Nurses without borders: Stories from around the world

From Sudan to Afghanistan, Haiti to Palestine—nurses are an integral part of our teams worldwide. These are their stories.

An MSF nurse and patient sit on a hospital bed with a newborn baby in Aweil, South Sudan.

South Sudan 2023 © Oliver Barth/MSF

More than 10,000 nurses work with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) projects worldwide, making up the majority of our force of health care professionals providing critical services to people amid crises of all kinds. In honor of National Nurses Week, we're highlighting the vital role nurses play in our projects around the world, from war zones to places struck by natural disasters and weather events caused by climate change. Here are their stories. 

Central Mediterranean Sea


Niamh Burke is an Irish nurse aboard MSF’s rescue ship, Geo Barents, in the Central Mediterranean. In May last year, she described a rescue months prior. 

In near total darkness on the first evening of 2023, we approached a flimsy craft bobbing on the dangerous waves of the Central Mediterranean, many miles from the safety of shore. 

From my position at the bow of one of the two MSF high-speed rescue boats, it was hard to see how many people were onboard. I wondered what condition they may be in; likely hungry, tired, and traumatized as well as soaked with sea spray in the ocean winds.

The narrow aluminum boat was very unstable as it rocked with the current, keeling to one side when people moved around. Suddenly, it capsized, plunging 41 people into the dark January sea. 

Straight away we started working to get the people out of the water. After much effort with inflatables and hands outstretched under our spotlights, everyone made it safely into the rescue boats. We immediately turned to hand everyone over to the Geo Barents, MSF’s dedicated search and rescue vessel, before returning to commence our search, looking between fuel jerrycans and other debris for any missing survivors. 

Finally, everyone was accounted for. Back on the Geo Barents, the rest of our team as on deck triaging and making sure people who needed medical attention received it first. We treated some survivors for hypothermia, but the outcome could have been much worse. It was very lucky that there were no more injuries or even drownings. 

That rescue operation—my first as part of an MSF search and rescue team—showed me just how precarious the situation facing people making the desperate journey across the Mediterranean is.

Photo credit: Mediterranean Sea 2022 © Mahka Eslami

Read more about search and rescue in the Mediterranean >
Portraits of MSF team-Rotation 20

Conakry, Guinea


Aïcha Camara is a nurse working with MSF's HIV project in Conakry, Guinea. She shared the testimony below in September 2023. 

I joined Conakry’s HIV project at its inception in 2003. At first, I would do at-home HIV testing. I had to stop traveling to patients’ homes by car because they were worried that their neighbors would discover they had potentially contracted the virus. I have personally witnessed levels of stigma fall in this country and watched knowledge about HIV grow amongst the population.

Photo credit: Guinea 2023 © Namsa Leuba

Read more about the HIV project in Guinea >
A woman against purple background

Abyei Special Administrative Area


Nur Mawein is a nurse activity manager at Ameth Bek Hospital in Abyei, a region claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. He shared the testimony below in November 2023.

I went to Sudan with my family when I was only 4 years old. It was 1986 and the civil war was terrible at that time, we were refugees. I was born in Abyei, near the oil fields in the north. 

MSF really helps people by engaging with the communities. Having the hospital means a lot to the community. People feel safe there. But simply having a hospital is not enough—it is having a hospital that runs well and serves everyone.

Hospitals mean so much to the community. A good example is when violence broke out in Agok last year, and the hospital was not damaged or looted. Nobody touched it because it is too important to everyone. But we as a team were forced to close the Agok hospital and we handed over management to the Ministry of Health. At first, we tried to keep the hospital open while it was safe to commute to it. But the violence kept getting worse and fighting came very close, so MSF did a security assessment and made the decision to stop operations in the hospital.  

I have spent my whole career with MSF, and I am very grateful for the experience. One thing that I will always remember was at the beginning of my career. We had to transfer a patient to Khartoum. On the northern border of Abyei, we transferred the patient to another vehicle that had come from Khartoum. I had to stay overnight at a guest house. When I walked into the compound wearing my MSF T-shirt, all of the aid workers warmly greeted me. “Wow,” they said, “You must be good at your job, you must be a hard worker to be working with MSF.” I was so surprised and very happy. They made me very welcome, and I felt very proud. I’ll never forget that moment.

