Medical Teams International provides health care for refugees in Uganda

MTI’s retiring Uganda program director visits organization’s satellite office in Redmond to discuss the work he has done

Since its inception, Medical Teams International’s (MTI) mission has focused on providing relief to those around the world who have been affected by disaster, conflict and poverty.

This is reflected in the work the organization has been doing in Uganda and last week, Felix Omodi, MTI’s retiring Uganda program director, visited MTI’s satellite office in Redmond to share about the work he has done with the organization.

Omodi said he was taken captive by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in 1987 and held for six months. He managed to escape and was rescued and rehabilitated by the humanitarian relief organization World Vision. Omodi said the experience of trauma and terror as a captive, combined with the kindness and compassion he received from World Vision, caused him to rethink his purpose in life.

As a result, Omodi decided to dedicate himself to helping others and went to work for World Vision before joining MTI in 2004. Now, after 13 years with MTI, Omodi is retiring, though he plans to continue his outreach and minister work during his retirement.

Cindy Breilh, director of advancement for MTI, said the organization provides most of the health care for refugees in Uganda.

As a country, she said, Uganda has rolled out a welcome mat for refugees coming from other African countries and now there are about 1.5 million refugees living in Uganda from various countries, including Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and South Sudan.

Of the 1.5 million refugees in Uganda, Breilh said MTI provides health care for more than 800,000. MTI also serves about 250,000 Ugandan nationals as Breilh said their services are open to all and they do not discriminate.

While the organization initially started its work about 14 years ago in the southern part of the country, she said they have expanded to the northern part of the country as they are seeing an influx of refugees coming from South Sudan — which became a country in 2011 and is the newest country in the world — just on the other side of the Ugandan border.

Breilh said conflicts had been brewing in South Sudan since about 2013 — when MTI began establishing locations in northern Uganda — as there had been infighting between the country’s president and vice president that has pulled in the greater population as well. Things came to a head in 2016 and the conflict has been spreading throughout the country, she said. As a result, people have been fleeing South Sudan.

“And Uganda is welcoming them,” she said.

But as welcoming as the country has been, it hasn’t been without its own struggles. Breilh said there have been conflicts within Uganda since 1971, although things are more stable now.

“They understand how bad it is for (the other countries),” Breilh said, adding that almost all of the country’s leaders in Uganda had also been refugees themselves.

An average of about 3,000 refugees cross the borders into Uganda a day and she said they expect about another million to come into the country this upcoming summer.

When refugees arrive, they are transported to MTI health centers that are set up in collection points located several miles in from the borders. In addition to receiving food and temporary shelter in tents, refugees are screened by MTI workers, who determine any types of treatments or immunizations they may need, if they need nutrition supplements or if they need any sort of prenatal care.

Breilh described these MTI locations as triage centers as people are treated for their most urgent needs.

“It’s a disaster,” said Breilh, who traveled to Uganda in February and March to visit MTI’s various health centers throughout the country. “It’s a huge disaster.”

She said the work MTI does is important because despite the scope of the disaster and number of people affected, she feels not many people in the United States are aware of what is happening in this part of Africa.

“These are humans, just like us,” Breilh said. “Just for luck of latitude, I’m here and they’re there…We share humanity.”

If the tables were turned, she said she would hope someone would see her plight and help her. Just because these people are a continent away does not mean they need help any less, Breilh noted.

She described the situation as “gut wrenching” as she met and spoke with people who shared their experiences to get to where they were. Breilh recalled a mother of seven — who was also pregnant at the time — who walked the distance of Seattle to Portland, Ore. to get into Uganda. That woman, Breilh said, gave birth to her eighth child at a collection point.

After being checked in at the collection points, Breilh said refugees are taken to settlements, where they are given a plot of land, jugs for water and supplies to build a home.

MTI sets up semi-permanent health centers around these settlements that operate similarly as a walk-in clinic to serve the population, which is mostly women and children as many men have stayed behind to fight or protect their homes or they have been killed.

“This is not what (the refugees) wanted,” Breilh said. “They’ve just been caught in the crossfire.”

Medical Teams International provides health care for refugees in Uganda