Doctors Without Borders ‘A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City’

by Jon Thompson on October 26, 2008

I recently attended the Doctors Without Borders ‘A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City’ exhibit at the Marina in San Francisco.  It was great to catch up with people I’ve known for almost a decade and tell the field stories that cause most ordinary folks to just stare blankly at you.  The tour has matured since I first saw it back in 2000 in Santa Monica and there is a tremendous amount of interesting info.  It was great to see the equipment we used to use and stepping into a Trigano tent and sitting on the blue metal footlockers caused me to flashback to my field days.  I made it all the way through the tour with a smile on my face while listening to the thoughtful narration of an epidemiologist until I was 20ft from the exit when I turned and was stopped dead in my tracks by a poster of my friend Hawah Kamara.

Hawah was one of the finest individuals the earth has ever known.  I desperately miss her and I am struggling to keep it together as I sit here and write.  I cannot do justice to this woman with words alone.  I think somewhere deep down I live my life for Hawah and people like her.  She was all that was right about humanitarian aid work.  The last person I saw when I left on a mission and the first person I saw when I came back, she was the anchor in NY for all none medical personnel and was everyone in MSF’s best friend.

Hawah was a refugee from Liberia that worked in the MSF office in Monrovia before immigrating to the US where she handled all of us Logs and Admins passing through the NY office.  Hawah was killed in Nigeria when her plane crashed on Dec 10, 2005 during a visit to a program site along with another MSF worker.  She was an incredible woman that walked for days with her 5 year old daughter with little food and water to escape the fighting in Liberia…

I am just falling apart and I don’t think I can keep writing.  There is way too much to say.  This is one of those things in my life that I cannot shake and every time Hawah comes up my throat tightens, my eyes begin to well with tears and I try to change the subject.  I think it goes back to the time I came home from a particularly difficult mission and sat down for a debrief with Hawah and another person.  I was wound up pretty tight and unloaded all that was left from my debrief in Paris.  It was not pleasant but at the end of it Hawah looked at me and said, “You did the right thing.  You took care of your staff.  At one time I too was local staff.”

I knew what she meant and I have never forgotten those kind words.  That is the kind of thing you hear that makes all the crap you endured worth it and that makes you think you might just be cut out for another mission.  It is because of people like Hawah that the humanitarian aid industry survives.  The selfless efforts of the former local staff members that personally know the incredible impact that a humanitarian aid agency can make is what makes it all worthwhile.

Although Hawah is not here in body she is with all of us in spirit.  You can see proof of it in the eyes of former volunteers who knew her as I saw it in my friend’s watery eyes that day at the exhibit.  We miss her terribly and will keep doing what we do for people just like her.  I know she is up there watching us and cheering us on.

Please attend the exhibit to experience what we do and how we do it.  At the end you can see the photo of Hawah and others and see why we do what we do.  Here is the schedule:

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