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Medical Teams Blog: Stories of boldly breaking barriers to health

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  • Spotlight Greece: Refugees come full circle

    by Tyler Graf | Aug 12, 2016

    Greece, Kathi with Mo - Laotian refugee, June 2016

    Medical Teams International volunteer Kathi Karnosh with Mo, whose family migrated to the U.S. from Laos in the late '70s to escape the Khmer Rouge. The two unexpectedly met at the Athens International Airport.

    The Athens International Airport terminal was bustling on a blazing-hot summer afternoon, as members of Medical Teams International's dental team awaited boarding of their New York City-bound flight. 

    Sapped of energy, Kathi Karnosh, a dental hygienist from Portland, Ore., was settling in for a pre-flight nap. She and the other members of the team were returning stateside following a week in Greece, a sojourn spent treating refugees.

    Before Kathi could drift away, she noticed a woman next to her. She leaned over, smiled and spoke, asking the woman if she'd been traveling through Greece. Yes, the woman replied. She was returning from a family trip with her teenage daughter.

    The woman said her name was Mo.

    Kathi explained that she was part of a dental team that had been traveling through the northern part of the country treating refugees who'd made the perilous trip across the Aegean Sea. She described the sad situations she encountered -- children torn from their families, parents unable to work, and medical needs going untreated.

    "Oh my goodness," Mo said. "That brings back memories."

    Kathi didn't know what to make of that comment. Memories of what?

    "I was a refugee," Mo said.

    Suddenly, Kathi perked up with a need to listen to Mo's story. This was too amazing, she thought.

    And the story only grew more unbelievably poignant as it went on, drawing parallels between Kathi's own life and the work of Medical Teams International.
    When Mo was 8 years old, she was living in Laos near the Cambodian border with her single mother and sister. This was during the height of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, when the genocide was in full swing. Strained by the effects of extreme poverty, Mo's family fled to a settlement in Thailand.

    Thailand, Kathi thought. That was the very country in which Medical Teams began, the country where the very first team of doctors and nurses went to treat refugees, people like Mo. 

    Kathi remembers being a young mother in 1979 and seeing footage of refugees fleeing to Thailand. She remembers seeing Ron Post, the founder of Medical Teams International (then known as Northwest Medical Teams), on TV taking about the situation in Cambodia and the need to care for the refugees.

    Mo said the conditions in the camp were terrible. People were so sick and desperate. Her family was lucky; they made it to the Philippines before finally, amazingly, settling in the United States.

    They settled in Oregon, the same state where Kathi lived. In Oregon, Mo's mom got a job as a cook. They began attending the First Christian Church, which had sponsored their move to the states.

    Really? Kathi thought. That was her church. She'd attended it for years.

    After a 20-minute conversation, Kathi came away amazed. This was such a serendipitous meeting. "It was total randomness," she said.

    But also, maybe it meant something. How could it not? There were too many coincidences. For Kathi, it was a God thing.

    "I just thought of all the people here in the Athens airport, I had this connection with this lady," Kathi said. 

    The capstone comment was when Mo said what her daughter planned to study ... nursing. Perhaps, some day, she could also travel the world and help refugees, people who through no fault of their own are forced to leave their homes under threat of death.

    "I am sure the people from Laos and Cambodia felt pretty hopeless too," Kathi said, recalling how fortuitous the encounter was. "I shed a tear.” 

    On Aug. 6, Medical Teams International deployed its first team of primary health professionals to Greece. The doctor and nurse are providing care to refugees who have little and cannot return home.

  • Heartwarming local impact: Mobile Dental

    by Emily Crowe | Aug 02, 2016

    Your support is making an impact around the world - but it's changing lives locally, as well. Check out this heartwarming story from one of our mobile dental clinics.

    Dear MTI-

    Thank you very much for providing the Mobile Dental Van at Raleigh Park earlier this week. The 9 students (and families) you cared for are so grateful... I wanted to share one story in particular from the day that had a tremendous impact on me.

    We had 2 little brothers that came to the van with very significant dental problems that were causing both of them pain. The MTI dental team removed 4 infected and painful baby teeth from the younger brother and recommended future treatment for the other dental issues. His older brother also had significant dental issues; however he was too scared to allow the dentists to perform the work. The school principal and counselor were able to transport the younger brother home after his dental work, and had the opportunity to speak to his mother. They learned that the family immigrated to the United States just 1 month ago as refugees from Guatemala after her husband had passed away. She was incredibly thankful and grateful for the work and care provided by MTI.

    ...We were all impressed with the quality of care, compassion and kindness that was given to all of the kids to help them feel less frightened and more comfortable.

    On behalf of the Raleigh Park Staff, Volunteers and Parents....we thank you for all that you do! Thank you also to the donors who help make this program happen!! It is very much appreciated. We look forward to partnering again in the future!


    Leah and Patti

    A huge shoutout to the hard-working volunteers who work hard to make these mobile dental clinics possible, along with the partners, donors and supporters who make sure we have the tools and supplies to care for kids like these. Your support is making such an impact!
  • 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.”