Skip to main content

Search results

90% of our funding comes from individual donors. Learn how you can support MSF’s lifesaving care with a gift.

Scroll down for content


Movement: Stories from MSF aid workers about lives uprooted

June 15, 2023

1:00PM-2:00PM ET

Event type: Live online

We invite you to join us for a live storytelling hour with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff on Thursday, June 15 at 1:00pm ET

What would you do if, right at this moment, you had to leave home and never look back? What would you take with you? What would you leave behind? 

There are now more than 100 million forcibly displaced people worldwide—more than at any time in modern history. Each and every one of them carries a story. To mark World Refugee Day, join us for a virtual storytelling hour featuring MSF aid workers who have themselves experienced displacement, migration, and life on the move. You’ll hear stories of anxiety, grief, hope, and, ultimately, solidarity, as we contemplate the real experiences of people forced from home. You can find information about our storytellers below.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri (00:01)

Hello, all. Welcome. We're so glad you've joined us. I can see already we have some folks from Louisiana, Durham, Baltimore, Houston. If you're tuning in, you've joined us for our special storytelling event today, which is called Movement: Stories from MSF Aid Workers About Lives Uprooted. We have five amazing storytellers who will be sharing with us today. Some will be joining us live and some have given us some recordings to share with you all because many of them are hard at work. Their stories capture the many ways that being uprooted and being driven across borders, having to cross borders, how that shapes both our individual stories, having to do so, but also this broader story, I think of what it means to be on the planet today, because that's really never been more true, that these stories are so widespread at this point.

There are now a hundred million forcibly displaced people around the world, which is higher than any other time in modern history. With climate change and its impacts, of course, on natural disasters and conflicts that we've already seen starting to play out, displacement is likely to only increase in the years ahead. These stories that we're going to get to hear today and share in the experiences of by listening, they're stories that impact us all, whether through our past, present, or future.

Just to give you a little bit about me, I will be your host throughout this event. My name is Onmnesha Roychoudhuri. I am a writer, storyteller, and educator. I'm based in Kingston, New York, which is just two hours north of New York City. For seven years now, I've had the good fortune of working with Doctors Without Borders as a writer and interviewer, often interviewing folks who are coming back, who work for Doctors Without Borders, who are coming back from different projects around the world about their experiences.

Throughout this hour, you'll likely hear us referring to, you probably know us by the name Médecins Sans Frontières, which is the French name of the organization. We often refer to it in the shorthand of MSF. Throughout this hour you'll hear us saying MSF, and that's what we're referring to. The work I've been able to do for MSF has been, like I said, interviewing, writing up stories to share with you all to share with a broader audience. My favorite work that I've done for you all for broader audiences is being able to work as a storytelling support and coach. Working with folks, again, who work for MSF to help them craft stories to share with the world because they're such important stories, which is why I feel especially lucky to have been able to work with many of the storytellers you're going to get a chance to hear today.

As a writer and storyteller, I think part of what drew me to both of these tasks, these creative pursuits, is that my father was a refugee during the partitioning of India and what became Pakistan, and then later Bangladesh. My father and his family had to flee for their lives. My father was just five or six at the time and. Tthat number of his age is inexact, not because I don't know, but because he doesn't know. He doesn't know, which I think is a very common story among refugees and displaced people. Birthdates, official documents, continuity of memory, these are all things that get interrupted, disrupted, or lost.

My father, his story has a very lucky ending, a very positive ending. He eventually came to the US on a Fulbright for physics. He's a very intelligent person. He was one of those fathers who spoke to my brother and I as though we were adults even when we were very young, which I think we especially appreciated when we were young because those questions like, what is light? Why is the sky blue? How are black holes formed? My father could answer all of these questions with such precision and clarity, and it was very satisfying. When it came to his own childhood and his upbringing and what he had experienced when he had to flee, he had far less to say.

Over the years, I've tried to collect the details as they've emerged here and there. I learned that his father died soon after they had all made the dangerous crossing. His mother and his seven siblings were living off of next to nothing because they had left everything behind when they fled. Then my father and his brother, the youngest, eventually were sent to an orphanage because there just weren't enough resources within the family to raise them all.

I've come to understand that my father's precision and accuracy, his love of science, his desire to know the answers, they strike me as this attempted corrective, to be able to have access to information and certainty, to not have to stay too long in that precarity and the unknown. While the story has happy ending, as with all histories that involve having to flee, he also bears the scars of the difficulty of connecting emotionally and making sense of creating a home in a place that, even though he's been here much longer than he ever was in India, still this doesn't feel quite like home.

I feel especially honored to be able to host this important event, because I feel such a strong connection to it. I think my love of story and writing comes from this wish to surface some of these more complicated and unseen stories and to try to reclaim what might otherwise be lost. I think that's why events like today's, that you're tuning in for, are so important. We want to shed light on these stories that too often go unshared, particularly for broader audiences like us in the United States.

Really briefly, how this event is going to go, like I said, there's going to be five amazing storytellers. In between, I'll come back just to reflect and. I'll also be asking questions of the audience. Virtual events are a great way to reach a broader audience, but they can sometimes be a little strange, especially for those of us who are talking into what feels like a void at times. I want to make sure that you all have a chance to participate in the chat. Please give our storytellers plenty of love, especially after they've completed their stories. You can put in the chat things that you noticed and that you appreciated. We can highlight those things for the storyteller so that they can hear this well-deserved praise after they share their stories.

I will also occasionally ask questions related to some of these topics, and I'd love to hear your take, your answers to these questions, some insights you have about your own personal experience and family experience. We'll have a chance to highlight some of those throughout the event as well. Yeah. We encourage you to participate through the chat and ask questions and comments. Whether you're watching this live on Vimeo, YouTube, LinkedIn or Twitch, you can all participate through that chat feature. There should also be live captions for the event available on Vimeo.

Without further ado, I think we should get the stories going. The first story that we're going to be hearing is from Malsore Biba. A little bit about Malsore, she's a health promotion and a communities activities manager. She's currently working in an MSF migration project in Guatemala. Before this, she also worked in refugee camps in Burundi and Jordan with another NGO. She has also volunteered in a local institution in Geneva with asylum seekers. She was going to be able to join us live, but last minute, because of a health training, because she again is hard at work, she was able to send us a recording of her story. Let's all virtually welcome the virtually appearing Malsore.

