10/26/14From a refugee camp to the streets of Seattle: Owen Karimanzira

Tonight I am in awe, about the ways that life unfolds and how seemingly divergent paths someday can intersect again.

OWEN and GREG in Seattle

In 2008, while with The Legacy Project in a broken refugee camp in South Africa, I met a 29-year-old man from Zimbabwe named Owen Karimanzira. Owen was one of many refugees we interviewed on camera over two days, all of whom had sought refuge in the camp from xenophobic violence taking place throughout the country. These were people who had survived violence in their own countries only to then be attacked in South Africa as well.

It is essential to understand the scope of the story that you download and read the following PDF before reading on. It is a letter that I wrote home that day from South Africa to all of my closest friends.

A letter home from Youngsfield Refugee camp, Cape Town, South Africa

To say that Owen was a tremendous inspiration would be an understatement. In the camp, there is a strange and unfortunate defense mechanism that develops in one’s mental process. You begin to tell yourself that these are refugees and you classify them as such in your mind, and thus make them “other”, essentially different than yourself. I think the defense works like this: if we fully allow ourselves to see refugees as people like us, exactly like or even better than ourselves based on their character, then the frustration and sadness about their condition would be too overwhelming, the sense of hopelessness too extreme. But in this camp, the stories from individuals never stopped. All defenses failed. We made our way from person to person, and we heard stories from people, people with names and faces and lives and loves (we will be posting all of those interviews within the next few months on thelegacyproject.com).

And then we met Owen, referenced in the letter. He was an intellect, a scientist, a peer…and not at all the person you would expect to find sitting on a wet cot, in the mud, under a leaky roof, in deplorable conditions, in a field in South Africa. All defenses fell away and what was left was the possibility, both for me and for those students and collaborators who had come on the trip, of real connection. We spoke to Owen about his life and dreams, what he had faced, what he dreamed of. And then after an incredible conversation, we left the camp, as observers are able to do. And Owen and I lost touch more or less, trading maybe one letter or email over the course of six years.

This last week out of nowhere, Owen wrote to me. He had made it out of the camp after the violence subsided, and had worked incredibly hard to continue to pursue his dream of being an AIDS scientist. He was going to be in Seattle for an AIDS conference and asked if I might meet him. I brought my camera and set it up in his hotel room to record our reunion after six and a half years.

This video is that conversation. I hope the excitement we each felt resonates clearly over these 25 minutes. And like I said, this is the first interview of many. The Legacy Project team has dozens to edit and post still. We waited too long for the resources to make the website we wanted to house these videos, but now is the hour. Updates on all the videos soon both here and on thelegacyproject.com

04/29/14Paula Schikkerling on midwifery in Uganda – Part 1

I met Paula Schikkerling years ago in Canada and have been following her path through women’s health care in British Columbia with great interest. She is one of those people who has a goal, a focus on behalf of others, and is willing to put on hold everything else in her own life to get to where she needs to be. Her dedication is immense. paula schikkerling She is about to head to Uganda to begin a six week placement there, and I had a chance to ask her some preliminary questions before her trip about what she does and why. An in-depth interview will take place upon her return so we can hear more about how women’s health care is being maintained, or struggling, in that part of the world.

1. So…where you are going and why you want to go?
I’m heading to Mbale – a city of about 100000 people – in Eastern Uganda. After completing 3 of our 4 years of training at UBC Midwifery, we are given the opportunity to do a global placement. There are currently 3 active sites in Uganda where students are placed. Myself, two other students and an instructor will be working in Mbale Regional Referral Hospital for 6 weeks, providing prenatal care, attending to women in labour, delivering and resuscitating babies and assisting in surgeries. The purpose of the program is two-fold: to engage in knowledge and cultural exchange with Ugandan care providers and to gain exposure to global health issues via first-hand experience with the multiple systemic barriers faced by women and families living in under-resourced areas.

2. Tell our readers about your background a bit?
I grew up in South Africa, where inequity and prejudice dominated every aspect of society. I was deeply disturbed by the poverty and abuse of human rights that I witnessed – and through liberal schooling and a strong sense of justice, I developed a passion for social equality. When I was 16, I immigrated to Canada, where I quickly become involved with social justice politics. When I learned about midwifery at age 20, I knew that it was the perfect confluence of my personal philosophy, politics, spirituality and skill set. Since then, I have worked with women and newborns, kids with special needs and families facing multiple systemic barriers…and 15 years and a ton of schooling later, am now finally a year away from being qualified as a midwife.

3. What is the most pressing problem – or one of them – facing women in so called emerging countries in terms of birthing care?
Women in poor countries face so many barriers: poverty, lack of personal power within their relationships and in society as a whole, and the prevalence of preventable diseases. Lack of skilled health workers, poor infrastructure and corruption within most systems make many of these challenges very difficult to overcome. Malaria is endemic in many regions of Uganda, HIV is on the rise and even basics such as clean drinking water are only available in certain areas. When it comes to childbearing in Uganda, only 30% of women have access to contraception and only 57% have a skilled attendant at birth. 16 women die every day in Uganda while giving birth! This is shocking and completely preventable. In Canada and the United States, by contrast, less than 20 women per 100,000 die in childbirth.

Part two of her interview will be online in two months after she gets back to Canada.

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