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Medical Teams Blog: Stories of boldly breaking barriers to health

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  • A view from Uganda: 12 photos of the Congolese refugee crisis

    by Helen Manson | Mar 02, 2018

    Right now, in this very moment, even as you read these words, there's an invisible crisis unfolding in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Refugees are leaving in droves because of violence, heading to nearby Uganda where health clinics cater to their needs. 

    In the past week, there have been nearly 1,000 reported cases of cholera in southwest Uganda, and the vast majority of patients are children under the age of 9. With young lives hanging in the balance, Medical Teams International is mobilizing health professionals to heal the sick and protect the vulnerable.

    To shed light on this crisis, photographer Helen Manson traveled to southwest Uganda to document the experiences of Congolese refugees crossing the border. 

    It's not easy for me to edit photos like these. I go to bed and see their eyes as I try to sleep. I remember all too well. The smell, the temperature, the harshness of the environment they live in and the context in which we met.

    Last year (on average) 30 to 50 people crossed the border each day. Now those numbers are closer to 500 per day. Medical Teams International is also there, right now, providing emergency and ongoing medical care to these precious people--now refugees. Here are the 12 photos that meant the most to me from my recent trip there.


    Uganda, Mikuze and family - story - DRC response, 2018 (4)
    This mother and child woke up a couple weeks ago and realized their entire village had packed up and left. Gun fire sounded in the distance, so she grabbed a bag and her other children and walked to Uganda. As she crossed the border, we met and hopped into this United Nations truck together. I sat in the back of that truck with other refugees like her to a transit center where they began their new lives as refugees, escaping the violence and conflict of their home country. When the truck slowed down to pass over a speed bump, I took this shot.

    Uganda, Registration of DRC refugees, 2018 (1)
    Waiting in line to be registered as refugees by the United Nations' refugee agency, this young boy caught my eye.

    Uganda, Mikuze and family - story - DRC response, 2018 (9)
    On arrival at a border point/transit center, Medical Teams International provides health screening and immunizations for incoming refugees.

    Uganda, inside an MTI clinic - DRC response SW, 2018 (28)
    This little 18-month-old baby girl weighs 13 pounds. Her parents have both died and her grandmother is now her caregiver. Your contributions help provide nutritional support to help her grow.

    Uganda, Registration of DRC refugees, 2018 (10) (1)
    This is what it looks like to register as a refugee. This mother caught my eye, as did her beautiful children. They are exhausted. 

    Uganda, DRC refugees at the transit center, 2018 (10)
    Living conditions for 2,700 Congolese refugees arriving into the transit center on the border of Uganda.

    Uganda, inside an MTI clinic - DRC response SW, 2018 (14)
    Standing in the doorway of the Medical Teams clinic this beautiful little girl lost her daddy just days earlier. She and her two sisters and baby brother are now refugees living in Uganda.

    Uganda, sanitation screening - DRC response, 2018 (16)
    Health Screening is an important first step for refugees arriving into Uganda. Babies who need food will get it, mothers who need medicine will receive it, and children who are sick will be seen and cared for.

    Uganda, inside an MTI clinic - DRC response SW, 2018 (13)
    The pharmacy inside a transit center is this grey box filled daily with medicines to help the huge influx of refugees coming in.

    Uganda, Registration of DRC refugees, 2018 (6)
    I noticed these boys being registered and immediately went to inquire. "Unaccompanied children," the registrar said. We talked for a minute or two about the background details he was getting from them: Their ages are 6, 8 (twins) and 12. My heart sank. I took this photo then turned away and let the tears slip down my cheeks.

    Uganda, DRC refugees at the transit center, 2018 (2)
    A newly arrived family unpacking their things.

    Uganda, DRC response - transit center food, 2018 (22)
    Seeing hundreds of people wait in line for food is a hard thing to experience. I think it's the dignity element and the control element that bother me the most. 

    Your support means everything to these refugees. Consider donating today to help families and orphaned children who are seeking refuge from violence. Every contribution makes a huge difference in the lives of suffering women and children.

  • Medical Teams President Meets Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

    by Martha Holley Newsome, President and CEO | Feb 26, 2018

    The Kutupalong settlement in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, is home to more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

    I’ve just spent a week walking among Rohingya refugees living in the densely populated Kutupalong settlement in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. As one of the two major camps here, the total number of resettled refugees since August is estimated at over 700,000 with around 15,000 to 17,000 arriving per month. That’s a staggering number--making the camp roughly the size of Austin, Texas--and it’s difficult to understand the scale of it unless you witness it first-hand. Makeshift tents are stacked nearly on top of one another on muddy hillsides. Steep sanded steps lead to labyrinths of narrow paths. Tied bamboo bridges create treacherous movement over the stagnant swamps of discarded pump water.

