Aser García Rada: Providing humanitarian aid at one of the oldest refugee camps in the world

Aser García Rada_BMJDuring four weeks this June, along with other colleagues from the Spanish and the Austrian Red Cross, I was deployed as a delegate of the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to respond to a massive influx of asylum seekers in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania.

Nyarugusu, one of the oldest refugee camps in the world, was created 19 years ago to house thousands of refugees fleeing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to its current 65,000 Congolese refugees, over 82,000 asylum seekers escaping from civil unrest in Burundi have joined in the past three months, bringing the total camp population to over 147,000. More than half of them are children or teenagers.

Entrance of the main hospital at Nyarugusu refugee camp
Entrance of the main hospital at Nyarugusu refugee camp

As the services of the camp are overwhelmed, our mission was to establish two new health posts to help with the care of new comers. However, as there are no pediatricians in the camp’s main hospital and only one in the whole region, the Tanzanian Red Cross—who manage the healthcare facilities—requested that I work in its pediatric wards.

On World Humanitarian Day, which takes place today (19 August), the World Health Organization (WHO) has invited people to thank “healthcare workers for their hard work” with the hashtag #ThanksHealthHero. Providing humanitarian aid can truly be hard. For me it has been the most challenging professional experience ever and, emotionally, one of the toughest too. However, I found nothing heroic about it.

Calling humanitarian workers heroes is common but misleading. Yes, it requires certain technical knowledge; the willingness to work in such an alien environment that even gravity can feel different; sensitivity to understand people’s needs regardless of relevant cultural differences; serenity to tackle frequent serious moral dilemmas; patience to understand that things don’t necessarily have to be done the way I consider “normal”—which is a very biased term after all; imagination to optimize the use of far too limited resources; generosity to accept other’s thankfulness even for achievements I consider deeply insufficient; and the humility to teach what I know, learn what I didn’t know, and accept that many times I will not accomplish all the previous. Those are after all very human capacities, limited as they are.

Regardless of its crucial role, humanitarian aid remains a very imperfect solution for this most imperfect world we have created. It has a limited impact, shares the same flaws of any political activity, and involves a variety of interests which sometimes are difficult to understand. It has been the most contradictive activity I have ever worked in, partly because of its asymmetries. Compared to the people we looked after, we were overwhelmingly privileged. One day someone came and told me: “life in Africa is tough.” When some of the kids died, most of them from avoidable issues, someone would come and tell me “this is Africa.” It is then when I recall all those trying to cross the Mediterranean, the thousands who die in the attempt, and the mediocrity of our political leaders.

Most of us live in absolute ignorance of a reality that takes place a few thousand kilometers away from us because some ignorance can only be solved by seeing, touching, and feeling. Seeing kids dying of severe malaria, malnourishment, pneumonia, diarrheoa, or a combination of them on an almost daily basis is far more clarifying than reading about it or watching it in the news.

Yes, ignorance is truly the key and education is the answer. Our ignorance, because we absolutely neglect that parallel reality; their ignorance, because they are still taught to copy and few seem interested in teaching them how to think. “We need creative people,” one of the camp’s workers told me. I am certain it will be African women who will be leading such change, many already are.

Now I feel less ignorant because I have seen their pain, which is as big as is their resilience; because I have seen the courage of 4 year olds carrying gallons of water and their happiness while playing with footballs made of plastic bags, or trucks made out of half a bottle of soda. Although truly tough, this experience was indispensable and has broadened my perspective of life. I feel most privileged and thankful for the opportunity they gave me. And I don´t know when or how but I know, for certain, that I´ll be back.

Aser García Rada is a paediatrician and a freelance journalist. He worked as a delegate of the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies at the Nyarugusu refugee camp (Tanzania) being paid by the Spanish Red Cross.