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Medical Teams Blog: Stories of boldly breaking barriers to health

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  • PHOTO UPDATE: South Sudan refugee crisis

    by Emily Crowe | Jul 29, 2016

    Uganda, South Sudan’s neighbor, is facing a massive influx of South Sudanese refugees. Over 90% are women and children. Mothers who've lost their homes are struggling to feed their infants. Orphaned children are at great risk of hunger and disease in overcrowded camps. So many need help - 10,000 people spent the night at one refugee center- far beyond its 1,000-person capacity.

    Without care, the situation could become much worse. Learn more about the South Sudan refugee crisis and what we're doing to help.

    A Medical Teams International staff person meets with refugees. 90% of refugees are women and children, and many children have lost family members or are orphaned.

    New arrivals from South Sudan. Malnutrition, malaria, women in labor, gunshot wounds, watery diarrhea (which can be deadly, especially for children, and hunger are some of the most pressing issues we are addressing.

    Health emergencies can have serious consequences in overcrowded camps. Medical care and resources are critical.

    Vaccines protect children from life-threatening diseases and help ensure healthier childhoods.

    A settlement for refugees before the massive influx - more tents, supplies and resources are needed to keep families safe.

  • Bringing in new life in an overcrowded camp

    by Emily Crowe | Jul 26, 2016

    They had to leave. Just five years after independence, fighting was breaking out again in South Sudan. So many had already been killed- or left with scars they could never forget. Home was no longer safe – even though the journey was dangerous. This time, Anita* wasn't only worried about herself - she had a three-year old son, her younger sister... and she was carrying twins.

    Anita and her family, now refugees in Uganda after fighting in South Sudan forced them from their home.

    It was her second pregnancy, but that didn't make this time any easier. Pregnancy is already a risky proposition in South Sudan - which until recently had the worst maternal mortality rate in the world. Twins only made her pregnancy more dangerous… and what would she do if she went into labor on the road?

    At a critical time in her pregnancy, Anita had to make the journey to Uganda - with little to no access to prenatal care and an unpredictable future ahead. After a long and difficult trek, Anita crossed into Uganda with little assurance of whether her babies would survive – but relieved to finally be able to rest.

    Then… her labor pains started.

    Overcrowded refugee centers can present serious risks – flooding, inadequate shelter, risk of outbreaks, and insufficient supplies like food, medicine or clean water. One refugee center where we serve – which has 1,000 person capacity – was forced to carry 10,000 refugees like Anita overnight. Without medical care, this is a recipe for disaster.

    But, thankfully, your support was already hard at work keeping Anita safe.

    Anita's premature twins, safe and sound in an incubator. Thanks to you, they're receiving the care they need to stay healthy.

    When her labor began, Anita was quickly rushed to the nearby health center and met by a midwife who skillfully helped her through delivery. Soon, they were greeted by the sound of two newborn babies!

    However, this delivery had come early – both babies had low birth weights. Thankfully, this family was in good hands and were quickly transferred to the nearby hospital – a hospital you help run – for specialized care. Thanks to you, her babies are healthy—despite incredible odds. Without care, it’s very possible that this story would have an ending. On behalf of Anita, her two beautiful children, and everyone who’s being impacted by your support right now, thank you.

    One of the precious twins you are keeping safe, despite incredible odds.

    *Name changed.


    So many others like Anita need care. Fighting in South Sudan is forcing thousands of mothers like Anita to flee for safety – over 90% of refugees entering Uganda are women and children. Mothers around the world are at risk from war, poverty and disaster. We need your help to make sure life-saving care and supplies are accessible.

  • Introducing Rebecka Jonsson: A heart for refugees

    by Tyler Graf | Jul 22, 2016

    Lebanon, Rebecka and girl, 2016
    Rebecka Jonsson, program officer for Africa and the Middle East, in Lebanon with a little friend.

    When Rebecka Jonsson’s great grandparents fled Cuba with their daughter – Rebecka’s maternal grandmother — they were laying the foundation for a better life for future generations.

    They were like so many other refugees, yearning for freedom and desperate to escape the clasps of persecution.

    Throughout her life, Rebecka has been inspired by this story: In the face of stiff challenges, with their lives and livelihoods hanging in the balance, her family made one of the toughest decisions anyone can make. They knew they had to do it, despite only having $200 to their name, which was sewn into a jacket pocket.

    Today, more and more people are making that decision, not because they’re looking for a better life, but because they simply have to survive. Both of Rebecka's grandparents knew this well, and so too does Rebecka.

    Rebecka’s background is a rich tapestry of cultures, languages and experiences. No wonder, then, that she ended up working for Medical Teams International as the program officer for Africa and the Middle East. 

    As a child, she grew up in three different cultures: in Spain, Sweden and the U.S. Because of that upbringing, Rebecka speaks English, Spanish, Swedish, French and Arabic. She says her exposure to these varied cultures has given her a firm understanding of people and a willingness to be open to new experiences.

    With all these factors swirling around her, she chose to study international affairs (with an emphasis on migration and economics) at George Washington University.

    Upon graduation, she went to the Democratic Republic of Congo to work at a Catholic hospital teaching English and Spanish. This was a formative experience, giving Rebecka a first-hand perspective of the other side of migration and sparking a passion for humanitarian aid. From this experience, she learned that migrants are like anyone you meet on the street, except they are caught in legal limbo. It's a situation that few people totally understand, least of whom might be the migrants themselves.

    “I went in thinking that I had to learn so much from the Congolese, as they were so foreign to what I was,” Rebecka says. “Yes, I did learn a lot from them, but I also realized that they are just like me or you – they have the same hopes, the same dreams, the same beliefs.”