    The conditions are harsh; the heavy dust makes it hard to breathe and there is little protection from the intense sun. This area, once an elephant migration route, has been completely deforested to make space for the refugee population. Now void of any vegetation, the land creates “perfect storm” conditions for the impending mudslides and flooding. Elephants have already come back to rampage the camps and more attacks are intensely feared. Sanitation problems are also impossible to avoid due to how closely tents are placed near latrines. A recent report by the World Health Organization showed that more than 86 percent of water samples tested positive for contamination.  

    According to UNICEF, 60 percent of new arrivals are children and women. Many are vulnerable and at great risk of disease. All are traumatized.

    As refugees poured over the border into Bangladesh, Medical Teams began sending teams of medical professionals to care for their immediate and ongoing health needs. We now serve as a vital link between the critically ill and emergency care. In addition to our clinics, we train refugees as Community Health Workers (CHWs), to seek out the sick among their neighbors, as well as teach about water, sanitation, and disease prevention. Today, over 60 CHWs have been trained and are playing a crucial role in preventing the spread of diseases like diphtheria and measles throughout the camp. 

    I had the privilege of witnessing the work of our Medical Teams staff and volunteers to treat and prevent sickness in our primary health clinics. Here, national doctors are working alongside our volunteer doctors and nurses to care for over 150 men, women, and children each day. They are treating everything from lower and upper respiratory issues, to urinary tract and skin infections, to communicable diseases like measles and diphtheria. Many Rohingya were denied any sort of medical care in their homeland of Myanmar, and often, our clinics and staff are their first encounter with medical treatment. This treatment offers a profound opportunity to provide dignified, loving care to those who have suffered so deeply. I can attest that our volunteers and staff see it as a great privilege to serve these broken yet beautifully resilient people.

    fatima first visit (1)
    Fatima and her baby Esa receive treatment at a Medical Teams International health post.

    At our clinic I met a young Rohingya woman named Fatima. Her face was covered with a heavy black niqab, revealing only her eyes. I watched intently as she spoke of her painful exodus from Myanmar nearly six months ago. She was eight months pregnant during the arduous journey.  

    “We walked for many days. I was so pregnant and I was very afraid I would have the baby while we were walking. It took many days. I don’t remember how many because it felt so long. I had to walk very slowly. The hills were so high.” She paused as deep sadness filled her eyes. “I feared with every step that I would be killed.”

    She arrived barely in time, just a few days before having her son, Esa, in the camp. The week before I met her, he had developed a rash and a fever.

    “I was very afraid for him. I had never seen this kind of rash before and I didn’t know what was happening,” she shared with me.

    Our doctors confirmed that he had contracted measles. At the fragile young age of 5 months old, he hadn’t yet received the measles vaccination, making him dangerously susceptible in a setting like this where disease spreads like wildfire.  Our team worked swiftly to diagnose and treat, giving him Vitamin A drops to boost his immune system and making sure Fatima brought him back for a two-day follow up visit. This is when I met her, and saw that Esa was healing and acting like a typical baby.

    martha and Fatima
    Fatima, a patient at Medical Teams' health post in Kutupalong, meets with President and CEO Martha Holley Newsome, who's holding Fatima's 6-month-old son Esa.

    The conditions, resources, and acuity of sickness in an ever-changing environment like a refugee camp all present unique challenges for our team. Yet at the same time, they create the perfect setting to dare to love like Jesus and boldly break barriers to health. This is what we are called to do, and why we are here.

    Thank you for your continued support of our work caring for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and for your prayers. They are coveted and deeply appreciated. 

  • An unyielding love powers refugees in Uganda

    by Tyler Graf | Feb 14, 2018


    Kneeling on the dirt floor of her home, Rose tucks her spindly legs under her body and talks passionately about her family and the bond of love that brought them to this refugee settlement in northern Uganda.

    Rose's smile is radiant, a full-force beam of happiness. When her husband is by her side, her smile widens. He was by her every inch of the journey through the South Sudan bush, helping her as she crawled over the harsh landscape with shoes on her hands and cuts on her knees.

    Everyone in Rose's family has a disability -- something that complicates an already complicated life. For Rose, she's been disabled since a young age when she contracted polio, leaving her without the use of her legs. She married a man with dwarfism and gave birth to two children who also have the condition. Life for the couple in South Sudan was hard.

    When Rose was young, she remembers people staring at her, treating her differently. Other children did not accept her and she had few friends. She was an outsider, whom even doctors treated coldly. She recalls going to a doctor and being told there was nothing he could do. She was on her own.

