When Torbertha Torbor was ten years old, her older sister got very sick. Her family lived in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast after fleeing war in their native Liberia, and health care was hard to access. Torbertha had seen many people in the camp die from easily preventable and treatable diseases, including her two-year-old brother. 

Torbertha Torbor poses sitting down in her scrubs. She is holding a cup of coffee and smiling.
Torbertha Torbor was a registered nurse before studying to become a nurse practitioner like the one who helped save her sister's life in a refugee camp.
Photo: Courtesy Torbertha Torbor

But unlike so many others, Torbertha’s sister survived. She recovered because a nurse practitioner gave her the help she needed. Torbertha remembers thinking, “Wow, that is amazing. That’s what I want to do when I grow up.”

That dream eventually came true. With the help of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Torbertha’s family was resettled in Oakland, California in 2004. Torbertha now works as a nurse practitioner in clinics in the Oakland area that serve mostly low-income and homeless patients. Her sister also works in health care. 

Torbertha is just one of the thousands of refugees and immigrants working on the frontlines battling the coronavirus. Below, she describes her work, her experience responding to the pandemic, and what gives her hope even in this unprecedented time. 

What is your day-to-day work like and how has it changed during the coronavirus? 

Since the pandemic started, my work has been busy and emotionally draining. People are panicking and a lot are asking to get tested. But we have limited supplies, so we cannot test everyone.

If someone wants to be tested, they have to call us or be interviewed first. We have a COVID-19 team at the clinic, and we discuss each request. If the patient on the phone qualifies to do the test according to guidelines from the clinic and the Centers for Disease Control, we call them into the clinic. We don’t want to put everyone in the clinic at risk, so the testing is in a tent in the parking lot.

Torbertha Torbor at work. She is wearing a mask, a face shield, and a gown.
Torbertha works as a nurse practitioner in clinics that serve mostly low-income and homeless patients.
Photo: Courtesy Torbertha Torbor

We don’t turn away people who cannot be tested; we talk to them. I tell them, if you think you have the virus, this is what you can do: you can self-quarantine, you can take Tylenol for any headaches or fever, drink a lot of fluids, gargle with warm salt water, etc. We tell them to symptomatically treat themselves, check their temperature routinely, and call us or go to the nearest emergency room if their symptoms worsen. 

At one of the clinics, I work mostly with youth who live in a homeless shelter. Those are my patients who are really panicking. “Do I have the symptoms?” they ask me. “Could you test me?”

Asking this population to practice social distancing is very difficult; many don’t have phone numbers and they don’t have any other way of meeting their health needs. They have to come to the clinic. When they do, the first thing we do as health care workers is put our masks on, and we give them masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. The advice I usually give them is to wash their hands with soap and water any time they touch anything, to clean any surfaces, and to social distance as much as possible.

I've always wanted to work with people who are more vulnerable, people who need medical care but can't afford it.

Many of the youth I work with support themselves and are now not able to work because of COVID-19. Many don't have food or other basic needs met. But one thing I love about my work is that we have many different services, for instance we provide supplies for mothers and access to food. 

I'm from a very poor family. It was challenging living in a refugee camp and very difficult to get health care. So I've always wanted to work with people who are more vulnerable, people who need medical care but can't afford it. 

What was your journey from Liberia like? 

The journey was nerve wracking. It was terrifying. We had to walk from place to place—people would die from hunger or would just give up. 

When we left the refugee camp and got here to the U.S., it was a little bit more hopeful. It was fulfilling to see yourself come from a place where you have no food to a place where you have food and you have volunteers from the IRC trying to help you out. 

I remember it was around 2am when we got to the airport and we met the volunteer from the IRC. He told us, “I am from the International Rescue Committee. I'm going to be the one that's going to get you to your place.”

Torbertha Torbor poses in front of UC Berkeley
Torbertha credits IRC volunteers with helping her learn English and succeed in school. When she went to college at UC Berkeley, she decided to give back by volunteering to tutor immigrant and refugee youth.
Photo: Chris Metzler

Our apartment was nice. There were full beds already made for us. And we finally got to take a shower, which was very nice and cooling. 

Later, IRC tutors helped me learn English, and they took me to the library and to events. So when I went to college at UC Berkeley, I volunteered to tutor immigrant and refugee kids. I still have contact with some of them. They look up to me and I try to be available for them.

How do refugees give back to their communities? 

Every day, there are refugees working extremely hard to give back to their communities. They’re very goal-oriented because they know where they came from. 

We have firsthand experience of how people helped us out—so now we want to help and give back.

Even coming here to the U.S. and going to school, that's giving back to your community. If you are educated, you have resources to give back to an underserved population or to a community that needs tutoring. I have seen a lot of both refugees and immigrants going to schools to tutor or working in health care. We have firsthand experience of how people helped us out—so now we want to help and give back.

What makes you hopeful? 

Torbertha Torber looks into a microscope
"We have firsthand experience of how people helped us out—so now we want to help and give back." Torbertha has seen many of her fellow refugees and immigrants giving back to the community.
Photo: Courtesy Torbertha Torbor

I am hopeful going to work every day because I'm giving back to my community and I'm doing something that will prevent the spread of the coronavirus.  I am helping people that really need the help. 

For example, as I was leaving work one day, a patient who lives in a homeless shelter came up to me. When he saw I was leaving, he said, “No, no, it's fine I'll come back on Monday.” But I told him that if he wanted to talk, I would stay and talk. 

He had recently visited the clinic because he had been struggling with some health and emotional issues. Now he had come back to say how grateful he was to us for saving his life. He told me, “I was going to kill myself [that day] when I left here, but talking to you helped me a lot.” 

I thought, "This is amazing, the work we do.”  I am grateful when I can help people. When we get those calls from people who say, “What you did, it helped me out a lot. I was dying. Now I'm alive.” That makes me happy.

Learn more about refugees in America.