Stories from MSF aid workers about lives uprooted

MSF aid workers share their own personal stories of displacement, solidarity, and resilience.

Camps of internally displaced people in and around Goma

Democratic Republic of Congo 2023 © Michael Neuman/MSF

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, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hosted a virtual storytelling event on June 15 to spotlight aid workers who have themselves experienced displacement, migration, and life on the move.  

Below, we offer a glimpse of their stories of anxiety, grief, hope, and, ultimately, solidarity, as we contemplate the real experiences of people forced from home. 

Malsore Biba: Escaping war as a child and embracing solidarity

Malsore Biba © MSF

Malsore Biba, a health promoter and community activities manager for MSF, shared her childhood story of escaping the war in Yugoslavia.

In December 1991, her family made the difficult decision to flee Kosovo for Geneva to seek safety from persecution and violence. 

“My uncle was put in jail because he was speaking out for Albanians’ rights in Kosovo,” she said. “It hadn’t come to Kosovo yet, but in other parts. It was quite tense, and we decided to leave.” 

Life in Geneva for Malsore's family felt like a suspended state. “My parents wanted to be invisible,” she said. “I could perceive this in them. And these 10 first years that we had in Geneva, our lives were put in parenthesis. I remember we were always waiting for the situation to get back better, we were in this in-between space, like a limbo state.” 

Amidst the fear of an impending war and ethnic cleansing they often gathered at her uncle's place to watch the news, hoping for positive developments. Malsore and her family would continue to visit Kosovo when it felt safe, but as the war escalated, the farewell rituals with her extended family became increasingly emotional, with no certainty of when and if they would meet again. 

Solidarity became a crucial source of strength for Malsore’s family. They were always helping other families, assisting a refugee relative to escape a camp or providing food and shelter to others in need.  

This solidarity was a common theme in Malsore's life. She has worked in refugee camps in Burundi and Jordan and volunteered with asylum seekers in Geneva. Currently, she is involved in an MSF migration project in Guatemala, where she witnesses the experiences of migrants passing through the border. She recalled the story of a young man who witnessed horrors during his treacherous journey through the Darien Gap.  

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A few days ago [a young guy] started to tell me about his experience in Darien Forest," she said. "It's a place between Colombia and Panama. It's a very tough moment of the route from south 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 [this], no one can handle this. No one should be going through this."

Malsore knows firsthand that migration can be very traumatic. “People trying to escape often experience sexual violence, assault, and kidnappings," she said. "Solidarity is very strong in this context...They get together to protect each other. Sometimes they don't even speak the same language. I was told once about this woman who had hurt her leg in this forest and some guys started carrying her. They just saved her life.” 

Many of the individuals that Malsore encounters in her work with MSF are trapped in the immigration process, still in limbo, and yearning for safety and the restoration of their dignity.

Bonnet Kamate Kihugo: From fleeing conflict to empowering others

Bonnet Kamate Kihugo © MSF

Bonnet Kamate Kihugo 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.  

“I grew up in Zaire during the Mobutu regime in the current DR Congo,” said Bonnet. “I had never experienced any war, but in October of 1996, I had to flee from Goma where I was living with my wife and three children. When the bombs started to fall, 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.” 

He decided to go with his neighbor in search of safety in hopes that his family had gone that way too. They traveled hundreds of miles together. “We had to pass through many villages and checkpoints,” he said. “If they did not approve of your tribe or you spoke the wrong language, you could be killed.” 

Unfortunately for Kihugo, he was part of a tribe that was not welcome.  

“In many villages, people with money were also robbed and killed on the road,” he said. “It was just by chance that I was able to pass.” 

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.

Bonnet Kamate Kihugo, MSF logistician and refugee

He crossed into Uganda where he found refuge in a church. 

“It was not easy. I took many small jobs, moving boxes for businesspeople. That's how I survived and continued to look for my family. Someone told me that my family went back home. knew I needed to go get my family, but it was difficult. We had no communication, no funds.” He succeeded in bringing them to safety, but all five of them were forced to share a one-room living space.   