Photo credit: South Sudan 2023 © Sean Sutton/Panos Pictures

Read more about MSF's team in Abyei >
Ameth Bek Hospital - Abyei

Gaza, Palestine


Mohammad shared the testimony below on October 31, 2023, when he was working at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, Palestine, which has since been destroyed

The situation inside Al-Shifa is unbelievable. Every day, every hour, every moment—we receive casualties. Hundreds of casualties every day. 

When people first come to the hospital, we receive them in the triage room. We try to stop the bleeding, cover the wounds, and keep them alive. Most of the patients are children and women. The types of wounds are unbelievable: shrapnel wounds on their faces, all over their bodies; bones exposed; internal bleeding after being under the rubble for hours; deep burns—40 to 70 percent of the body. Most of the wounds are infected. It's terrifying to express.

We don't have enough supplies. We don't have enough material, like gauze and bandages, even medications. We don't have enough painkillers, so people are suffering while we're giving medical care. The intensive care unit is full of patients, so we’re treating patients on the floor. 

You work 24 hours, but the number of patients is so high you cannot keep up. Though, we keep going. I come back to the office in the evening to see my kids. I calm them down when they hear the bombing—especially at night. Some days I go to Al-Shifa without sleep after staying up all night calming them down. It's difficult. There are no words to express my feelings. 

But we are nurses and doctors, so we must be there at the front line. We cannot stay away and just watch, even if there is no guarantee of safety. It's a humanitarian job. We are strong enough to keep going, to keep giving our hands, our support. We are here to save lives. 

My only message is this: Enough is enough. We ask for a ceasefire. Stop killing civilians, stop killing children, stop killing innocent people. Protect the hospitals, protect the medical staff. That's it.

Photo credit: Palestine 2023 © MSF

Read more of Mohammad's story >
MSF nurse Mohammad Hawajreh treats a child at the burns clinic in Gaza.

Kunduz, Afghanistan


Diana Pereira de Sousa is a nurse who worked at the MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. She shared the reflections below in January 2023.

‘Can you come to the ER? It’s urgent.’ The call was from Boyd, one of our doctors. When I got there I saw some of our senior medics talking fast. Five burns patients had been rushed to the ER. 

In the red zone [where patients in critical condition are treated] there was a woman and four young children, all with second and third-degree burns. The complexity and severity of the burns required a higher level of care than we could offer. 

As we shared the plan with the ER team, another three patients arrived, also with severe burns. A man, a pregnant woman, and a 10-year-old child, unconscious.

Do you know what the most frightening thing is? Being in a resuscitation room with five children, four of them awake, with 30-50% of their bodies burned, and none of them crying. 

I could hear the staff talking. I could hear the rustling of the foil survival blankets. But I could not hear the patients themselves. Very few people like to hear a child cry, but in a hospital it can tell us a lot about their condition. 

Everything went so fast. In a few minutes we had all the patients on IV fluids and the first set of observations done. Around me, the red zone was full of people. We needed to make decisions, quickly. Together, we came up with a plan. 

Eventually, we learned what had happened. The family had gone to the home of a relative to offer their condolences after a burial ceremony. It was so cold that the gas cylinder froze, so they brought it into the house and placed it near a small heater to thaw. 

Some of the children were sleeping when the gas cylinder exploded, but they managed to get everyone out before the entire ceiling collapsed. They described what happened with tears in their eyes. 

Very sadly, the severity of his burns meant that the oldest child, a little boy of around 10 years old, passed away less than 36 hours after he was admitted. 

Despite the loss of our young patient, our team kept the faith. They worked incredibly hard to care for the other burns patients, including the little boy’s father and two sisters. Later I wrote in my diary… 

I'm very proud of the ER and ICU teams. They are a reflection of resilience and hard work. And this is really an incredible nursing challenge, particularly in nutritional and fluid assessment and management. I can say: they shone. 

