Article Date: 4/1/2007

reflections

A War-Torn Country

My experiences at a Rwandan refugee transit camp made me grateful for the things I take for granted

WA-LEE LIM COURTNEY, O.D., Ph.D.

Life at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Nkamira refugee transit camp, in Rwanda’s northwest region near the Congo, is slow, monotonous, poor and lacks running water and electricity.

But, the 1,200 refugees living in this camp for the time being are grateful, as they have food and shelter, and they no longer have to run for their lives. Most are Congolese, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo due to civil strife. However, some are Rwandan citizens still returning from the Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

A muzungu* in Rwanda

I learned firsthand how the residents of Nkamira lived when I traveled to this transit camp as a volunteer to provide free eye exams in the summer of 2006. My daughter, who interned with UNHCR, inspired me to contact the organization to see whether it needed eyecare services. Soon, I was on a plane accompanied by eye drops, ocular antibiotics and recycled glasses — provided by the Virginia Chapter of the Lions Club.


The Nkamira refugees proudly show off their new spectacles and sunglasses.

The camp’s community center was instantly packed when news traveled of the free exams. The traffic flow was orderly at first, but pandemonium soon broke loose, as mothers with crying babies, among others, jostled to the line’s front.

I came prepared with my battery-powered ophthalmoscope. But, I had to work fast, as by 6pm, the camp would be totally dark. Emmanuel, a 26-year-old Congolese and the only English-speaking refugee at the transit camp, helped me accomplish this by acting as my translator. His only request for services: a pair of sneakers for his bare, cracked feet.

I worked from morning till dusk for four full days and distributed more than 400 pairs of spectacles and sunglasses. Many of the refugees thanked me because they said they were now able to read and doing so was like a miracle.

I felt proud that what little I’d done had made a big difference in the quality of their lives.

An inconvenient truth

Most of the Congolese refugees have been living in the camp for three or more years, most likely because they realize returning to the Congo now would mean starvation and/or death.

UNHCR will eventually repatriate the Rwandan genocide survivors by trucking them back to their villages, where some will discover they are now orphans. Some women and children will reluctantly assume the role as head of the household.

They will try to restart their subsistent form of agriculture on their own little farm.

The one good aspect of this: As a result of the free exam, many of these impoverished, war-weary people will now be able to see the fruits of their labor.

*Muzungu is a Kinyarwanda term reserved for most foreigners.

If you are interested in volunteering for the UNHCR, contact BEDAJ@UNHCR.org, or Dr. Courtney at waleecourtney@yahoo.com.


DO YOU HAVE A MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE? DISCUSS YOUR STORY WITH JENNIFER KIRBY, SENIOR ASSOCIATE EDITOR OF OPTOMETRIC MANAGEMENT, AT (215) 643-8139, OR KIRBYJ@LWWVISIONCARE.COM. OM OFFERS AN HONORARIUM FOR PUBLISHED SUBMISSIONS.



Optometric Management, Issue: April 2007