“After taking some small jobs and studying English, I got a job with MSF and was sent to South Sudan,” he said. “In South Sudan, I worked to identify displaced people and give them supplies for cooking blankets or 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.”  

Kihugo continues to work for MSF and is able to do so with compassion for others due to his own harrowing experiences.  

“If you have a job, you pay school fees for your kids,” he said. “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.

Sherwan Qasem: A twice-displaced journalist becomes a humanitarian advocate

Sherwan Qasem © MSF

Sherwan Qasem is an emergency officer currently based in MSF's office in Amsterdam. Originally from Syria, he was forced to take refuge in Turkey (Türkiye) in 2012.

He began working with MSF in Türkiye 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 Türkiye, until migrating to the Netherlands in 2017. 

While pursuing a career in journalism, Sherwan’s life drastically changed when the civil war broke out. “Syria is a very diverse country,” Sherwan said. “Normally, this diversity meant colorfulness; it meant beautifulness; it meant harmony. But that harmony suddenly turned into a civil war.” 

He was forced to leave his neighborhood in Damascus when he was threatened, like many Syrians, because of the complications of the civil war. As a journalist, he was also at risk, since many of his colleagues were disappearing. 

“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. That's a part of my job working with MSF but when you try to open up and to share your own personal story, it's really not easy. Sometimes you feel something is stuck, but I will go on.” 

Working with all those people who I am part of—we shared the feeling of displacement together.

Sherwan Qasem, MSF emergency officer

Sherwan’s second displacement occurred after he returned to his hometown in Syria and found he was not safe there as a journalist. He decided to cross the border into Turkey, where he tried to stay in touch with people back home. 

“I called a friend of mine, and someone picked up and said that my friend had a bullet in his shoulder. A sniper who was on the corner thought that he couldn't spare his life. He didn't die, but at that moment I was told he's between death and life, and I decided I can't stay without doing any action, I can't enjoy my own safety while the situation is really hard there.” 

It was through chance that he encountered MSF personnel in Istanbul and decided to join them despite the personal safety risks.  

“I started working with MSF as a translator and project coordinator. Later on, I started dealing with my Syrian brothers and sisters who had to escape. In 2014, more than million refugees crossed in [to Turkey]. Working with all those people who I am part of—we shared the feeling of displacement together.” 

He later moved to Amsterdam, where he was looking forward to a new beginning.  

“Moving to Amsterdam was a new start, new language, new society, new community,” he said. “But 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 kept my life quite stable and strict, which was my father.” 

His father, who was still in Syria, fell down from a roof while he was trying to fix something in preparation for winter.  

I know that my projects saved a lot of lives, but at the same time, I couldn't save my own father’s life.

Sherwan Qasem, MSF emergency officer

“I was panicking,” Sherwan said. “I was sad. Then I decided I had to do something. I went to Iraq and from Iraq I crossed to northeast Syria under Kurdish self-administration.” There, he was able to bury his father and spend time with his mother. Unfortunately, he had to leave again and fly back to Amsterdam while thinking every minute of his mother, who couldn’t move with him. 

“That was one of the most difficult moments working for MSF all these years,” he said. “I know that my projects saved a lot of lives, but at the same time, I couldn't save my own father’s life.” 

Sherwan is still based in Amsterdam, where he is now pursuing a graduate degree in genocide studies. “I'm trying to study how genocides are planned, organized, and performed to […] somehow, in the future, avoid them or at least deal with them in a better way.” 

Moses Simon Soro: “I made a promise to myself and to my family that I would like to serve humanity.” 

Moses Simon Soro © Radio Tamazuj

Moses Simon Soro, was born in southern Sudan (in what is now South Sudan) during the Sudanese Civil War. Eventually he and his family were forced to flee to Uganda as refugees, where they arrived in a desolate bush without proper shelter. 

MSF's intervention provided tents and set up a dispensary, offering lifesaving treatment to Moses and many others for preventable diseases like malaria and cholera

“I made a promise to myself and to my family,” he said, “that one day when I grow up, when I finish studies, I would love to be a part of it myself and I would like to serve humanity.” 