    To further her education, Rebecka moved to France where she enrolled in a Masters of International Public Management, Migration and Applied Economic Theory at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, where she graduated in 2012.

    Rebecka then worked for a State Department-contracted resettlement program, in close association with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. While in Kenya, this put her in contact with displaced people on a daily basis. Analyzing the behavior of others is not simple, Rebecka says, especially when it’s new to you. "I try and take my time and not jump to conclusions," she adds.

    The stories she's heard over the years stick with her. Many she hears over and over again – like the story of a father, whose mere existence caused his childrens’ persecution and eventual deaths. For Rebecka, there is nothing worse than bearing witness to the unimaginable grief of a father who’s retelling the story of how a group of men came looking for him and, in finding he had fled, killed his children instead.

    Rebecka and her husband moved back to Portland, Ore., in 2014, when she joined Medical Teams International. Rebecka facilitates Medical Teams’ work in the Ugandan and Lebanese settlements. We are blessed to have her on the Team, as the needs among refugees is at the highest point in modern history.

    In 2015, an average of 24 people were displaced from their home country every single minute. There are roughly 65 million refugees living in settlements or camps, displaced all too often by persecution and violence.

    Every continent on earth is home to refugees, a disturbing number of whom are vulnerable women and children. The demands, significant as they are, don't dissuade Rebecka.

    “The fact that there are so many people that have been forcibly displaced today, be it internally or across a border, is disheartening,” Rebecka says. “I want to learn more about what can and is being done to assist those in need.”

  • Widespread violence in South Sudan forces refugees to flee to Uganda

    by Hannah Beighle | Jul 21, 2016

    Today, just five years after the glimmering hope of the country’s independence, South Sudan’s situation grows critical as violence and conflict sweep the nation. Some of the worst crimes are being committed against those that are most vulnerable. Political conflict has caused armed groups to commit massive acts of violence towards civilians, especially against women, children, and humanitarian workers. People across the country have been forced to flee from their homes and seek refuge in neighboring countries.

    Uganda, South Sudan’s neighbor, is facing a massive influx of South Sudanese refugees. Over 90% are women and children. So many need help - in one center, 7,000 refugees were forced to sleep outdoors while torrential rains flooded the compound.


    So many need help: New arrivals come to the Medical Teams International screening point where they wait to enter into a screening room.

    Without care, the situation could become much worse. Mothers who have lost their homes are struggling to feed their infants. Unvaccinated children are vulnerable to serious diseases in overcrowded camps. So many are at risk.

    South Sudan: A tumultuous history

    Despite a short history, South Sudan has faced nearly chronic challenges. After 25 years of civil war, the people of South Sudan hoped for a peaceful future after gaining independence in 2011. Sadly, this dream was overshadowed by conflict and poverty—from the start, South Sudan was one of the poorest countries in the world. Years of conflict, natural disasters, and chronic underdevelopment have left the country impoverished—one in seven women die during childbirth, only half the population has access to clean drinking water, and 84% of women are illiterate.

    Medical Teams International making a difference

    Partnering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Medical Teams is implementing health and nutrition programs at Elegu, a popular point for refugees entering Uganda. Medical Teams is responsible for medical screening, nutritional screening, and immunization. Thousands are receiving the care they need - vaccines, medicine, essential vitamins. However, as the influx continues, resources are being stretched dangerously thin.


    A Medical Teams International emergency ambulance comes to Elegu to take a patient with liver cirrhosis to a nearby hospital. 

    We are working hard to help all those in need, but the massive influx of people in need means we need more supplies, more doctors and more support. It’s absolutely essential that these families get the care they need- and deserve. YOU have the power to make a difference in the lives of so many who have been torn apart from their homes and communities and we are so grateful for your support!

  • Tippy Taps: the lifesaving impact of handwashing

    by Hannah Beighle | Jul 15, 2016

    In areas like rural Guatemala, many people don’t have access to a simple practice we take for granted every day: washing our hands. Leonardo is one of the many children living in Senahu, Guatemala who gets sick often because of exposure to germs that could be avoided by safe hand washing practices. In 2013, Medical Teams International staff found that only 27% of mothers in this region washed their hands before preparing meals, feeding their children and after using the latrine. Even if they wanted to wash their hands, only about half of all homes had a handwashing station available to the family. 

    Dirty hands means serious health problems
    Why is this a big deal? Lack of handwashing and basic hygiene can contribute to diarrhea--one of the number one killers of children around the world. Leonardo is not the only child who gets sick because his hands are dirty: in rural areas of Guatemala, the incidence of diarrhea in children under 2 years old was 41% in 2013. Thanks to you, there is now a better solution. In addition to community training, Medical Teams International has a special tool to help protect young lives like Leonardo’s: the Tippy Tap.Guatemala_Leonardo_Tippy_Tap_Jan. 2016

    What is a Tippy Tap?
    Tippy Taps are buckets that hold five gallons and use only 40 milliliters of water to wash a child’s hands. Putting a Tippy Tap system in a family’s home allows families to practice good hygiene and reduce the incidence of diarrhea.

    Two years later
    After implementing the Tippy Tap system in many homes in 2013, Medical Teams staff returned two years later to find significant advances in these communities. Implemented in 16 communities, this project has impacted around 1,000 families. Now, nearly 90% of households have a handwashing station with clean water and soap in their homes.

    Leonardo is one of the many children whose life was affected by the Tippy Tap system. Before the system was put in his home, Leonardo frequently suffered from diarrhea and vomiting. After your help, Leonardo has learned about the importance of handwashing and uses the Tippy Tap to stay healthy!

    Thanks to your support, many others like Leonardo are able to live healthier lives with access to clean water and good hygiene.

    To learn more about the Tippy Tap and how it saves lives in Guatemala, see this report.