Looking back, it is not easy to put into words how I feel about these patients. One of things I remember most was the first time Abdul laughed. It was two weeks after they were first admitted. Gradually we helped the children feel comfortable and built trust. One day, one of the nurses tried gently tickling Abbas, and was rewarded with a shy smile. She tickled Abdul, and we got the first genuine laugh we had heard. 

Suddenly the team was contagious with laughter and that moment gave us a boost of energy that everyone needs to keep up hard work. Those two weeks had been intense and uncertain, but hearing Abdul laugh, I felt that my chest was not big enough to hold all that joy. 

*All names have been changed

Read more about our work in Afghanistan >
Diana Pereira de Sousa, MSF nurse supervisor in Afghanistan.

Massakory, Chad


Soldongar Ngaro is a nurse specializing in treating malnourished children in Massakory, Chad. He gave the below testimony in August 2023.

The day before yesterday, I had a very difficult shift in intensive care. 

My shift started at 4:30 p.m. Our intensive care unit has five beds, and this is where we take care of the most seriously ill children. At the start of the shift, it was clear that there were three children on the unit who were particularly ill, including one baby only a few months old.

We gave them oxygen therapy, but with blockages in their lungs, it was difficult to know if that would be enough. Doctors had prescribed the relevant medications, but as night fell, the temperature of all three of these patients remained stubbornly high. 

As a medical team, we are here to help people, but sometimes God decides otherwise. It is part of the job, but it is essential that we remain professional and try to offer support or comfort to the grieving family. 

By the time I left work that evening, I was exhausted. But I am proud to do this work and to work for MSF. We cannot save every patient admitted to our hospital, but the community here knows that we will always do our best for them. 

When you ask someone in the villages where we work, they tell you, "Yes, MSF comes here, they offer care and therapeutic food, and if our children are sick, MSF sends them to the hospital and then brings them back." This trust is essential. 

A while ago, I was with some friends when a woman approached me. I didn't recognize her, but she recognized me. She explained to me that I had helped care for her child when he was very ill. She said her little boy is now home with the family, having made a full recovery. 

Medicine is not divine. We make all our efforts to provide good care and to have the supplies and materials we need in place. And sometimes that's enough.

Read more about our work in Chad >
Soldongar Ngaro, MSF nurse in Massakory, Chad

Port-au-Prince, Haiti


Claudia is an MSF nurse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She gave the below testimony in June 2023. The violence has since escalated.

Every day is unpredictable; this morning, for example, I arrived and everything went relatively smoothly. There were no problems on the road, it was just routine. Why did I say routine? Every time there's a bus on the Martissant road, we have to stop to give money to an armed group, and then they let us go. We shouldn't have to adapt to this kind of life, but unfortunately, we're in Haiti, trying to survive. 

I arrived at the emergency center at 7:45 a.m. and, as a nurse supervisor, I had to organize the day. Like all week, there were a lot of children in the waiting room, because we're overwhelmed with pediatric cases.

Access to health care in Port-au-Prince is difficult, and the cost of health care is high. When patients arrive at the Turgeau emergency center, they know they're going to receive free, high-quality care. It's a lot of work, but it's also a motivation for the team to stick together to help and support them. 

Since May [2023], Haiti has been facing an increase in cases of acute glomerulonephritis. This is a disease that affects the kidneys, following a throat infection or a poorly treated skin infection. 

When a child arrives with a probable case of acute glomerulonephritis, we can see that there is swelling of the face and limbs. There may also be lesions and pimples on the skin. When we check blood pressure, it's high in children aged between five and twelve. Sometimes they complain of a sore throat and often have a fever. Although we are a stabilization and referral center, it's difficult to find other medical facilities to refer these patients. We're overloaded, and parents often don't have the financial means to pay the fees demanded by the referral facilities. That's why the waiting room is so crowded. 

Here, we give our all to save lives. Every life is special, but there are people who take pleasure in killing, in hurting others, so it's horrible. Not just me, but the whole team, is committed to providing care to those who need it most. We save lives and that gives us a lot of satisfaction every day. 

Photo credit: Haiti 2023 © Tim Shenk/MSF

Read more of Claudia's story >
Claudia, MSF nurse in Haiti.