Pfizer Fellows Bolster IRC’s HIV/AIDS Programs at One of the World’s Largest Refugee Camps
When Carol Germain first arrived at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya last January, she felt as if a hair dryer set on high were constantly aimed at her face. “The heat was a major challenge,” she says. “It felt like 100 degrees every day.”
Now back home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she calls her four-month stint with the International Rescue Committee at one of the world’s largest refugee camps “an experience of a lifetime.”
Carol is a research information specialist at drug giant Pfizer and was chosen as one of the company’s 2005 Global Health Fellows.
Under the program, Pfizer loans 20 to 30 of its employees each year to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are fighting HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other public health threats in developing countries. Selected from a wide range of expertise, the fellows are matched with NGO partners such as the IRC for three- to six-month assignments.
While in Kakuma, Carol helped improve the data collection system that the IRC uses for its HIV/AIDS monitoring program in the camp. The IRC has been working in Kakuma since 1992, assisting refugees who have fled conflict in Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. Currently 90,000 refugees live in the camp.
Before Carol arrived, the IRC relied primarily on paper and spreadsheets to collect HIV/AIDS information, so she helped staff members set up software to help collect and analyze data more efficiently. To date, the two IRC-supported voluntary counseling and testing centers at the camp have assisted 131 patients, 26 of whom are on anti-retroviral drugs.
Carol lived in a compound just outside the camp with 30 IRC staff members. Despite the intense heat and intermittent communication facilities, she says working with the IRC staff made her experience worthwhile.
“The Kenyan colleagues I worked with were the best thing about being there. They were great filling me in on many of their customs, history, politics and they asked me a lot of questions about America as well,” she says.
In addition to working on the HIV/AIDS monitoring system, Carol assisted with malaria prevention and other IRC health programs and visited other areas in the camp. As one of the few expatriates working in the area, she found that children would come up and try to touch her to see “how she feels like.”
“When we stopped to talk, all the children would come around to shake my hand. After they did, they would look at their hand to see if it was changed. I would also feel little fingers running down the back of my arm,” she says.
Inspired by Carol’s experience, Jennifer Brown, a Connecticut-based Pfizer employee working with drug regulation and manufacturing, also traveled to Kakuma this year.
Jennifer trained the IRC staff members who will be using the new HIV/AIDS software program that Carol helped install. As she wraps up her project this week, she will leave behind a training manual the IRC can use at Kakuma and at Lokichoggio, another refugee camp in Kenya.
After four months, Jennifer says Kakuma now feels like home. She says she especially enjoys being “out in the field” and interacting with the refugees: “I’ve learned a great deal about life in a refugee camp, and have been able to meet people from many different countries and learn a bit about their lives, and the importance of hope and resilience.”