Former Refugee and DAFI Scholar Oversees Health Services at Refugee Camp in Liberia
UNHCR, 27 Mar 2015
MONROVIA, LIBERIA, 24 MARCH 2015 (UNHCR) – A former Ethiopian refugee who earned his medical degree with support from UNHCR’s German Academic Refugee Initiative has returned to his roots as a refugee to oversee health and nutrition services in one of Liberia’s three refugee camps.
Dr. Zelalem Birhanu, 40, took up his duties in January as the county health coordinator for African Humanitarian Action (AHA) in Maryland County, where he coordinates health care for 8,530 Ivorian refugees living in the Little Wlebo Camp. The camp is located along the coast about 25 kilometers from Liberia’s southeastern border with Côte d’Ivoire.
“These are people that have been displaced from their homes, their affiliations and their social networks, so their situation is much more acute than the general population’s,” Zelalem said on a recent stopover at UNHCR’s branch office in Monrovia. “They not only have to work with a different language, but they found themselves with a health care system that may not be as good as the one they left behind.”
With a practical demeanor and keen sense of social justice, he also noted that the refugee camp is located 17 kilometers from Harper, the capital of Maryland County where most goods and services are offered. That presents a hardship for the refugees that UNHCR and AHA try to overcome in the provision of services.
“We bring health care right to the camp and--more than that--to the doorsteps of the refugees,” Zelalem said. “The idea is to fulfill their basic right to health.”
As part of his commitment to providing refugees with equitable access to services, Zelalem manages a 24-hour-a-day health clinic with emergency services and supervises a team of community health workers who are recruited from the refugee community. The community health workers are trained to provide health education in the camp and to identify and refer certain kinds of infections and diseases to the clinic for follow-up care.
Zelalem also is responsible for the training of clinical health care staff and for coordinating AHA’s services with the governmental County Health Team and other non-governmental organizations.
Originally from Addis Ababa, he has bounced around Africa since he was a child. His father was a diplomat in Ghana when Ethiopian politics intervened and his father lost his job with the Ethiopian government. “It would have been risky to return,” recalled Zelalem, who was in high school in Accra at the time.
“We had good support in Ghana, so we just stayed there. We felt disconnected, but there was always the belief that it was temporary,” he said. In reality, he did not go home for another 14 years.
After high school, he applied for and received support to attend medical school at the University of Ghana. The Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative, administered by UNHCR and known by its German acronym DAFI, supports 2,220 refugees from 42 countries to receive tertiary education. The program contributes to skills development, empowerment and academic achievement as part of UNHCR’s broader strategy of promoting self-reliance and durable solutions for refugees.
“I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, from my earliest childhood memories, and it would have been much more difficult without the scholarship,” he said, explaining that the program paid his school tuition as well as a living stipend. He earned his MD in 2002.
Since then, Zelalem has spoken to other DAFI scholars about making the most of the opportunity they have been provided – something the refugee doctor has certainly done, according to Vinolia Agbeko of UNHCR Ghana’s community services unit. “Dr. Zelalem is a success story,” she said.
After completing an internship and practicing at a regional hospital for one and a half years, Zelalem joined a local non-governmental organization, National Catholic Secretariat, as a medical doctor in Ghana’s largest refugee camp, Buduburam. Located near Accra, the camp amounted to a small city, hosting some 40,000 refugees who had fled Liberia’s civil war.
It was in this camp that he gained experience in public health. From 2005 to 2008, Zelalem conducted assessments for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other serious medical cases at Buduburam, while also doing medical screening for voluntary repatriation efforts which UNHCR was getting underway at the time.
The experience led him back to the University of Ghana to complete a master’s degree in public health in 2009. When the opportunity with AHA arose, he jumped at the chance to come to Liberia.
“I was attracted to work with the refugee population and to working with AHA,” Zelalem said about the organization, which is UNHCR’s largest local partner in Africa and has helped 12 million people affected by crisis in 17 countries since 1994.
As UNHCR’s only implementing health partner in Liberia in 2015, AHA is responsible for providing health care services to approximately 38,000 refugees remaining in three refugee camps since the Ivorian political crisis of 2011. The organization expanded its presence in Liberia from last year when it ran one of the country’s three camp clinics. Another NGO was brought in to assist with Ebola-related preparation and training.
While the peak of the Ebola outbreak has now passed and new infections have declined to near zero, Zelalem said he would not have hesitated to take the position even if the outbreak was continuing. “With a massive epidemic such as Ebola, there may be people who would not want to come. But that’s not me,” he said.
He says he enjoys the community health aspect of the job as well as seeing individual patients, whoever they may be. “Every single person comes in with a problem that’s big for them,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the common cold or a broken leg, the person deserves to have my full attention.”
“Dr. Zelalem is a selfless health practitioner who is prepared at any time to attend to sick refugees in the hospital and even in the shelters of those who are not able to make it to the health post in the camp. His presence in the Little Wlebo Refugee Camp is a big boost to strengthening the health systems that are in place,” said Andreas Fiadorme, the head of UNHCR’s Field Office Harper who also knew Zelalem in Ghana.
Ensuring that the Liberian health care workers receive good training is a high priority, Zelalem said. “We need to make sure they have a sustainable model so that after all the expats have gone home, they will know how to provide good health services on their own.”