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.