Malsore Biba (08:57)

Candies, coffee and lighters. These were the typical gifts that men who were working abroad used to bring to Kosovo when they came back. My sister today, even though she doesn't like sweets so much, she still likes these specific candies from Geneva that my father used to bring to us. He was working there, as he didn't have the right to work in Kosovo. We were in Kosovo with my mother, my two brothers and my sister. Later, like end of December 91, we went all together to Geneva. As the situation was getting worse as Albanians, we were going through some discrimination. TeenagersTeenager and young adults couldn't go to school study in Albanian, so they had to do this hidden in some living rooms. It was like a parallel system put in place by the community. My father had been beaten several times by the police just because he was speaking out to have more rights. My uncle was put in jail for the same reasons. The war had started in some part of Yugoslavia, not yet in Kosovo, but in other parts. Yeah. It was quite tense and we decided to leave.

For me, it was quite easy. As I was only five years old, it was easy to adapt to the new situation. I even remember that 15 years later, I met this classmate I had in the first school and he told me, "Oh, yeah. You were the one who couldn't speak French." I was like, "I have always been able to speak French." I was very surprised by his comment actually, because I had forgotten that I couldn't speak French at some point in my life. For me, it was quite easy. For my parents of course, it was not exactly the same as adults being a foreigner in this kind of situation, it's like you think you don't have the right to be ... Maybe because of the discrimination they went through in Kosovo before, but I could feel something of willing to be invisible. I could perceive this in them.

These ten first years that we had in Geneva, our life were like put in parentheses. I remember that, we were always waiting for the situation to get better in Kosovo and to be able to go back. We were waiting. We were in and in-betweenin between space, like a limbo state. We would always go to my uncle's place. He was living in Geneva too. He had this satellite dish to have more information. We would gather to his place and watch the news together. This was a sacred moment for adults. You better don't speak anything at that moment or don't make any noise. Otherwise, they would get very angry because they were stressed, actually. Now, I understand a genocide was going on in Bosnia. They knew that at some point the conflict would start in Kosovo too and we would have something of an ethnically cleansing. Of course they were stressed. We could feel it because they would get angry for anything.

Anyway, life would go on. We would go to school. We could still go to Kosovo every year in summertime until the war started. I have nice memories of this summertime, keeping the goats with my cousins in the mountains, singing in the garden with my uncles and my aunts. It was nice moments, but at the end of the summer we would have to leave to go back to Geneva. We had the whole ceremony of saying goodbye. In Kosovo, we have this tradition when you leave a place, you have to take a glass of water and you drink a little bit and you pour the rest out in order to be able to come back to this place. We would always do this ritual. I remember that all my relatives would stand in line, and we have a lot of relatives, and we would then shake hand and hug everyone. It was like a tragedy every time. Everyone would be crying. It was highly emotional, of course, because actually because we didn't know if we would meet them again. That's the point.

In front of all this fear that we could feel before the war and then the violence my family went through during the war, we had solidarity. This is what helped us to go through this difficult experience. For example, during war, one of my aunts was in a refugee camp in Macedonia. Her brothers-in-law and one Swiss friend of ours helped her to go out of this camp and go to Germany. She was alone with her children. Her husband had been killed in the war, so they helped her.

Or I had this other cousin who was fleeing on the other side toward Albania. She was alone with her kid. She didn't have anything to give her to eat. She was playing as she was eating something to make her feel better. She was received by an Albanian family that helped her also. There were a lot of IDPs. People would receive in their house, like 60 people in one house. Yeah. People got together, they got united to face this difficult moment.

It's interesting because in this place where I'm working now with MSF, we have this MSF center in the bus station in Guatemala, the border with Mexico, where we receive people on the move. We provide healthcare, mental healthcare, social work, and we have basic services like showers, wifi, and so on. Every day we have the same routine with my colleagues. We go there, we put the MSF banners, we prepare the waiting area and so on. We never know what will happen during the day, because migration is a very changing context. We don't know if we'll have a lot of people or a few, what nationalities and so on.

However, what we do know, it's that people will tell about violence and about solidarity. Indeed, migration can be very traumatic. People tell about sexual violence, about assault, kidnapping. Some people are killed during the war, the road, they are hungry. Sometimes they can't eat anything during few days or they can't even take a shower. It's about safety and human dignity also. A few days ago, a young guy, very smiley, very joyful, was telling me ... We were speaking about some HIV prevention treatment. He knew a lot about it even more than I do as a health promoter. Then he started to tell me about his experience in Darien Forest. It's a place between Colombia and Panama. It's a very tough moment of the route from Ssouth to North America. His face changed and he told me as he saw a baby being eaten by an alligator. He told me I had to turn my head on the side because I couldn't handle this. Of course you can't handle, no one can handle this. No one should be going through this. Yeah. This is what can happen in this forest and in this difficult route.

People tell about dead bodies that they see there. I'm thinking, these people, they are just left alone. They don't have any ceremony of saying goodbye, neither pouring water out nor proper funerals. Yeah. It's very tough. In front of this hard experience, people have solidarity. Again, it's this same mechanism that it's put in place. They tell us how they get together. They don't know each other at the beginning of the road, but then they get together to protect each other. Sometimes they don't even speak the same language. Solidarity helpshelp people to go through this. I remember I was told once about this woman who had hurt her leg in this forest and some guy started carrying her. They just saved her life. Yeah. Solidarity is very strong in this context. It's interesting to see that this same mechanism repeatsrepeat again and again in human beings' lives.

In my case, I feel very grateful because I could escape the war, I could study and now I'm doing this job I've always wanted to do. I'm able to go and see my family whenever I want. Sometimes I don't even say goodbye to everyone. These people that I meet every day in my job, I think even if they survive this dangerous passage, then they are still in limbo. They will still be in this immigration process, trapped in this immigration process. I wish for them to be able to go out of this at some point and to be able to go back and to see their family, many of them can't, and to have their safety and dignity restored, as I could back then.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri (18:20)

That was Malsore's beautiful story. There's so many things that stand out to me about the power of that story. I would love to hear from you all what stayed with you. Feel free to put into the chat either an image or line that really struck you. I wWould love to hear from you all. I'll also be able to convey some of this feedback to Malsore later on. It'd be lovely to hear from you, because of that as well.