    But when she met her husband, her world changed. She felt loved. Together, they forged a partnership. When fighting erupted in South Sudan -- when hatred, violence and persecution boiled over, forcing thousands to immediately flee -- the couple turned to love. They relied on each other to remain strong.

    Together, they found the strength to travel with their children for days until they reached Uganda, where they were tired and sick. Rose was at a reception center after crossing the border when Medical Teams staff embraced her. 

    In midst of the family's struggles, Medical Teams International eased their burden by providing malaria medicine to the children and screening the parents for other diseases. Nurses noticed the family’s disabilities, Rose says, and expressed a desire to make sure they had a good life at the settlement.

    Loving care came in the form of medical assistance and home visitations. Because of the family’s limited mobility, nurses went directly to the family. They came to check on the children, to help Rose and her husband, and to provide love. 

    Rose in her new wheelchair.

    As Rose sat, recalling her story, her smile widened and she looked over at her husband, who was attending to the children as they slept on a mat, snoring loudly. He smiled back. A silent connection was at work – between Rose, her husband, and their children. They were healthy together, and that’s what mattered most. 

    After Rose initially told her story to Medical Teams over the summer, even more love came to Rose’s doorstep – this time in the form of a wheelchair. Nurses from Medical Teams International brought the wheelchair to the family’s house, where that big, warm smile again crossed Rose's face. She was thankful that finally she had mobility. No longer would she have to crawl on the ground with shoes on her hands. This simple act of love went a long way in reaffirming Rose's dignity

    At refugee settlements throughout the world, there are so many stories that show how love leads to healing. In Uganda, Medical Teams International demonstrates what it means to act, to heal, and to love. On this Valentine's Day, let's remember how love has the power to shape and transform the lives of those around us. Learn more about refugees like this family and consider making a donation today.

  • Professionalism and gentleness merge in northern Uganda refugee settlement

    by Tyler Graf | Feb 09, 2018

    Uganda, MAF partner - West Nile refugees, 2018 (1)
    Representatives from Medical Teams International and Mission Aviation Fellowship pose in front of an MAF airplane in northern Uganda. Because of MAF's flights, health professionals from Medical Teams International can efficiently cover ground to serve refugees in need. 

    By the time the Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot makes the announcement --"10 minutes to Moyo"-- the Ugandan landscape beneath the airplane has become a dense forest with barely any roads visible from above, just one or two isolated dirt tracks. As the flight nears its destination, the ground below is a vast expanse of semi-arid scrubland. 

    At the Palorinya Refugee Settlement, doctors and nurses from Medical Teams International come to serve in three- to four-week stints, training local medical staff and treating patients. Medical Teams, our local staff, and the international volunteers rely on Mission Aviation Fellowship to fly between Uganda's capital Kampala and the northern airstrips serving refugee settlements, including Moyo. 

    “The journey from Kampala to Moyo would take at least eight hours by overland travel," said Andrew Hoskins, Medical Teams' Uganda country director. "It’s just an hour and a half by aircraft.”

    Hundreds of local doctors and nurses work for Medical Teams in the northern settlements, serving primarily refugees from South Sudan.

    Medical Teams International provides health care to roughly one million South Sudanese refugees and local Ugandans in the northern reaches of the country. Every day the clinics are bustling with people patiently awaiting service, often with children in tow. While their faces show an outward disposition of weariness, the refugees speak highly of the passionate care they receive. They come for vaccinations, to deliver babies, to receive nutritional supplements, or for medicines to treat malaria. 

    Of her experience in the refugee settlement, a Mission Aviation Fellowship visitor wrote about what she saw in the clinic:

    A woman sitting on the ground with her baby was trying to breastfeed even though her tired body looked like just skin and bones. The baby had orange-colored hair, a tell-tale sign of malnourishment for an African baby. The mother had cataracts in both eyes and was barely able to see me. She relayed, with the help of a translator, that her husband was arrested and had disappeared near Kajo Keji in South Sudan. She has five children to provide for, but is unable to dig or plant because of her sight and depends on the emergency food allowance provided by UN's refugee agency. Her feverish baby was given the all-clear after having a blood test for malaria, and she was sent home with antibiotics for her little one. This woman’s situation will once again remind me never to complain. What do we know of the struggles the isolated and displaced face on a daily basis? And what would have happened to this woman and her children if Medical Teams hadn’t intervened?

    Upon seeing Medical Teams' work in the Palorinya Settlement, Mission Aviation Fellowship said it "laid bare the diverse and pressing needs ... with impressive and encouraging levels of professionalism, gentleness and best practice in these most challenging of circumstances."

    In northern Uganda, these challenges stem from the deeply vulnerable state of the South Sudanese refugees. Of the more than one million refugees and asylum-seekers in Uganda, 82 percent are women and children. They come to Uganda weak, hungry, and often sick. They've been scarred -- both physically and mentally -- by the experiences they've endured.

