Q&A: Giving back, Liberian health worker cares for displaced Ivorians

News Stories, 22 December 2011

© UNHCR/G.Carliez
Theo Neewrayson spent part of his youth as a refugee in Côte d'Ivoire. Now back home in Liberia, he is a community health worker caring for Ivorians from regions that once provided him with shelter, assistance and protection.

MONROVIA, Liberia, December 22 (UNHCR) Theo Neewrayson is a community health worker with Tiyatien Health (Justice in Health), a humanitarian aid organization and UNHCR implementing partner that specializes in providing medical and mental health care to refugees. Liberian by birth, the 33-year-old spent part of his youth as a refugee in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire. Today the tables are turned and he is helping people from regions where he was once welcomed and provided with shelter, assistance and protection. They took care of him, now he takes care of them. Neewrayson recently spoke to UNHCR Reporting Officer Geoffrey Marc Carliez. Excerpts from the interview:

What motivates you to work for refugees?

I used to be a Liberian refugee in Côte d'Ivoire myself these Ivorians are my people. When they share their experiences, I listen and put myself in their shoes. I was 12 when I fled to Côte d'Ivoire with my three brothers and started working on farms. My mother had died in the Liberian crisis, but the Ivorians took us in and now we take care of them.

When I was in Côte d'Ivoire, there was no organization to deal with mental health problems. Knowing what war trauma and depression feels like, I am glad to be able to work with an organization that can identify mental health solutions for refugees.

What do you deal with on a daily basis?

As a community health worker, my work is not limited to mental health issues but also involves counselling, taking part in HIV-awareness and anti-malaria campaigns, and so on. One day I could be participating in a high school drama performance to inform students about HIV, another day I am counselling someone through depression. I could also be installing mosquito nets in refugee shelters or providing medication to the clinically depressed or epileptic.

How do you help refugees suffering from conflict-linked trauma?

It helps to communicate to those suffering that they are not alone. We organize group sessions where we share our experiences. In these sessions, I sometimes share my own experiences of fleeing my country because it helps others to open up. The stories shared in our coping groups can be heartbreaking: one lady saw her husband getting shot dead in front of her, another lady survived a massacre in a church because she was buried under dead bodies.

Tell us of one memory that particularly sticks in your mind?

One day, a sick-looking woman came to see us and claimed that she had had her blood sucked by a dragon during the night. We brought her to the clinic and she was found to be HIV-positive. Although informed about her status, the lady remained in denial. I continued talking to her, and although she remained convinced that a dragon had made her ill, she agreed to my suggestion that she accept daily antiretroviral treatment [which can slow the onset of AIDS]. Her health improved immensely: she gained weight, opened up a small business and started cracking jokes again. She made small changes to her lifestyle, regularly takes her cocktail of pills and her life is as good as back to normal.

What do you consider the most vital aspect of your job?

If I had to choose just one thing, it would be our role in helping to raise health awareness among refugee communities. Preventing disease is better than curing it. Awareness sessions further help refugees to come forward and discuss their problems. Some refugees are too shy to discuss their condition, others might not be aware about where they can find vital medication [at little or no cost]. Health awareness-raising can deal with these issues appropriately.

What are some of the major challenges you face?

Broken roads and broken vehicles logistics remain a major challenge. Rain and mud makes travel to refugees in the field impossible at times. We have to spend a lot of time riding on motorcycles to remote and isolated sites to visit refugees living with host communities, yet our bikes break down a lot. Another challenge is how to ensure that refugees in need of treatment can get to the health clinics for the help or medicines they need. It's similar to the problem I just mentioned. We can give the refugees the prescriptions they need to take to the clinic for medical follow-up, but we do not have the means to transport them between their homes and the health facilities.

What do you think refugees require the most?

The Ivorian refugees in Liberia don't just need shelter, food and medical care they also need money, income for survival. Skills training is one way of helping people to find employment and to have a livelihood and income. If refugees learn how to run a business, make, grow or fix something, this is more sustainable than just receiving assistance in a camp. Work also improves ones mental health. It gives you energy and makes you feel part of a society.




UNHCR country pages

HIV and Reproductive Health

Treatment for HIV and access to comprehensive reproductive health services.

Public Health

The health of refugees and other displaced people is a priority for UNHCR.

Health crisis in South Sudan

There are roughly 105,000 refugees in South Sudan's Maban County. Many are at serious health risk. UNHCR and its partners are working vigorously to prevent and contain the outbreak of malaria and several water-borne diseases.

Most of the refugees, especially children and the elderly, arrived at the camps in a weakened condition. The on-going rains tend to make things worse, as puddles become incubation areas for malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Moderately malnourished children and elderly can easily become severely malnourished if they catch so much as a cold.

The problems are hardest felt in Maban County's Yusuf Batil camp, where as many as 15 per cent of the children under 5 are severely malnourished.

UNHCR and its partners are doing everything possible to prevent and combat illness. In Yusuf Batil camp, 200 community health workers go from home to home looking educating refugees about basic hygene such as hand washing and identifying ill people as they go. Such nutritional foods as Plumpy'nut are being supplied to children who need them. A hospital dedicated to the treatment of cholera has been established. Mosquito nets have been distributed throughout the camps in order to prevent malaria.

Health crisis in South Sudan

Refugees move to new camp in Liberia

UNHCR has begun transferring refugees from Côte d'Ivoire to a new refugee camp in the north-eastern Liberian town of Bahn. Over the coming weeks UNHCR hopes to move up to 15,000 refugees into the facility, which has been carved out of the jungle. They are among almost 40,000 civilians from Côte d'Ivoire who have fled to escape mounting political tension in their country since the presidential election in late November.

The final number of people to move to Bahn will depend on how many wish to be relocated.from villages near the Liberia-Côte d'Ivoire border. Initially most of the refugees were taken in by host communities, living side-by-side with locals. Poor road conditions made it difficult for humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance. Supplies of food, medicine and water have been running low, making conditions difficult for both locals and refugees.

At the camp in Bahn, refugees will have easy access to basic services such as health care, clean water and primary school education.

Refugees move to new camp in Liberia

New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

As of late March, more than 100,000 Ivorian refugees had crossed into eastern Liberia since lingering political tension from a disputed presidential election in neighbouring Côte d' Ivoire erupted into violence in February. Most have gone to Liberia's Nimba County, but in a sign that the fighting has shifted, some 6,000 Ivorians recently fled across the border into Liberia's Grand Gedeh County. Most of the new arrivals have settled in remote villages - some inaccessible by car. The UN refugee agency sent a mission to assess the needs of the refugees in the region.

Photographer Glenna Gordon photographed new arrivals near Zwedru in south-eastern Liberia.

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