Canada Helps South Sudanese Refugees Return Home as Physicians

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Canadian doctors, senior UN staff and Cdn Ambassador Nick Coghlan; Bor; October 2014
Bullet hole, Bor Hospital Maternity Ward
  John Clayton (Samaritan’s Purse Canada) and Jonglei Minister of Health Jehan affix a plaque to the new ward, Akobo hospital, 2012
  A physician at Akobo hospital, Jonglei State
Akobo hospital, Jonglei State

On a recent visit to the Bor hospital, Canadian Ambassador Nick Coghlan celebrated signs of reconciliation, healing and hope—the fruits of the remarkable bravery of a special group of refugees and years of Canadian support.

In the mid-1980s, with civil war raging in Southern Sudan, an entire generation of young orphans – later to be known as the Lost Boys, after characters in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan – made their way to refugee camps in Ethiopia, then ruled by the communist-aligned Derg. Many of these boys (the girls, sadly, had largely been left behind) were subsequently sent onwards for further education, often in the field of medicine, in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

Years later, by now speaking Spanish but with their homeland still in the throes of conflict, a smaller group made a further migration – still as refugees – to Canada, principally the Province of Alberta. As friends, they remained in close contact with each other, and as adults they watched with excitement the progress of South Sudan towards peace (2005) and eventually independence (2011).

In 2006, a group of the “boys” approached the University of Calgary and Samaritan’s Purse Canada to request help to return to the land of their birth, to serve their people as physicians. But, having never actually practiced medicine, they acknowledged that their skills required upgrading.

The University of Calgary and Samaritan’s Purse worked together to provide the group with an intensive 9-month South Sudan-relevant medical upgrading program. A residency program was developed in Kenya to provide hands-on training.

 Once back in South Sudan, the physicians recognized an urgent need for continuing medical education and support for the healthcare system. In 2009, the University of Calgary and Samaritan’s Purse partnered again in the creation of the South Sudan Healthcare Accessibility, Rehabilitation and Education Program (SSHARE). With funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the University of Calgary provided medical education through on-site training events, long-distance learning, and the provision of medical education resources.  Samaritan’s Purse provided support in facility rehabilitation and the provision of medical equipment. The SSHARE program ran from 2009 to 2013.

 The violence that struck South Sudan in December 2013 did not diminish the commitment of these physicians. Terrible things happened in Bor, which changed hands between the government and rebel troops several times in a matter of weeks. Patients were killed in their beds in the hospital, much of the town was destroyed and the hospital was ransacked.

Although one of the Canadian-trained doctors was killed at this time and others from the Nuer tribe have had to temporarily relocate, the majority of the group are still living in South Sudan and working to improve the lives of their patients and their communities. Four of the physicians are in front-line positions at the Bor Hospital – including those working in the Government of Canada-funded maternity ward; three of the physicians are in Bor serving as leaders – two with NGOs and one with the Ministry of Health. Two physicians are currently working in Juba; and one physician is enrolled in post-graduate training.  

Canadian Ambassador Nick Coghlan had the privilege first of accompanying some of the “boys” back to Akobo in late 2012. Recently, the ambassador had the pleasure of visiting the now-renovated Bor hospital, where a single bullet-hole has been left next to a plaque commemorating Canadian support. He was able to meet with some of the doctors, who only the previous week had assisted in the first surgery on a Nuer patient to have taken place in Bor since the current crisis began ten months ago: a tiny but important indication of better days to come.

 The University of Calgary continues to investigate opportunities to support these physicians and their colleagues to improve healthcare and healthcare education in South Sudan. A volunteer from the University of Calgary currently lives in Juba and serves as the University’s Medical Education Coordinator in South Sudan. The physicians have expressed a need for ongoing training in their communities, and their desire to continue to work together.

With thanks to Dr Rod Crutcher, University of Calgary