Volunteers in Darfur camps help improve health conditions for everyone

By Jane Beesley

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Helping prevent the spread of waterborne diseases among 400,000 displaced people in camps scattered across Darfur and Chad is no small task. Oxfam's water and sanitation programs play a critical role in that effort. And so does its public health outreach. But the agency can't do it alone: Volunteers are essential. On a recent trip to the region, Oxfam's Jane Beesley learned just how committed people can be. Here's her account.

One of the remarkable things about Darfur is the number of people who are still volunteering with health committees after three years of living in Abu Shouk and Al Salaam camps outside of North Darfur's capital of El Fasher.

About 60 percent of the original committee volunteers at Abu Shouk have continued with their work. At nearby Al Salaam camp, the number is 80 percent. Their help is pivotal to the success of Oxfam's public health work in the camps. Every week they spend several hours visiting households in their allocated blocks and inspecting the surrounding areas.

They go shelter to shelter talking with families and sharing information on good hygiene. They check latrines for cleanliness and wear. And they instruct families on how to keep their water clean by making sure the jerry cans in which they store it are scrubbed with powdered soap and chlorine.

"We wanted to serve our people and to raise the awareness of the population so that everyone's at the same level," says Kaltoum Ali Asad, a volunteer at Abu Shouk.

"If we don't volunteer to do something the people would suffer and there'd be outbreaks of diseases and illnesses," adds Namma Saed Haroun at Al Salaam camp. "If we didn't volunteer it would be us who would eventually suffer, so we will continue to volunteer."

Their efforts win high praise from the agency.

"The volunteers work really hard," says Hussaam Eddin Mirghani, Oxfam's team leader at Abu Shouk. "They volunteer because they're afraid of diseases, especially diarrheal diseases, spreading throughout the camp. The volunteers really feel the necessity to support their communities and their people, who are really suffering in this dreadful situation."

Camp life is bleak. Ahmed Eysa, who has lived at Abu Shouk for three years with is family, makes that clear.

"Life here is horrible," he says. "It's full of difficulties, and we don't have any solutions in our hands. There are no choices for the people living here in the camp."

But Eysa has made one choice—an important one that will make a difference to others in the camp. He chose to volunteer, and he has continued giving his time for three years.

"We have to adapt to our situation and we really need to respond," he says. "There's no way we could give up."

Soon, the rains will come and fall heavily. Living conditions in the camps will deteriorate, and the threat of diseases like cholera, malaria, and diarrhea will rise. Then, the job of the health committee workers will be even more vital.