organizations like Medical Teams International.  As a Christian, I am compelled to love my neighbor as myself, even when they are in far-off Lebanon or Uganda. I want to be part of the solution, moved to action by the pain of the 65 million displaced people and refugees.  Perhaps you like me, want to pay it forward and pay a debt of gratitude for the blessings you’ve received. 

    Here are some tangible ways that you can make a difference right now:

    1. Support UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
    2. Support private organizations like Medical Teams International who are on the front lines in responding to refugees who flee their countries longing for a safe place to land. Donate now.
    3. Support government funding for refugees as a way to stabilize marginalized populations and prevent terrorism from taking root.
    4. Do your part to humanize the issue of refugees, remembering that they are ordinary people just like you and me who love their families desperately and want to live in peace.
    5. Call your congressperson to tell them you support ongoing state department funding for refugee families around the world.
    6. Educate yourself on the issues.
  • Hind: Syrian Refugee with Something Left to Give

    by Sarah Austria | Jan 28, 2017

    On a sunny, crisp winter day in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Syrian refugee Hind tells the story of her last four years. Upon hearing it, it would be understandable if the sum of her experiences had toppled her. On the contrary - Hind has not only survived, but is standing tall to care for her new community.

    Four years ago, Hind knew they had to leave. She was afraid for her sons’ lives- her two young sons looked older than they were and she feared they would be forced to join the army. With no alternative, they walked to the Lebanese border. The journey was horrific - she and her sons dodged bombs as they fled.

    “I feared for my life. It was the worst two hours of my life.”


    To flee, they had to make a difficult decision - leave her husband behind. He couldn’t enter Lebanon because he would be stopped at the checkpoint and drafted into the army. Trapped in the violence in Syria, he’s sustained injuries to his head, leg and skull.

    In Lebanon, Hind and her sons lived in an informal refugee settlement near the border with Syria. They lived there for two years, until the Syrian army began bombing their settlement directly, believing some ISIS family members to be living there. Hind recalls, “If you looked at the night sky, you could see the rockets hitting each other.”

    Again, Hind and her sons had to flee for their lives.

    “I didn’t like the war in Syria. But I actually lived the war in Lebanon.”

    After two days of fighting, the Lebanese army opened the roads to civilians and Hind took the opportunity to flee Arsal. While escaping in a taxi, her sons hid under their few belongings so they wouldn’t be found and arrested at the army checkpoint.

    Now their home is again an informal refugee resettlement, this time in the Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Hind continues to care for her sons, now 14 and 18.

    The challenges for the boys are great. Neither of them attends school. Her eldest son, Haroun, managed to continue school until 9th grade. Abdrauif, her youngest son, was a very tall 5th grader when he was placed into a 2nd grade class. He eventually became so embarrassed and depressed that he left school.

    Despite incredible struggles, Hind is giving back and serving others in the refugee settlement.

    Hind wishes her youngest son could have continued until the 9th grade like his brother. But, on top of this, he is dealing with serious health issues. Partially paralyzed from kidney problems he developed before he was 2 years old, Abdrauif needs a kidney transplant and needs frequent health monitoring - but the transplant is too expensive.

    The last four years have been full of struggles for Hind - but she has not given up. Thanks to your support, she’s received training to become a Refugee Outreach Volunteer. She now helps to monitor the health of the community members in her settlement and refer them to the Primary Health Care Clinics for treatment.

    Hind likes helping patients with home visits so they don’t have to leave their settlement for monitoring and treatment of non-contagious illnesses. And, as part of her role as a Refugee Outreach Volunteer, Hind is able to monitor her own son’s blood sugar level with equipment provided by Medical Teams International.

    Hind and her sons are among thousands of Syrian refugees seeking safety in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Thanks to your support, Medical Teams International is there and has built a network to address the critical health needs of the refugees. 500 Refugee Outreach Volunteers have been trained in 100 informal settlements. Volunteers refer community members to Primary Health Care clinics run by the Ministry of Public Health. There, the refugees receive treatment and follow-up.