    Once refugees reach Uganda, there are smaller threats -- unobservable to the naked eye, but dangerous nonetheless. Threats like unclean water, or a lack of nutritious food, or unhygienic living conditions. These are serious threats, and deceptively deadly in their simplicity. The challenge for Medical Teams International and partners like Mission Aviation Fellowship is to ensure that after refugees make their treacherous journeys -- slogging long miles under threat of violence -- they don't succumb to something as preventable as malaria or cholera.

    Uganda, MAF partner - West Nile refugees, 2018 (54)
    A Medical Teams nurse checks the blood pressure of a refugee at the Palorinya Refugee Settlement in northern Uganda.

    Each day, there are thousands of success stories. But no one can do it alone in Uganda. Through the support of generous donors, Medical Teams International is committed to partnering, to seeking ways to maximize efficiency and provide loving health care to people in need. 

    To learn more about how we're serving people in settlements throughout Uganda as the United Nation's main refugee health provider, visit our Uganda refugee page. Consider making a donation today and joining a partnership that's saving lives and renewing hope in the future.

  • No filters: The emerging Congolese refugee crisis

    by Helen Manson | Jan 31, 2018

    The last few days have been equal parts swearing (under my breath) and praying. Truth is, it’s hard not to whisper a swear word to yourself when you see a one-year-old child who weighs 13.5 pounds because of malnutrition.

    It’s hard not to swear as you watch a woman give birth in a makeshift hospital tent inside a refugee camp.

    It’s hard not to swear when a woman rushes into that same medical tent to say that a one-week-old baby has been abandoned and hasn’t been fed since who knows when. As the quiet gasps escape my mouth I find myself turning to pray immediately for help from the only person that can--God.

    You see, right now there’s an invisible crisis happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo and I’ve just spent three days listening to horrendous stories and witnessing first-hand the tremendous influx of refugees coming out of there, spilling into southwest Uganda. It’s invisible because hardly anyone’s talking about it and, honestly, I get it. It certainly feels to me like some country in Africa is always at war. It’s become part of the wallpaper of our lives.

    But in the last few weeks things have escalated significantly in Congo. For most of last year between 30 and 75 people crossed the border from Congo to Uganda each day. But since Jan. 1, 2018, the numbers have increased to a whopping 500 on average per day. Thousands upon thousands of families now wait up to a week at a transit center before being transported to the nearest refugee settlement about a seven-hour drive away. 

    I often wish I could take you all with me on these trips. So this time, instead of sharing photos, I’m going to share four one-minute iPhone videos that will hopefully help bring it to life even more. No filters, no editing.

    When refugees arrive in Uganda, they wait in lines where they receive initial health screenings and are asked about their immunization status.

    Having issues viewing these videos? View on Facebook >>

    After families receive their health screenings and food ration cards, they make their way over to the health clinic. Within ten minutes of arriving in this tent on my first day, I watched as a woman gave birth on the exact bed you’ll see on this video. Silently and without any fuss. The baby's head was already out when she hoisted herself onto the table and began to push. She was frail, but with a steel resolve. The Medical Teams women attending to her were confident, calm, and professional and had the room cleaned up within minutes after her delivery. She then lay on the floor with a cardboard box folded in half for a pillow. Her baby sleeping peacefully under the one blanket she had to her name.  

    The line for the Office for the Prime Minister (people in charge of camps) and the UN's refugee agency is usually hundreds long. The sheer number of people and the smells are often overwhelming. The day before I took this video, I spotted a group of four young boys aged 6 to 12 huddled together and all alone. I inquired as to their situation and discovered they had arrived at the camp without parents. Three of them were in matching t-shirts and it took everything in me to stop the tears from falling as I looked at how scared and vulnerable they were in that moment. Who would help them get food? Who would give them a blanket to sleep under? Who would kiss them as they went to sleep that night inside those big red buildings you’ll see in this video?

    What are refugees eating? How do you serve 2,700 people on any one day? This is a video of one of the kitchens.

    Because of a renewed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, waves of new refugees are coming into Uganda seeking sanctuary. There are now nearly 250,000 Congolese refugees in Uganda. We see them everyday, their tired bodies huddled upright in line as they await health screenings or nutritional support, their children clinging tightly. Many are mothers-to-be, who need a safe place to give birth, while others are just kids who have lost their parents.

    Medical Teams International is the primary provider of health and nutrition services for all Congolese refugees. The UN has called on Medical Teams to expand our services throughout southwest Uganda, and we have eagerly accepted the challenge. Together, there is no barrier to health we can't break. Learn more about how you can support our efforts in Uganda.