From refugee to aid giver
Wilson Ballah (center) treating a patient in an IRC-supported health clinic in the Ivorian border town of Beoyoula.
The patient, a refugee from Ivory Coast, is malnourished and in shock. (Photo: Peter Biro/IRC)
By Peter Biro
Beoyoula, Nimba County, Liberia - 2 February 2011 In 1993, at the height of Liberia’s devastating civil war, Wilson Ballah and his family fled to neighboring Guinea. Along with a million other Liberians the then 17-year-old suffered the hardship of being a refugee struggling to make a living. Today, almost two decades later, Wilson is back in Liberia and now it is he who is helping those in need. As a healthcare manager with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), he is on the frontline of an effort to help over 30,000 refugees who fled to Liberia from Ivory Coast following disputed presidential elections there last fall.
“I know what it is like to be a refugee,” Ballah says as he treats patients in an IRC-supported clinic in the dusty border town of Beoyoula where several thousand people have sought shelter. “You feel very lost and you need a lot of help.”
The crisis in Ivory Coast was triggered when incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down despite declarations by the United Nations and the African Union that he had been defeated by opposition leader Alassane Ouattara in the November 2010 election. The country has been locked in a political stalemate ever since and periodic outbreaks of violence have prompted a steady stream of fearful Ivorians to cross into Liberia. The refugees are straining the already strapped resources of scores of villages on the Liberian side of the border.
In Beoyoula, the health post is filled with refugees suffering from exhaustion, malaria and diarrhea. One woman, malnourished and lying in the clinic ward, suddenly slips into unconsciousness. Wilson and his team quickly stabilize the woman and fix an intravenous drip to her arm.
“She has gone into hypovolemic shock,” Wilson says, referring to an emergency condition in which severe fluid loss renders the heart unable to pump enough blood to the body. “The refugees have eaten and drunk very little, so some of them literally collapse.”
During a break between patients, Wilson says that his dream of helping people by becoming a health worker began in the refugee camp in Guinea where he attended an IRC-sponsored secondary school. The education helped prepare him for university and in 2005 he graduated from one of Liberia’s leading medical schools with a physician’s assistant’s diploma. After a series of jobs, which included serving as general secretary for the national physician assistant association, he now oversees IRC support to 16 rural health facilities in the country’s far-flung Nimba County.
“We help run the clinics, train local medical staff and supply medicines and equipment,” he says. “Without these health posts, tens of thousands of people would be left without medical care.”
Liberia is one of the most impoverished countries in the world with a crying need for trained doctors, nurses, midwives and laboratory technicians. Wilson’s dream is to eventually continue his medical studies and become a surgeon.
“Helping sick people is my vocation,” Wilson says. “It’s especially satisfying to be able to treat people who are in the same situation as I was so many years ago.”
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