Always a Teacher: One Man’s Journey from Professor to Refugee and Back Again

A first-person account by International Medical Corps global media strategist Margaret Aguirre

I spent yesterday in a place called Gaga Camp, in eastern Chad, near the border with Sudan. For the 20,500 Darfurian refugees who live in this camp, International Medical Corps is the only health care available, providing primary and maternal/child care, mental health and nutrition services, and HIV and hygiene education.

I brought with me a special package for one of the camp’s residents, care of the Washington Post’s Nairobi bureau chief, Stephanie McCrummen.

About a year ago, Stephanie wrote a terrific profile of a man named Azhari Ali. Before fleeing Darfur and settling at Gaga three years ago, Azhari had been a professor with master’s degrees in economics and political science. He spoke with Stephanie eloquently about the difficulty of trying to find purpose and intellectual stimulation in a camp with few resources – much less books. His only reading materials were what he was able to carry with him, including “Macbeth” and two-year old copies of Time and The Economist, which he had re-read countless times.

You can see Stephanie’s story here:

Stephanie heard from numerous readers moved by her story. She directed them to International Medical Corps’ headquarters in Los Angeles, where people sent books, magazines, and other reading materials. After a while, the individual donations added up to a small library and, through a generous private donation, were shipped to Gaga Camp last year.

Compelled herself to help him in some way, she put together a package of books, magazines, notebooks, pens, batteries for me to take to him.

Azhari had been working as a translator for International Medical Corps when Stephanie met him. As a way to keep his mind sharp, he was attending relief agency meetings and educating himself on various health campaigns. He is now a community educator for International Medical Corps, helping with HIV, nutrition and hygiene education campaigns in the camp.

When I first arrive at Gaga camp and step into the tent to meet him, he is finishing up a training of other community educators. He is a quiet, dignified, solicitous man of 45 – just a few years from the average life expectancy in Sudan. I explain that I have something for him. When I pull out the materials he seems a bit confused, perhaps surprised that anyone would do this for him.

We chat a bit – he is taciturn but his English is excellent. He expresses his gratitude for Stephanie’s gift, and says he is happy once again to be working and productive.
One of our doctors in the camp, Ibrahim Cisse, says to me: “International Medical Corps is lucky to have found someone with such a high level of education to help organize the health community. We cannot succeed here without strong community participation and without health workers like him.”

Azhari tells me it’s the education and training of others that is so crucial. “This is the most important thing, for our future, wherever we are.”

Help us save lives.