What was really powerful to me was throughout the beginning of that story, being able to see what the experience is like through a child's eyes. The noticing that her parents were willing to be invisible or that their lives felt like they were put in parentheses. Great. Yes. Susan says, "Solidarity and human dignity." Yes, towards the end, the fact that now she is working with folks who are fleeing for their lives and going through this incredibly dangerous path in order to try to reach safety is incredibly powerful.

I also appreciated that experience that can come from having led this previous life when you're that young where she has an olda old classmate saying, "Oh, yeah. You didn't speak French." She was like, "There's no way. Of course I've always spoken in French." The ways in which a child adapts and learns.

Yes. What else? People literally carry each other. Yeah. I think she really hit home the fact that within the solidarity, it's rare to feel like when you have traveled through such a horrendous experience that there is a stranger. People are connecting and bonding, because of what they've had to survive together. One of the things that I'd be curious to hear from you all, because in the opening of her story, she talks about her sister and her being very excited when her father would come back from Geneva with these sweets and other things. I have a very acute memory of being a kid and my father coming back, because he had to travel a lot for work. He would always bring back the hotel soaps and shampoos. For some reason as a kid these were the most magical items in the world.

Feel free to drop in the chat if you have a memory of a relative, family member, or a close family friend who used to bring something ... What were those things that were magical to you that were brought back to you when you were a kid? I would love to hear from you.

Yes. Rosalyn says, "Immigration process is an ongoing process." Yes, absolutely. Malsore really hit that home with that referring to the fact that, sure, you've survived this horrendous and difficult passage, but then you are still in limbo. Solidarity, survival and strength. Lovely. So beautiful. Yes, and also quite terrifying. Bridgette just dropped in the chat that question about what people brought back to you when you were a kid that was memorable. Chocolates. Yeah.

I want to just read aloud one final reflection about Malsore's story. Brian says, "Her influences that made her want to join MSF as an aid worker." I think that's absolutely right and something that you see so often with folks who work for MSF. You all are probably quite familiar with MSF, but one of the really remarkable things about the organization is that a really, really high percentage, I think it's around 90 if not higher, of the staff, is local national staff. You'll be hearing more stories today about folks who were directly impacted and experienced displacement themselves, who then work for Doctors Without Borders, for MSF.

That's sort of a perfect transition to our next amazing storyteller who we're going to hear from, Bonnet Kamate. Kamate is actually here, but because of some sound issues ... Yes, there's Kamate. We can see Kamate, luckily, but because of audio issues, luckily we have a recording. We're going to get to hear the recording that Kamate made yesterday of his powerful story. Just a really brief bio about Kamate. Kamate has worked as a logistician for MSF in Uganda, South Sudan, Cameroon and Niger. He has also provided support during the 2022 Ebola emergency in Uganda. He's currently an urban refugee in Uganda where he lives with his family. Let's give lots of support in the chat for Kamate as we get to listen to his story.

Bonnet Kamate Kihugo (23:08)

I grew up in Zaire during the late President Mobutu's regime, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had never experienced any war, but in October of 1996, I had to flee from Gomma where I was living with my wife and three children, because of political instability and civil war. There were bombs and bullets all around. We had to flee. That day we had to flee on foot. I immediately went home to find my family, but I ran into a neighbor on the way and he said my family was not there. The neighbor said everyone was going Sake, which was over 14 miles away. In Sake, I still did not find my family and we had to continue to go Butembo, which was over 160 miles away.

On our way, we had to pass through many villages and checkpoints. If they did not approve of your tribe or you spoke the wrong language, you could be killed. I was part of a tribe that was not welcome in many villages. People with money were also robbed and killed on the road. It was just by chance that I was able to pass. So many people were killed on that road. People were killed violently by knife. We continued our travel on foot without food and without any support. At night, we would look for a church to sleep. However, we had no shelter and noand did no medicine.

In Butembo, it was difficult to stay there because I did not speak the language. People were killed if they did not speak the language. Finally, there were a few days without fighting in Butembo and I was able to continue on my journey. I needed to cross into Uganda to find safety. I met a business person and his family who helped me to travel to the border of Uganda. They had money, they were able to get the visa they needed to pass, but I had very little money and I was trying to save that for when I got to the other side. Therefore, I had to take a wayward path to cross the border. I had to pay a smuggler to show me the pass. It was terrible, but I was able to cross.

I was able to find the business person and his family on the other side of the border and we made our way together to Kampala. I had to figure out where to stay. How am I going to survive? What will be next? How will I find my family? In Kampala, I was connected with a group of Congolese and they had a church where I stayed. They told me what to do. Go to the police station to report yourself and report that your family is missing and they can help to get them for you.

I was given a choice to go to the refugees camp or stay in town. The advantage of going to the camp was that there were resources, food and shelter. In town, you have to take care of those things yourself. I choose to remain in town so that I could look for a job and it was easier to get information about my family. I remained in Kampala, sleeping in a church. It was not easy. I took many small jobs, moving boxes for business people. That's how I survived and continued to look for my family.

I was able to find my family with the help of another business person. He told me that my family went home to [inaudible 00:27:08]. It was still not safe in the country and especially Eastern parts. I knew I needed to get my family to Kampala, but it was difficult. We had no communication, no phones. I couldn't pay for visa and documents for them, so I had to travel back to the border again and help them to cross the same way I did. In Kampala,. I had a single room for the five of us. We put up a curtain to divide the space. Life was not easy. After taking some small jobs and studying English, I got a job with MSF and was sent to South Sudan.

