Going ‘Home to Home’ to Stop the Coronavirus in a Refugee Camp

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Murtada in Camp Djabal.

Murtada first arrived in Chad in 2004 as a young boy, having fled his home in Sudan. His family lived in a small village called Amkhrouba, leaving at the height of the genocide in Darfur, a time when the violence in the country was beyond comprehension. They eventually found their way to Camp Djabal, near the middle of Chad’s eastern border. This is where Murtada lives today with his wife and their children, as well as his mother, Mariam.

At 24 years old, Murtada, a young father and program coordinator for a non-profit organization called iACT, has found himself at the center of the Coronavirus response in the Darfuri refugee camps in eastern Chad. Along with other leaders in his community, Murtada has jumped into action to help his friends and family prepare for the virus that is spreading across the globe. This has meant building a grassroots movement to share information and distribute supplies among refugee camps all along the eastern border of the country. It has been a daunting task, but it’s one leaders in the refugee community are determined to accomplish.

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Murtada with his family, placing their hands over their hearts in solidarity with their friends around the world fighting the Coronavirus.

Murtada first met the iACT team when he was just 12 and found a deep connection with its members. He introduces himself as, “an iACT kid, but I’m grown up now.” iACT is a refugee-led organization that “provides humanitarian action to aid, empower, and extend hope to those affected by mass atrocities.” They do this through programs such as their Little Ripples early childhood education program, soccer academies, and both men’s and women’s clubs of Darfur United, an all-refugee soccer team. Murtada is usually in charge of coordinating these programs, helping to train new teachers, new coaches, and keeping the programs running. But like all of us, he has had to refocus his role in the face of the Coronavirus. He says his greatest fear right now is that, “[Coronavirus] will destroy the nation of the refugees.”

In the camps today, the iACT Little Ripples preschools have closed down just like countless other schools around the world. They are not running their soccer academies, and families are wondering how to keep each other safe. Staying healthy during this pandemic is a hard-enough task in an established city, but it is ever more complicated in a refugee camp. This is a place built to be temporary, that has necessarily become permanent.

There are currently 70.8 million people displaced in the world. In Chad alone, there are approximately 340,000 Darfuri refugees living in refugee camps. Built in some of the harshest conditions, the camps in Chad, like most, were made to be short-term shelter. They have some amenities, but the sort of systems and structures a city needs to fight this Coronavirus simply do not exist.

Within the 12 refugee camps along the Chad/Sudan border there are medical clinics, but they are not fully staffed or stocked with medicine. Patients are often expected to go into town to find and purchase their own medicine and bring it to the clinic. It is unlikely any of these clinics will have the resources necessary to respond to any sort of Coronavirus outbreak. Which makes it ever more important that the communities in these camps are focused on prevention. Asked about whether he’s concerned about this, Murtada said, “Yes of course because it’s a very strong pandemic and it has special drugs for it. And our hospitals are not qualified to resist the disease…we need expert doctors during this COVID-19 time in the refugee camps.”

Over the past few weeks, we have seen long lines in the United States for food pantries. Americans, many for the first time, are having to seek out government or charitable resources where they were once able to purchase items on their own. For those like Murtada, standing in line for resources is a regular occurrence. It is also one of his greatest concerns when he thinks about how his community will be able to social distance, “here in our refugee camps life is difficult. Because we have the water places in common, the place where we get food rations is common, and these are the most crowded.” The way the camps are set up, people must congregate in order to get their essential items. So, how will they be able to make that process safe for everyone in the time of Coronavirus?

Murtada sees little hope for any massive change in this process. “No, they cannot be changed because I don’t think they can be able to provide water to everyone at his home or to bring the food ration[s] to everyone’s home.”

There really just aren’t the resources to do it, so raising awareness and distributing the necessary materials such as masks and soap are their best defense right now. Muratada, along with other volunteers, is teaching his community about distancing as much as possible, even when they must congregate to get their essentials. He is working daily with iACT, who has sent him and his team COVID-19 informational sheets as well as money for printing and soap. With his team, they “walked home to home to tell them how to do the prevention from this disease.”

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Passing out COVID-19 info sheets.
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Passing out soap to members of the community.

Beyond his work in the refugee camps in Chad, Murtada has also made it his mission to help his friends back in Sudan. He is sending them the same COVID-19 sheets they are using in the refugee camps. He noted his friends, “used to go visit the villages, and the villages don’t have any information.” He is also working to get them soap, as we all try to maintain our regular hand washing. But it’s difficult. Murtada says that unlike the refugee camp, where he is working with iACT, “there is no more support for them. People still want more awareness, but they need some facilities to do the tasks, like going to the villages.”

Living in precarious times is nothing new for refugee communities. But all too often their lack of stability leads the international community to paint them as powerless, as unable to lead in times of crisis. Nothing could be further from the truth. In Murtada, and in his community, we see resilience and determination. They are ready to take care of not only their community, but to help as many around them as they can.

In speaking with Murtada about his ongoing concerns, his main focus was on those communities they couldn’t reach — those that didn’t have the resources for soap or masks; those who were unable to effectively share information as they had in his camp and those surrounding. In response, he looks to the international community for their help.

He ended our conversation with this plea, “we are still demanding aid from the international community to fight once more against this COVID-19.”

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Editor and writer, author of “When We Let People Die: the Failure of the Responsibility to Protect.”

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