When people flee to seek refuge

As she returns to her own home after a posting in Iraq, Vera Schmitz, a Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) nurse reflects...

Refugee women in Ain Issa camp, Syria, September 2017

South Sudan. Guinea. Yemen. Yemen. Ethiopia. Yemen. Nigeria. Central African Republic. Democratic Republic of Congo. Iraq.

This is probably one of the shortest summaries I can give about my last four years working with MSF.

In between, again and again, my home town: Vienna. Meeting friends and family. Sleep, eat, enjoy a glass of wine. Recharging the batteries for the next project.

There is a story behind every single refugee

You might think that the list of these countries alone says it all.

Conflicts, poverty, illness, civil war, famine.

But is that really it? Because when I look back at this list of countries, there is so much more to it.

More than a crisis

I remember faces, stories, names of colleagues and patients, often of the surrounding nature, the local food, the music.

Tragic moments, too, when we have lost a patient, when I hear the fate of the colleague, and sometimes the moments when everything feels too much to handle, when I am tired, exhausted and maybe close to burning out.

But I still would not want to miss a single assignment.

The joy of the patients in Guinea, when they made it and were allowed to leave the Ebola treatment center as cured.

The (unbelievably delicious) breaking of the fast during Ramadan in Yemen together with the local staff and our little hero, as we lovingly called him, a newborn on whom we almost gave up, but who battled himself back to life.

The tours on the motorcycle through the Central African jungle to vaccinate children in the even most remote villages and then in the evening the hours spent together around the campfire.

The tenacious will of the Iraqi mothers, who often struggle alone on their own through their heavy lives in the camp and my colleagues who have some hard years of war behind them and yet do not lose their smile.

Why people flee

From a distance, these countries sound strange and far away, nothing that concerns us here.

Often many hours away by air, you may have read about some of them in newspapers or on the radio. Others may sound completely unknown.

The reasons to flee and seek refuge elsewhere are as numerous as there are refugees

If you think about it again, you may remember that many of the people trying to flee across the Mediterranean are from some of these countries.

Though I have never worked on MSF's rescue ships - but I have worked in some of the countries these people are fleeing from.

The reasons to flee and seek refuge elsewhere are as numerous as there are refugees. There is a story behind every single one of them - something that is often forgotten when purely mentioning the numbers.

Everyone has had sisters or brothers, children or parents, but most certainly a best friend whom they left behind.

In a recent boat accident on the Mediterranean, 117 people were killed. This route is so dangerous that the decision to risk it is almost always the last resort.

In the course of my years with MSF, I have heard many stories. Some of them are hard to bear.

That fewer people try to flee, just because there are no rescue ships is a fallacy. Because the reasons to flee their homes remain the same - and also it is not up to us to evaluate these.

That Libya is not a safe place of origin is widely known as well. Detention centers where torture and rape are the order of the day are more than widespread. Access to medical assistance is virtually non-existent.

What I appreciate

In the course of my years with MSF, I have heard many stories. Some of them are hard to bear. The strength of the people on the ground, who carry on, who don’t give up hope, is always one of the most impressive memories I take home with me.

These are walls that block the view of people in need, walls that forbid saving human lives.

Another thing that stays with me is the tremendous appreciation of my own privileges in which I grew up, the safe haven I can return to after each new assignment. And how much richer my life has already become through these experiences and newfound friendships.

However, returning home from assignment, I also come back with concerns about how high some walls have grown in the meantime, not just in Europe, worldwide even.

Beyond walls

These are walls that block the view of people in need, walls that forbid saving human lives. Just one example is how MSF were forced to stop search and rescue work in the Mediterranean. It’s not that fewer people are dying, we just do not see them all anymore.

Even though I feel particularly affected as a nurse in humanitarian work, I know that I am not the only one who worries when human rights are publicly challenged.

What concerns me - I will continue to work for MSF. From my blog posts, I will continue to tell you about the help we provide locally in order to save human lives.

Whether they are big or small people, wounded soldiers or pregnant women, living in Africa or the Middle East, it does not matter to MSF and it doesn’t matter to me.

And you? Do not close your eyes, do not be fooled by walls, even if they are made of words, and do not let humanity disappear from your hearts.

We can only do it together.