In South Sudan,. I worked to identify a displaced population and give them kits that had materials for cooking, blankets, soap, matchbox and even sewing trades and hand needles. When they were moving, at least they had these things to use. I was very happy to see that these people were supported, something I did not when I was fleeing my country. Life now is still complicated. If you have a job, you pay school fees for your kids. If you don't have a job, you cannot. You feel really minimized. You don't feel like a parent. There is no work. There are no jobs. This is the life of a refugee.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri (28:38)

Thank you so much Kamate for sharing that story. I got to hear a couple versions of it. I feel like we're so lucky to be able to hear from you, because I feel like you capture, very clearly, what it is in the process. Malsore's story, we heard her talking about how even when people are able to make this dangerous passing and survive that there's then the limbo. I think your story actually speaks incredibly powerfully to that limbo, to that fact that you have persevered so much, but there are still so many challenges. I would love to hear from the audience. I'm going to reflect a little bit more about the story, but I would love to, especially because Kamate is here and is able to see your comments, please show some support and love. What did you notice about Kamate's story? What stayed with you? Feel free to share that in the chat.

Yes, I think one of the really powerful things about Kamate's story, apart from really giving us an inside, sort of behind the scenes view of what it was like to flee, to have to find a way to cross when you don't have the resources to get the proper paperwork or visas and then actually have to try to locate your family without phone, without contact. These series of challenges that you were able to overcome, but also how much you were reliant on others around you. That along the way you were finding places like churches to sleep in. There were these families, or these business people, who were trying to help you. Yes. This was such a powerful story and captures both the uncertainty and the challenges at every turn and also those ways in which there is solidarity along the way.

Let's see. We're hearing from folks here. So much respect for and inspiration from your journey. Must have been very difficult to be separated from your family. Yes. Other things that stayed with people, the loss of family, country stability and living in the unknown. Absolutely. That uncertainty every step of the way. Incredible amount of resilience. Yes. Heart touching. Yes. So happy that your family was reunited. These are great. Thank you so much. Please keep putting comments in the chat. I think it's so incredible for all of us to see what we are noticing about the story and also for Kamate to see how we're reacting to this incredibly powerful and raw story of what it is to be a refugee and still be somewhat in limbo.

Great. Okay. I'm just going to do a little time check, because I want to make sure we have time for all of our storytellers. I think I mentioned earlier that this event will end at 2:00. The sad news is we're halfway through, but the good news is we have a half hour more of stories. I know that folks have dropped into the chat where they're tuning in from.

One of the things I would love to ask, as we make the transition to our next storyteller, because I feel like this could be really interesting. For those of you with family or relatives who had to leave their country of origin or place, if you would go ahead and just drop the name of the country or countries that they had to leave behind in the chat, we can kind of populate the chat with where all folks, their family members and their extended family have had to leave, countries they had to leave behind. I think that could be really, really interesting. Please drop that in the chat, while we're also getting more love for Kamate, which he will get a chance to read, which is great.

Oh, yes. Okay. Yes. We have Cameroon. I should contribute because ... I'll say India and Russia. We are now going to have the good fortune to be able to hear live from our next storyteller. Our next storyteller is Sherwan Qasem. Sherwan is an emergency officer who's currently based in MSF's office in Amsterdam. He's originally from Syria. He was forced to take refuge in Turkey in 2012. He began working with MSF in Turkey as a translator. Then after that he worked in a number of other roles, which included as a project coordinator for MSF, for MSFs medical projects in both Syria and Turkey. Then he migrated to the Netherlands in 2017. Without further ado, we will bring Sherwan to the virtual stage.

Sherwan Qasem (33:53)

Hello. Thank you for the great introduction, Onmnesha. I'm really happy and glad to be here with you today. I'm trying to tell you a personal story. It's my personal story. My personal story of being away from home, things changing, new starts in new countries, trying to find new friends but stay or try to stay connected to old friends. Learning new languages, but not to forget your mother tongue, your own language. I am Sherwan. I am from Syria.

When the conflict started in Syria, I was already doing my master at Damascus University. When the conflict started, everything changed. At that time I was trying to find my way to work in journalism, which was my career that I choose to take at that time. I was lucky, I had the chance to be trained somehow with BBC, one of the BBC's kind of youth strengthening programs, at that time, in Syria. Everything was good. Everything, at that time, looked just fine until the conflict started.

When the conflict started quite rich, heterogeneous country like Syria suddenly ... Normally diversity mean colorfulness, mean beautifulness, mean harmony. The harmony suddenly turned into a civil war. As a part of the civil war, I was for example, living for five years in one neighborhood in Damascus while I was doing my study, because I am not from that area. I am from the north of Syria, away from Damascus. I moved to Damascus to study, to find my way in the country. Anyway, when the war started, I had to leave my neighborhood.

This was the first displacement for me, was the first migration, because the neighborhood I was living in was mainly specific group, was mainly, let's say Alawites[inaudible 00:36:02], was mainly Arabs. I was myself, a Kurdish, a Sunni. I was not fitting in the fabric of the neighborhood anymore. I received threats that I have to leave the country and I had to leave. I consider that somehow one of my first migration. I will not consider me leaving from the north, from my town, my small village toward the north in Damascus as a migration, even though it was moving from place to place new, moving from a small village or small town into a big city, like anyone will have in the States, in Europe, whatever. This time I was forcely displaced from my neighborhoods, a neighborhood I lived in for five years, otherwise I could be killed.

At that time I was working as a journalist. As a journalist, you are one of the first victims of totalitarian regimes, of civil conflicts, also of internal disagreements. Two of my colleagues unfortunately disappeared and until today we don't hear anything or we didn't hear anything anymore about them. It's not easy to talk with you right now. When you tell a personal story ... Normally I am quite comfortable with public speaking and quite comfortable talking to armed groups, talking to commanders, ministers, even presidents. It's a part of my job working and representing MSF in the field or in the HQ. When you try to open up and to share your own personal story, it's really not easy. Sometimes you feel something is stuck here, but I will going on.

Then when my friend disappeared, the first advice I received was to leave. This was my second displacement. I have to leave from Damascus back, reversed displacement, back to my hometown. In my hometown I was looking for solutions when someone advised me to cross to Turkey. In August, 2012, I had to cross the border and arrived to Turkey. Turkey was a new country, new language. Even though it's a neighboring country, but everything is totally different. Suddenly I found myself in [inaudible 00:38:13] station in Istanbul. I don't know if anyone of you have been to Istanbul. Istanbul is a massive city. It's quite big. It's a monster. It's this kind of big jungle of concrete where it's very painful to be alone.