    With one son now working in the fields nearby, and the other in need of a new kidney, Hind continues to care for her family. Her situation and experiences may seem too much for an ordinary person to handle, but her resilience is extraordinary. Luckily for her community, somehow, Hind has something left to give.

  • A welcome medical delivery in Cambodia!

    by Emily Crowe | Jan 26, 2017

    How big of a difference can a delivery of medical equipment make in a health clinic? For under-served clinics in an impoverished country, they make a huge difference.

    Thanks to the hard work of partners, donors & our distribution center volunteers (learn more about volunteering), our teams were able to ship a container full of medical equipment and supplies to several hospitals in regions where we work in Cambodia! These tools help local medical staff provide better care - providing exponential value for those in need.

    The shipments received a warm welcome. Check out these photos from an opening ceremony hosted by one of the hospitals that received equipment and supplies:

    Local leaders and many of the hospital staff showed up for the shipment welcoming ceremony. 

    Clean medical supplies reduce the risk of infection & death in under-served clinics.

    Donated-medical-supplies-cambodiaBoxes of medical supplies arrive at one of the clinics where we work in Cambodia. 

  • Spreading health (and smiles!) around the world.

    by Emily Crowe | Jan 23, 2017

    Reflecting over the past year - and looking forward into the new - one thing is clear: Your support makes an incredible impact.

    In 2016, you sent medical supplies to clinics in urgent need. You taught children the importance of safe hand-washing and sent hygiene kits around the world. You transported pregnant mothers to clinics for safe delivery and made sure they received follow-up care. And so much more. Best of all, your support will impact these lives for years to come.

    As we look forward to the impact we will make - together - in 2017, please take a moment to meet some of the incredible people you helped in 2016:

    Syrian refugees in Lebanon & Greece: You sent medical supplies and doctors, trained community Health Outreach Volunteers, and brought care where it is desperately needed. 

    Hurricane victims & long-term programs in Haiti: You made sure children, families and communities stayed safe in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew - and are ensuring they'll be healthy in the years to come.

    Refugees in Uganda: Violence in South Sudan and Burundi forced thousands of families to flee their homes and become refugees in Uganda - sometimes more than 6,000 per day. You're making sure our teams can meet the demand and get refugees the medical care they deserve.

    Community health in Guatemala: Your support sent volunteer teams and empowered health programs in Guatemala, making sure more children grow up healthy and strong.

  • South Sudan: "There was nothing left for me"

    by Emily Crowe | Jan 19, 2017

    This story comes directly from a refugee mother we met at one of the refugee settlements we serve in Uganda. Like too many others, she and her children had fled fight in the home, South Sudan. Thank you for bringing health care to families like hers. Please pray that she and her child will find healing and safety.

    There was nothing left for me back there; no home, no food, even one of my children was taken from me. The soldiers came and took everything. They didn’t care that my child is sick, and that another one had been killed by one of their bombs. They still come and take everything.


    [We] came because of hunger. In Nimule (South Sudan), everyone is fighting. Soldiers come to take everything.

    They didn’t care that my child is sick, and that another one had been killed by one of their bombs. They still come and take everything.

    We left home and started traveling towards the border, but we still couldn’t find food anywhere—we were starving. The road to get here was very dangerous... You have to bribe the soldiers if they find you on the road. They charge 800 SP per adult and 400 SP per child. And even if you pay them, another might come and arrest you. Some people die on the roadside because they cannot pay.

    I lost everything, I came with nothing, only the clothes on my back... We were luck to have made it.

    Thousands of women like Opia and their children have fled South Sudan as unimaginable violence has become terrifying reality. Even more heartbreaking, Opia's family was separated in the camp. Your support is critical to keep refugee families like Opia's safe. Thank you for making sure she and her children have access to safe, reliable healthcare.