Moses pursued higher education in the UK and returned to South Sudan, working in various positions, including commissioner and state minister of finance. However, as the civil war persisted and people faced further displacement, Moses chose to resign from his position and went on to pursue a master's degree in human resource management so that he could work for MSF in some capacity.  

Following his studies, Moses joined MSF as a finance and human resource manager, working in Syria on projects focused on non-communicable diseases and treating tuberculosis in detention centers for fighters. Drawing from his own experience as a refugee, he shared messages of hope with the Syrians he worked with, assuring them that their circumstances would improve.  

Moses has a particularly sentimental attachment to Plumpy’Nut, a therapeutic food provided by MSF during his own recovery.  

“I told my colleagues, this is the thing that saved me too. Without the Plumpy’Nut I would have been dead.” 

Julie Papango: Navigating borders and gender identity

Julie Papango © MSF

Julie Papango is a clinical laboratory scientist from the Philippines. Julie 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 in at the children's hospital in Los Angeles. She is also a transgender woman.  

In 2009, she was assigned to set up a tuberculosis laboratory in Central Asia, but before starting her project, she had to go through briefings in Hong Kong and Geneva. On the immigration line in Hong Kong, she encountered difficulties due to the gender marker on her passport not matching her appearance. 

“So there I was, my first time traveling international waters, carrying only 20 pounds of luggage, kisses from my parents and tons of anxiety,” she said. “I was in the immigration line for passport control, still excited. When it was my turn to face the immigration officer, I gave my passport and with a weak, but very genuine smile, I gave it to him. The immigration officer looked 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, and after a few minutes he came back with an equally stern-looking man. 

“I suddenly felt the void of the airport. The only thing I could hear was the thump of the immigration officer's steps and the constricted breathing in between my chest.” 

She found herself detained in a small room with a metal chair, grey walls, and a metal desk—very much like an interrogation room. 

“I was asked 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 your bank account? Why is your passport saying male, but you are female?” 

Access to properly medically transition is as essential as access to safe passage. A clinical laboratory scientist like me is as vulnerable as a sex worker in Asia or a queer asylum seeker in Africa or Latin America.

Julie Papango, MSF clinical laboratory scientist

She reassured them she was working for MSF, and that she didn’t have any friends or family where she was going—it was strictly for work.  

“There was no way for them to confirm with the MSF Hong Kong office that I was really a volunteer expat. So, at that point, I was scared because I didn’t know if I would be deported back to the Philippines.” Eventually, they released her on her journey.  

It was then she realized that having the gender marker discrepancy on her passport was a constant threat when dealing with immigration officers. To avoid future complications, she adjusted her appearance to match the gender on her passport when going through immigration checkpoints. 

Julie faced another challenge in Juba, South Sudan, when applying for a visa to Ethiopia. Due to a misunderstanding during the interview process, her visa application was ultimately rejected, and the visa was physically removed from her passport. The experience was emotionally distressing for Julie, as it undermined her identity and highlighted the difficulties people can face if the gender marker on their ID documents does not match the gender in which they present.   

These challenges are harrowing, especially in a world where transgender women are often killed for being who they are. Julie continues to do this work at great risks to her safety, while recognizing her own privileges as an educated transgender woman who has had access to gender-affirming care. 

My love/hate relationship with the letter "M"

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“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, and I always told the people at MSF headquarters, I'm ready to go everywhere.” 

She also acknowledges that as a clinical laboratory scientist, she has certain privileges. 

“I'm aware that I still carry some privileges. I have a good education. I was able to medically transition. I have developed network both professionally and personally.” 

Unfortunately, transgender, queer, and gender non-conforming people are not often given such opportunities.  

“What my experience has told me is that access to properly medically transition is as essential as access to safe passage. A clinical laboratory scientist like me is as vulnerable as a sex worker in Asia or a queer asylum seeker in Africa or Latin America.” 

Julie's relationship with the letter "M" on her ID documents represents the complexities and challenges she encounters as she navigates different environments and cultures while working with MSF.