Lonely, stranger and foreigner, not speaking the local languages, start looking for a job. After few days of asking on Facebook, on social media,. I was looking for accommodation. My money was about to finish. I found a temporary accommodation in a website. At that time, 10, 20 years ago was very actually quite public or quite popular, sorry, which was the couch-surfing. When I found a temporary kind of accommodation. I found a job in tourism.

Then suddenly one day I was taking a group of tourists to fancy, nice place in Istanbul. I found people from MSF. They told me they were looking for translator and they wondered if I want to go with them. At that time I was like, "Do I really want to go?" Now, I'm somehow in a safety in a not bad city. I started to adaopt, do really I want to go back to the whole situation, to my country where it is very dangerous, where I just actually a few weeks ago I arrived. Anyway, the same day, I called a friend of mine, my ex flatmate in Damascus University. They said that he had a bullet in his shoulder. A sniper who was on the corner couldn't spare his life or he thought that he couldn't spare his life. Anyway, luckily this friend of mine survived. He didn't die, but at that moment I was told he's between death and life. I decided I can't be neutral. I can't enjoy safety while the situationwhile situation is really hard there.

I went back with MSF. With MSF I started working, as Onmnesha said, as a translator, as a project coordinator later on. I started dealing with my Syrian brothers and sisters who had to escape for theirthe life. In 2014, more than a million refugee crossed from Aleppo only and from other parts of Syria to Turkey. Working with all those peoples, who I am part of, I also have the feeling of displacement, I have the feeling of being alone and being lonely in this area.

Later on, I started working on the Mediterranean in the Turkish site with MSF, but the tolerance towards Syria refugees was also decreasing in Turkey. Turkey was very generous. They received actually quite big amount of refugees, but people also were fed up because they started becoming less welcoming. I started applying for jobs here and there, started looking for a way to escape. I don't have a very brave story of escaping. I got a job in the HQ here in Amsterdam. I started working here. Moving again, and moving to Amsterdam was a new start, new language, new society, new community. I didn't know what was hidden at that time.

I didn't know that I will lose one of the most important columns of my life, that keeping my life quite stable and strict, which was my father. My father lost his life in an accident. They called me in one day and they said that your father fell down from the roof while he was trying to fix something for the coming winter. It was a September. The winter was approaching. Then I didn't know what to do. I was panicking, I was sad. I was like, what can I do? Then I decided I can do something. I went to Iraq and from Iraq I crossed to Syria. I crossed to my village where I was stopped for the military service. The local administration that is ruling this area, they said that I have to do military service, but I asked them for a permission only for at least one week to bury my father and to stand beside my mother. That was one of the most difficult moments.

Working for MSF all these years, I know that my projects saved a lot of lives, but at the same time, I couldn't save my father life. It was really tough moment for me, but at the same time, it showed the importance of my work. There are thousands of fathers we manage to save in our hospitals. My father unfortunately was not one of them, but there are thousands of fathers being saved by MSF.

When I came back to Amsterdam, I tried to learn Dutch. I tried to integrate into society. I tried to prove myself, to rebuild again, look for new friends, look for new society. I'm very privileged that I came here on a flight, on a comfortable plane. I didn't have to go through horrible conditions that other peoples are going through. At the same time, it was really not easy to start again and again and again. I worked during this period with the refugees who were escaping through the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy in Lithuania, in Poland, from Belarus and also in the Netherlands itself. It's quite rich country, but there was a period last year when the asylum seeking center was not able to receive everybody and they couldn't receive medical care. It was quite interesting for me to go and speak with people in Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, English, and with my broken Dutch. It’s nNot that much broken, but it's not fluent anyway.

Luckily my story has a good ending. I mean, my story didn't end, but this stage, last Monday I get my Dutch citizenship after six years living in the Netherlands, trying to learn the language, trying to learn the society, the history, trying to prove that you can be part of this society and this community. Now I have a new hope for a new start. I'm planning to invest that with MSF. Aat the same time besides my work, because I couldn't finish my master when the conflict started in Syria, so I'm also now doing a master in University of Amsterdam on Genocide Studies. I'm trying to study how genocides are planned, organized, and performed to be able to ... Maybe we can somehow in future avoid them or at least deal with them in a better way.

I think I took a bit over my time. I don't want to take more time from my other colleagues who want to share their stories with you. Thank you everyone. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share part of my story with you. Have a good day. Thank you.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri (45:17)

Oh, thank you so much, Sherwan. That was a beautiful story. Of course, yes, I want to encourage everyone in the comments, please share out what you noticed, what stayed with you, any other messages for Sherwan based on his incredible story. You used the line, my story ... You said, my story has a happy ending, and then you said my story didn't end. I feel like that's such a beautiful thing that I just want to highlight, because that's the truth of all of our stories. They are continuing. What you're hearing here, the folks that are sharing these stories, these are snapshots. Their lives continue to unfold. I encourage anyone who is an audience member who maybe isn't following closely what Doctors Without Borders, what MSF, is doing in a variety of different countries to support people who have been displaced, please find out more. There are many ways to support, but we all have the opportunity to help shape these stories of people whose lives' are still ... Their stories are still shifting and we can help support them.

Yeah. Sherwan, there were so many powerful moments in your story. The way you refer to being a journalist and how journalists are often the first victims of conflict and how you were constantly put in this place where you said, I can't be neutral. You felt this drive to help and to support others. I think that's this really powerful through line with many of the stories we're hearing today is that deep motivation to prevent other people from having to endure the kind of suffering that you have had to endure, and that beautiful tie in to the fact that you weren't able to save your own father, but that you think about the many fathers that you can help support and help save so that other people do not have to carry that kind of grief.

I'm just looking in the chat now. Yeah. Carolyn says, "Maya Angelou said, ‘"I wouldn't take nothing for my journey.’"" Yeah, I'm wondering if you felt that way. The stories continue. A lot of thanks for sharing your story. You shared the calling to go back with its pain and danger. That was very moving. Yes, I agree. That was lovely. It leaves me thinking about home, the fact that you have had to start anew many, many times and all the challenges that come with that.

As we move on to our next storyteller, I would love for folks in the audience to reflect on that, what home has come to mean to them at this point in their lives. I know my understanding of what home is has shifted over the years. For me it is very often about love and family, but also an unexpected quality is quiet. I feel like I need to be able to have access to quiet. If you all want to share in the chat what home has come to mean to you, certain qualities of home that are most important to you, please share that in the chat.

