The Mahama Refugee Camp, located on the border of Rwanda and Tanzania, opened in early 2015 in response to increasing numbers of Burundian refugees fleeing growing tensions in Burundi. In this post, Katie Morris, a 2014 PFMH/MSPH alumnus, reflects on World Humanitarian Day and the work of her emergency response health team in the Mahama Refugee Camp.
[22 August 2015]
This past Wednesday, August 19th, was “World Humanitarian Day.” Perhaps there is no better place to celebrate than in the new Mahama Refugee Camp, on the southeast order of Rwanda and Tanzania, where humanitarians in their color-coded t-shirts, caps and vests are anything but hard to spot as they buzz around building shelters, feeding mothers, collecting information on adolescents, and contemplating the impending later shortage problems. They’re a diverse group – mostly Rwandese or Burundian, over worked, under paid, dehydrated, and stressed. You’d have no clue though, unless you looked at their timesheets, budget lines, cracked lips, or nightly sleep cycles. Instead, their faces show smiles and compassion, their work reveals endurance and aptitude.
Over the past 2 weeks, my team of humanitarians have more than earned their red vests and caps. They’ve taken an arid plot of land scattered in lumpy brush and sloped down towards a river, and made it into a functional health post. A team of 2 doctors, 3 nurses, and 3 Burundian medical students has cared for more than 1,000 sick patients in the first week of operation.
At the end of July, Mahama Camp was stretched beyond its capacity with 32,500 Burundians settling within its cramped borders. UNHCR camp management decided to hold the newly arriving Burundian refugees in the transit centers on the border for a couple weeks while NGOs expanded capacity for shelter, food, water, and health care in the camp.
The organization I work for took on the challenge of the health post, located in the new area of the camp and designed to address the outpatient health needs of 10,000 new arrivals and reduce the growing burden of sick patients crowding the camp’s only health center. Since August 10th, around 900 new refugees are bused into the camp from the transit center each day. There are estimated to be around 17,500 Burundian refugees waiting in the transit centers, anxious to get away from the horrors they experienced trying to leave their homes, hopeful they will be reunited with loved ones, and desperate for the basic needs promised upon reaching Mahama Camp.
On Wednesday (World Humanitarian Day) it was my turn to take the triage shift for the incoming convoy of new arrivals. Of course, being one of those days where nothing seemed to be going the way it should, the convoy was delayed and they weren’t expected to arrive until 6 or 7pm – the time we are usually en route to our office back in the nearest town, having closed up the clinic. That evening, as my colleagues were all packing up for the day, I was trying to find a way to change my attitude into a better one, so that I too could wear my red vest and cap without people knowing how exhausted, anxious, and frustrated I felt.
It turns out that humanitarians also care for their own. Instead of getting into the land cruiser that was waiting to take them back to the office and onto their homes after their already-12+ hour work days, my staff decided that they were going to stay and help me and a colleague receive the new arrivals in a gesture of pure solidarity. Our team, in our uniforms of red, wandered across the bush to wait for the dust storm that would signify the incoming convoy of new arrivals.
The buses started arriving moments before sunset and the timing was just right to catch the expressions of the boys, girls, women and men as they disembarked with arms full of blankets, high energy biscuits, and oddly shaped bundles of worldly belongings. They were herded into corridors for the police to check their bodies and belongings, and then directed to a line where they would wait for porridge and a place on the floor of a hanger to sleep. That’s the instant my attitude changed.
Their expressions in that moment of disembarking revealed the emotions that I realized I would be experiencing if it was me in that convoy. Their faces showed exhaustion, fear, hope, hunger, excitement, resignation. I think that for them, it was a point that “shit got real.” They had traded their lives of insecurity in Burundi for the status of refugees in Rwanda and anxiously awaited confirmation they had made the right choice. But for me, this was the point that I realized that they were not the “1,000 new arrivals” or even “Refugees” as their new ID cards proclaimed. These people are individual humans feeling the same emotions that any one of us would feel in their same situation. I am so grateful for the short glimpse of their expressions that night, against the setting sun, because it enabled me to share in their humanity and completed the picture of why those humanitarians in their color-coded caps and vests continue the endless work they started.
That night, after tending to several feverish children and an older woman having a panic attack, our team in red piled into the Land Cruiser after a 16 hour work day and had a dance party along the bumpy road–grateful for the humanity we all shared, humanity that manifested itself in emotional vulnerabilities, goofy dress codes, and Rihanna dance tunes.