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By: Chris Helfrich

The stories behind the numbers

June 8, 2017
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By now you may have heard the mind-boggling malaria statistics in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu refugee camp where we are currently distributing bed nets. Last year, there were 62,000 reported cases of malaria in a camp with 68,000 people, and that the camp had not received any nets in the last four years. Kids have been dying here every week from this preventable disease.  However, the numbers can’t give you the full picture of what malaria is doing to the people of Nyarugusu. The stories behind the statistics, of the people suffering from malaria, help illustrate the need for us to do everything in our power to rid Nyarugusu of malaria.

Yvonne and Obusu:
I met Yvonne in the camp’s hospital, sitting on a bed covered in old sheets with a new, blue bed net tied above it (it was daytime so no need to be under a net – the mosquitoes that transmit malaria only bite at night). Yvonne was watching over two young children – Margaret, a two year old girl, and Obusu, a six-month old boy. Because Yvonne only spoke Swahili, I couldn’t determine whether Margaret and Obusu were her children, but I could see she was watching over them nervously like a parent. The kids were both sick, Obusu with malaria. This tiny, beautiful boy just lay weak on the bed watching me, unable to show any emotion but pain. He was weak and tired from his fight with malaria. I asked Yvonne if Obusu and Margaret had been sleeping under a net at night. She replied that her 5-year-old net has been rendered useless because of holes, many of which were caused by mice and rats biting through them.

Yvonne handed Obusu to me and as I sat there holding him in my arms my mind filled with different thoughts. First, despite the sadness of his condition, I was feeling nervous relief that he would likely make a full recovery because Yvonne had brought him to the hospital so quickly. Next, I thought about my own two small boys, both under five, and how I might feel if they were in Obusu’s place. (Note – it’s impossible for me to imagine this without getting choked up. My children suffering from malaria is something that’s almost impossible to comprehend.)  Finally, I wished that our nets had arrived two weeks earlier so that Obusu and Yvonne could be spared this entire situation. However, I take comfort in knowing the nets we now deliver will mean that far fewer kids will end up in the hospital like Obusu. 

These trips to refugee camps follow a familiar pattern for me. I get excited to come to the camps because they are such amazing places full of great people. They’re like no place I’ve ever been and it’s just so rewarding to be able to spend several days absorbing life in the camp and trying to help as much as possible. That feeling of excitement, however, fades to sadness and a real sense of unfair (and arbitrary) inequality. It’s hard to reason how we end up living in privilege in the United States with relatively few worries, while Moses, Yvonne, Obusu, Margaret and millions of refugees across Africa face daily challenges that are hard (or impossible) for us to comprehend. We’ll get on an airplane in a few days, maybe never to return to Nyarugusu, while these amazing people face dim chances at going home anytime soon. But it’s always the attitude of the refugees that pulls me out of this mood. It’s their smiles and gratitude (“asante sana!” they say, which is Swahili for “thank you very much”), and the way they welcome you into their homes and hug you when you hang a net over their bed, that remind me that we’re impacting lives. There’s nothing in the world like it.

So while I still have a difficult time reconciling the inequality, I come away from each visit feeling very good about the work that we do, and knowing that the nets that we send are protecting children and families, and helping save lives.

It’s all thanks to you. I’m just the delivery man. 

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