Also, just to do a roundup from the last question I asked, we have folks whose family members have left behind Cameroon, Vietnam, India, Russia, Yugoslavia, the Philippines. Thank you for sharing that with us. It's nice to have that history in this virtual space.

Great. I will introduce our next incredible storyteller while you all hopefully can reflect in the chat about home and qualities of home that are most important to you. I can read some of those out later. Our next storyteller will be joining us live, which is great. We are going to be welcoming Julie Papango. Julie is a clinical laboratory scientist from the Philippines. Julie helped set up MSF laboratories in Cambodia, Uganda, Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Then in 2016 Julie immigrated to New York and currently works as a traveling lab scientist at the children's hospital in Los Angeles. Please help me in welcoming Julie Papango.

Julie Papango (49:41)

Thanks, Onmnesha. Hello, everyone.

I have a confession to make. For years, I had this love- hate relationship with the letter M. You may ask why. Three reasons. Number one, when I was in kindergarten, I figured it was taking a lot of space when you write the letter M, aside from the other letters. Then second, when I was learning American sign language, in order to make the letter M, you need to clench your fist like this, put your thumb in between your pinky and your ring finger, so for me it was confusing. It's as if I was trying to keep a secret, but at the same time I would like to punch someone. Then lastly, in flag symbols, the M is represented by this sign, which is literally a big X. However, if you're fond of Scrabble and you find yourself losing in a very tight game, if you have the letter M, which is my favorite letter in Scrabble, you have thirteen possible combinations for two letter words, so that could easily help you win a game.

In 2009, the letter M presented itself as a possible risk to my existence. I was told to go to a project in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia as a clinical laboratory scientist. My main task was to help set up the tuberculosis laboratory in different prisons in the capital, Bishkek, to help also the local staff to improve their process in making the smears for tuberculosis, which is the one we use to detect TB. Before going to Bishkek, I was told to stop by our offices in Hong Kong and then in Geneva for a series of briefings. Like any freshly minted expat, I was so ecstatic. I felt like this would be a very good experience for me to use my expertise to create a greater impact.

There I was, my first time traveling international waters, carrying only 20 pounds of luggage, kisses from my parents and tons of anxiety. I was in the immigration line for password control, still excited. When it was my turn to face the immigration officer, I gave my passport. With a weak, but very genuine smile, I gave it to him. The immigration officer looked at my passport, looked at me, and then a blank face looked at the back pages of my passport, he looked again at my passport, looked at me again. He did that three times and then he told me to wait for a while. He stepped out of his cubicle, went to another room. After a few minutes he came back with an equally stern, but this time a bit lanky and freckled colleague of him.

They were talking in Chinese, so I cannot really understand. The other colleague told me ... He was very assertive, borderline rude in a way. I felt something was a bit off at that time. You see, I am a woman of transgender experience. That means that I was prescribed a letter M on my passport, male. Being from the Philippines, a mostly Catholic country and one of the only two countries in the world with no divorce, like the Vatican, I don't have the capacity to change this gender marker on my documents. There's this discrepancy that I'm M on my passport, but I'm F-looking, feminine looking.

I suddenly felt the void of the airport. The only thing I can hear was the thump of the immigration officer's steps and the constricted breathing in between my chest. I suddenly found myself in a room approximately five by five meters, so around 16 by 16 feet for American colleagues herecolleagues in here. There was only one metallic chair and one table. To add to the sense of frigidness in the environment, the room was painted with a shade of gray and gloom. I was kept in there for 30 minutes, asked with the same questions repetitively. What organization are you working with? How many days are you here in Hong Kong? Do you have any friends and family here? Why don't you have a return ticket to the Philippines? How much is in your bank account? Why is your passport saying male, but you are female?

Doctor Without Borders. I'll be here for two days. I don't have any friends and family here. I have a few thousand dollars in my bank account. I'm going to Geneva after this and then to Kyrgyzstan. I am a transgender woman, and unfortunately I cannot change this gender marker. Since it was a Sunday,. Tthere was no way for them to confirm with the MSF Hong Kong office if I was really a volunteer expat. At that point I was already fearing, because I don't know will I be detained, will I be deported back to the Philippines? I was sitting in there, just my documents, no passport, and just a huge lump of tears curling on my throat, but I cannot cry.

They eventually let me go. They apologized. I stayed calm and composed, but inside I felt fearful, furious, and fragile. Eventually I was told that the reason I was detained in immigration is that there's a lot of transgender women who would visit Hong Kong and the Philippines who would do sex work but would pose a tourist. Apparently I was profiled.

At that point, I realized that having the M on my passport would post a threat whenever I cross immigration officers. In order for that not to happen, what I did, every time I would pass through an immigration officer, I would make sure that how I look like in my passport would be how I presented. I would always tie my hair, no makeup and just act neutrally. It worked for a while. I've been to different projects with Doctors Without Borders with no problems, until 2012.

I suddenly found myself in Juba, South Sudan when I was working in an emergency project. While I was there, I was applying for another visa to go to Ethiopia to fly to another project where we are closing and handing it over. I was in the Ethiopian consulate in Cuba. I filled out all the document. It went smoothly. I even saw the visa already attached to my passport. When it was almost time for them to give it to me, the secretary was confused and then went back to the immigration officer. Apparently what happened was, so when I was filling up the documents, I circled M because that's the one on my passport, so that there's no discrepancy. When I was being interviewed, I didn't saw that the immigration officer circled F because he thought I'm F, because I was presenting F.

The secretary was asking, "Why did you change it?" There was this discussion between them. I was told to come back the next day, which I did. I went back and forth for three days and then eventually they didn't give me the visa. I saw how they peeled the visa from my passport. For years during my transition, I'd been doing hair waxing and appellation. I'm used to the pain, but that sound of the visa being peeled from my passport, that burned more. That's very challenging, because I thought for years I'm passable enough to go to different projects.

