"Next time you drink a clean glass of water, say a prayer for those who cannot afford it,” Roshan Kumarasamy says calmly. His smile is surprisingly gentle considering the seriousness of the subject matter. His story is about refugees and the efforts done to help their survival.

     In 1971, in Paris, a small group of doctors and journalists, sharing the belief that access to medical care is a universal right not be hampered by social, cultural, political, or religious differences, founded Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Now, thirty-two years later, MSF is the world’s largest independent international medical relief organization, providing assistance to populations in more than 80 countries, including Palestine, Afghanistan, and most recently – Iraq.

    With five operational centers and fourteen national sections worldwide, MSF assists people in crisis situations such as war, famine, epidemics, and natural disasters. Each year more than 3,000 MSF personnel, joined by some 15,000 locally hired staff, step in to provide shelter for refugees and internally displaced persons, to treat civilian war casualties, to feed the malnourished, and to establish hospitals and clinics in areas where medical infrastructure was previously lacking. 

    For eight years now MSF has been present in the UAE. Established under the patronage of H. H. Sheikh Nahayan Bin Mabarak Al Nahayan, the organisation’s local branch aims to raise public awareness of the plight of populations affected by natural or man-made disasters, as well as to gather funds for the various MSF missions around the globe.

    Last month the MSF logo was present at Dubai Shopping Festival’s Global Village. There were no stages with popular singers and dancers on the MSF site. In sharp contrast to the extravaganza of colour and sound all around it, it was very quiet and consisted of just a set of white tents. The people exiting the site were not carrying shopping bags filled with exotic goods, but had a rather pensive look. The set of white tents were a mock refugee camp, set up by MSF. In an attempt to raise awareness of the plight of some 37 million refugees throughout the world, volunteers were leading visitors around the exhibit, explaining how survival is organized in an emergency situation.

    “Let us pretend from now on that we are all refugees,” says Roshan to his tour group. The group – a class of boys – fifth graders from Delta English School in Sharjah, listens with a silence atypical for boys so young. Roshan, as I am to learn later, started off with MSF in 1994 in his native Sri Lanka, where he spent four and a half years working as a logistician in Colombo.

    Roshan’s story starts like this: “Imagine the following situation - you go to sleep and suddenly at about one or two o’clock in the morning you hear a strong noise and everything around you explodes. You panic and start running without even picking up you luggage. If you are lucky, you might flee with your family. Thousands of people are running with you, and you run for a month, or two month, or even a year. Finally you get to a place where you feel safe, you settle down and this would be the start of a refugee camp.”

    Once the location of the camp is established, the main priority is the building of shelters for the refugees. MSF personnel counts the number of people in what would be the refugee camp and provides registration cards to everybody. “From now on this is your passport,” says Roshan as he gives out model registration cards to the kids, “You have to carry the card with you all the time and need to present it when you are receiving water, food, medicines, and anything else that you might need.”

    Roshan then leads the group in front of a medium-sized tent, which, he says, at refugee camps shelters between ten and fifteen people. “You can consider yourself extremely lucky if you get into one of these, since this is five-star accommodation,” he says and urges the kids to all enter the tent. As the boys all silently get inside, he zips up the tent, saying: “Try to figure out a way so that all of you would be able to get some comfortable sleep.” An aluminum can and a plate, a cooking pot, some cans and some plastic boxes for food storage, as well as a lamp, a mat, and some blankets – these are the household utilities each refugee is entitled to.

    The whole group is now in front of a model water tap, with one such tap providing water for every 250 people in a camp. A refugee is entitled a gallon of drinking water per day, while a person living in the UAE uses an average of 100 gallons of water daily. Access to water is not free, and people often have to queue for up to 15 hours to get their gallon of water, Roshan says. Getting food and medicines also involves 15-hour waits. The situation is better in the more established camps. Since some of them have been around for as long as 20 years, they have more facilities including showers, which are freely available. “But here is the sad part – why do you have to live in a refugee camp for 20 years,” Roshan asks.  

     The group is now in front of a model medical centre. War and persecution take their toll on the refugees, weakening their immune systems and making them vulnerable to many illnesses. The sanitary challenges of a refugee camp, which is often overcrowded and with no running water, can easily turn individual cases of sickness into epidemic outbursts. Cholera is a major threat since it spreads very quickly and there is no vaccine against it. “We would have up to 35,000 cholera patients in just a day and a half,” Roshan says. While cholera is not deadly it annually kills an average of 800,000 people who do not have access to medical help nor clean water.

    It is now time for the boys to leave, and they go away quietly, looking at Roshan with respect. Having in mind his success with the children, I am not surprised to learn he is completing his studies in the US and will soon have a degree in psychology. After graduation he would join MSF again, working with traumatized children in refugee camps.

    Roshan explains his decision by saying that the most painful aspect of being a refugee is psychological. People are uncertain about their future and stripped of all dignity. Having witnessed violence and destruction at an early age, children are among those most severely affected. “I have seen children being recruited as suicide bombers just like this,” Roshan concludes.

    Fady Joudah, who joined MSF as a doctor in Zambia in 2001, also says the psychological burden of being a refugee is much heavier than the poor life conditions one has to put up with. For Fady, whose parents fled their native Palestine before he was born and were then forced to relocate to different countries several times, being a refugee means above all a loss of identity and a loss of basic rights. Although he had heard his parents’ numerous stories of trial and persecution, he was still shocked by the amount of suffering he witnessed during his six-month mission. “There is no tomorrow for the people living in camps, since they do not know what it will bring them, and there is not even an idea of individual dreams,” says Fadi, who like all MSF staff, lived among the refugees throughout his mission.

    The insecurity and humiliation that most refugees experience is only one part of the problem, the other part being prejudice and discrimination on the part of the host population, Fady says. “Refugees are treated as deficient human beings, they are almost seen as a contagious disease,” he says, “People should not show pity, but human solidarity.”

    One week before the end of the exhibit the MSF team have welcomed a total of 2,733 visitors. Both Roshan and Fady say they are satisfied with the visitors’ response. “Quantity is not as important to us as is the impact we make on the people,” says Charlotte Bohot, Communications Manager of MSF UAE. Charlotte, who has been with MSF since 1984, worked in missions in 7 countries, including Lebanon, where she was head of mission, before joining the organisation’s local branch.

    Charlotte’s responsibilities have mainly been to oversee the financial aspect of projects, keeping administrative costs as low as possible. Globally only six percent of MSF’s budget is allocated to administrative costs, while 11 percent goes into fundrising activities, and 77.7 percent is used to finance operations. One way of keeping costs down is using volunteer help, Charlotte says. Currently MSF has more than 150 volunteers throughout the UAE, who weekly contribute between an hour and a day of their time, focusing on specific projects, helping during events or with office work.


| Top | Home | Al Habtoor Group | Metropolitan Hotels | Al Habtoor Automobiles |
Diamond Leasing | Emirates International School |

Designed and maintained by The Backstreet Cafe