It's tough traveling with an M gender marker. Over the years, as an expat clinical laboratory scientist, I've always been asked if I'm ready to go to countries like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen. I always told the people in the headquarters, I'm ready to go everywhere. The challenge is if this country [inaudible 00:59:40] transgender expat clinical laboratory scientist. I'm also aware that I still carry some privileges. I have good education, I have access to medical transition. I have developed a network both professionally and personally. Unfortunately, not a lot of transgender, queer, and gender non-conforming people are not given such opportunities.

[inaudible 01:00:14] of stories about queer asylum seekers being sexually and physically harassed, both by their peers and people in power. What my experiences has told me is that access to properly medically transition is as essential as access to safe passage. A clinical laboratory scientist like myself is as vulnerable as a sex worker in Asia or a queer asylum seeker in Africa or Latin America.

Every now and then, I still think about this love- hate relationship with the letter M. This is a relationship that is constantly where I find solace and chaos. It's a weird choreography where I find magical connections and tragic losses. I use it as a shackle for me to sing in different spaces, but above all, I use it as a receptacle to hold and share my truth. Thank you.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri (01:01:31)

That was a very moving story. Thank you, Julie. For our folks who have been listening to Julie's story, please drop in the chat things that stood out to you, what you noticed, what was left with you after listening to Julie's really powerful story. I was able to hear this story before working with Julie. One of the things that really stays with me about this is that this story is such a perfect reflection of this intersection of the constructs of border, meaning the constructs of gender and how the way the challenges you've faced crossing borders is just such a profound parallel of how these constructs we create for other human beings just prevents us from being safe, prevents us from having the safety and dignity that we all deserve.

There's lots of echoes. I'm thinking of Sherwan's story and Kamate's story in terms of just the languages that you speak or where you're from or what you look like, preventing you from having access to assured safety and dignity. It's this really powerful through line throughout all of the stories that we've heard today.

I'm just looking in the chat. I can imagine the anxiety and fear at every immigration checkpoint. I'm so sorry. I received that in my heart. Powerful. You keep finding ways to navigate through cruel and callous conditions. What an incredibly poignant story. Yes, keep the observations coming. Just the language you used throughout this, that moment when we're in the airport and you said the void of the airport and all you can hear is the thump of the immigration officer's feet. I feel like we were there with you, because you were painting us such a powerful picture. The way that moment slowed down. Also, the way you left us with that really powerful, that question of when folks come to you and say, "Are you ready to go to these countries?" What a powerful and beautiful way to turn it around where you're always ready, are they ready? I think that that's the core of where we're at as a culture and society, i. Is I think, are we ready? Are we ready?

Great. Yeah. Discrimination against transgender communities increasing and frightening. What a powerful personal testimony. This is really lovely. You can keep the love coming in. Also, I just wanted to reflect back about home as we're sitting here talking about place and belonging and the ability to travel. With Julie's story we heard from folks saying that home to them means peace, family and memories, acceptance, shared time together, tasty meals, quiet, safety, unconditional love of a partner. Thank you for sharing that.

We have run a little bit over time, but we do have ... I want to thank everyone who's joined us so far. We have one more story. If you all would like to stay on, we would love to have you hear this last story. It's a recording from Moses Soro. Before we queue up that video, I'll just give a very short bio of Moses. He's a finance and HR manager who's currently on assignment with MSF in Nigeria. He's from Yei, South Sudan, originally part of Sudan before South Sudan's independence. He lived as a refugee in Uganda, which if you recall is where Kamate is living now, before settling in the UK where he joined MSF. Before his assignment in Nigeria, Moses worked in two of MSF's projects in Syria. We see a connection there to Sherwan's story as well. Yes. For those of you who want to stay for this final story, let's listen to Moses' story.

Moses Simon Soro (01:05:49)

Hello, my name is Moses Simon Soro. I'm here to tell you about my story of hope and how MSF helped me to be what I am today. I was born in South Sudan, but it used to be Sudan, in a small town called Yei. In 2011, South Sudan became independent and the North became a separate country, Sudan, then we became South Sudan. Before that, of course, the north and the south were in a protracted war that started long before I was born. The Southerners were fighting for freedom and they wanted also to have their own country, because we were being mistreated by the Northerners. We lived through the war in South Sudan. It became so apparent and it became so difficult that even when we ran to the villages, we still get bombed by Antonovby an Antonov bombers, which are dropping barrels of bombs on the civilians.

We could not stay in South Sudan. We had to cross over to refugee in Uganda. We were just crossed in Uganda and we were dropped out of a town called Koboko, about six miles out of the town. It was just a bush. South Sudanese refugees we were just dropped there. We had no tents, we had no tukuls, nothing. All of us were exposed to the elements. My father could not afford to construct for us houses or tukuls. It was until MSF came in that we received tents and of course also MSF set up a dispensary, which was very helpful that time, because at the time there was outbreak of malaria. Also, there was an outbreak of cholera. It was rainy time and people were having no pit latrines. People were excreting escorting outside. That also caused a lot of cholera. A lot of people died in Uganda at that time, because of diarrhea and mosquito bites for the kids. I’ve lost Not quite a few of my relatives, but of course others were saved, including me.

That touched me a lot. Up to today, I think if had MSF not to come, then probably I could have not been here talking to you. I would be dead also like my other siblings who died young with preventable diseases. Because we're exposed to the element, because of the poverty, because of the troubles we had, because of the war could not come with all that we had. Refugee life is a bit difficult. It's not a very easy life. I made a promise to myself and to my family that one day when I grow up, when I finish studies, I would love to be a part of MSF and I would like to serve humanity in the most desperate situations that MSF also finds people in. I would like to give my help. I would like to help the needy, because that is the right thing to do.

I came to Britain, transferring my refugee status from Uganda. I continued in my studies. I completed a master's degree in a international relations at Keele University, thinking I was going to work in the foreign office of South Sudan when South Sudan became independent in 2011. I returned to South Sudan and I worked as a bank manager. I worked with some international NGOs, Democracy International, Iinternational Republican Institute where I was training NPs. Doing that, some politicians became very interested in what I was doing and I got appointed, one of the political positions as a commissioner of Morabo County. That's the county where I come from originally. I went and worked in Morabo as a commissioner. Then after, became a state minister of finance.

After that I decided, I said, "No. I have to leave." Because the war continuing now, this current civil war in South Sudan. Our people were going again for refuge. This time I'm also a decision maker. That became a bit a conflict for me. I decided to resign from my position as a state minister of finance. I came to the UK and I went back to university to study human resource management because I've seen in MSF's job adverts the only job that I could do, because I'm not a doctor, I'm not a scientist, the only job that I can do is support the medical teams. I decided to go to university and studied a master's degree in Human Resource Management at University of WestminsterWest Minister. I went through the application process and I got offered a position as a finance and human resource manager.

I went to Syria. In Syria I waswere working in two projects. One was for non-communicable diseases and the other one was to treat TB in one of the detention centers for ex-fighters. I, of course, told the Syrians, the colleagues that I work with, my experience. I told them I was once a refugee. I know how it feels to be displaced in your own country. I know how it feels to be helpless within your own country. Let them be hopeful, because these things will not last forever. One day they will live life as free citizens of Syria. They should have hope, like what I had. I knew one day I'll not be a refugee forever, but I will be somebody who can also help refugees be okay.

Then I was working at a tuberculosis project. One day I went to visit to see the people that I work for, people who were receiving our services. When I went and I saw Plumpy'Nut that was given to them because they were malnourished, immediately that brought memories flowing. I told my colleagues, this is the thing that saved me too. Without the Plumpy'Nut, I would have been dead. The Plumpy'Nut helped me to recover. I took one, I kept it on my desk. My intention was to bring it and show it to my children, because I kept telling them that this was something that helped me, but they didn't know. They didn't see ... They don't know what it is. From giving them photos they could not understand, so I had to bring it.

Unfortunately, when I was leaving Syria, I was in a hurry. I didn't go back to the office, I forgot. Luckily enough, MSF posted for me one and I showed them how a Plumpy'Nut looks like. It was a privilege working for MSF. I mean, Iin felt very happy to help humanity to also provide the services that I was once given. Today, also, I'm a decision maker in MSF, making sure that these services, these projects, the help that we give people, it's free. Of course it's impartial. This is the reason also why I left politics, because I don't want to conflict with MSF's ethos of being impartial, being politically neutral. That's what I've embraced now is why I'm very happy going where the need is. Wherever there is need, I'm happy to go and help. Thank you.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri (01:12:49)

That was our last story from Moses. An incredibly powerful story. As the audience, you're now starting to see and feel how connected these stories are. In fact, if you have been following along in the chat, one of our previous storytellers, Sherwan, was actually saying that he was someone who debriefed Moses actually when Moses was coming to Syria. So giving him the background on the situation and helping prepare him for his work there and . Aactually told Moses like, "Oh, you can drive by where my mom lives and say hello." This sort of beautiful real-time discovery of these interconnected stories in really concrete ways, but then also just thematically the number of people who were helped by ...

I feel like Moses's story just really hit home so concretely how he stated literally without MSF, I would probably be dead, like some of his siblings. How that experience of having MSF there for people in those darkest and most life-threatening moments, becomes part of this movement that continues onwards. I feel like a lot of times we think about it and talk about it in terms of that ripple effect, the ways in which that kind of care and commitment to restoring health and dignity just continues to ripple outwards, because of these incredible people, like these incredible storytellers and thee folks who work for MSF and also the people like you, audience members and other supporters and people who are just committed, whether just financially or because you care and you want to share these stories, you want to witness these stories.

I hope that you, like I am, and like I think ... I've been watching the chat behind the scenes, too. We're all feeling so inspired by these stories. I want to thank these incredible storytellers for ... I hope you'll join me in thanking them for being willing to, again, be willing to go to some of the most difficult, challenging and darkest places that they have had to survive and live through. Not just revisit those, but to craft these stories. It's such an incredible gift.

I want to thank Malsore. I want to thank Kamate. I want to thank Sherwan. I want to thank Julie. I want to thank Moses. I also want to thank you, as audience members, for witnessing these stories and I hope for carrying these stories out into the world and sharing what you've heard here. If you're motivated to get more involved with Doctors Without Borders, you can read a lot more about what's happening in these situations that some of our storytellers are coming from, have lived through and are still helping others with.

If we didn't get to a question you asked or weren't able to uplift a comment you made, know that they're still deeply appreciated. You can also stay in touch and stay connected. You can email us at You can also visit our website, in the US that's and the international site is You can also follow us on all the social medias. There's LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok. There's a million other things now. It's too many things, but follow us on them. Thank you so much. Again, my name is Onmnesha. It's been such a delight to be a part of bringing these stories to you today. I hope you have a wonderful, wonderful day

Meet the speakers

Malsore Biba

Malsore Biba (Kosovo/Switzerland/Guatemala) is a health promotion and community activities manager who currently works in an MSF migration project in Guatemala. Before coming to MSF she worked in refugee camps in Burundi and Jordan with another nongovernmental organization and volunteered in a local institution in Geneva with asylum seekers.

Bonnet Kamate Kihugo

Bonnet Kamate Kihugo (Democratic Republic of Congo/Uganda) is an MSF logistics manager who has worked in Uganda—including as part of MSF's response to the 2022 Ebola emergency—South Sudan, Cameroon, and Niger. He is currently an urban refugee in Uganda, where he lives with his family. 

Julie Papango

Julie Papango (Philippines/USA) is a clinical laboratory scientist from the Philippines. She has helped set up MSF laboratories in Cambodia, Uganda, Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. In 2016, Julie immigrated to New York and currently works as a traveling lab scientist at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. 

Sherwan Qasem

Sherwan Qasem (Syria/Netherlands) is an emergency officer currently based in MSF's office in Amsterdam. Originally from Syria, he was forced to take refuge in Turkey in 2012. He began working with MSF in Turkey as a translator. After this, he worked in a number of roles, including as a project coordinator for MSF's medical projects in Syria and Turkey, until migrating to the Netherlands in 2017.

Moses Simon Soro

Moses Simon Soro (South Sudan/UK/Nigeria) is a finance and human resources manager based in the UK. He is currently on assignment with MSF in Nigeria.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri

The event will be hosted by Onnesha Roychoudhuri, a writer, speaker, and educator who has worked with MSF for seven years. She is the author of The Marginalized Majority: Claiming Our Power in a Post-Truth America, a Kirkus Best Book of the Year.