Sometimes humanitarian work happens by accident. When nurse Niamh McGarry-Gribbin was on a last-minute vacation on the Greek island of Kos with her civil partner in 2015, they hired a car to explore the old town.
But what they found was unexpected. They came across hundreds of Syrian refugees, camping out in the streets wherever they could find space. Some had tents and shelter from the hot sun, but many did not. Nobody was begging or harassing tourists, they were just living outside in a peaceful manner, waiting to be registered at the local police station. One girl Niamh met was 15-year-old Waad, a girl who travelled from Syria on a dinghy after her parents were killed.
The couple decided to abandon their vacation plans and help the thousands of families who had risked their lives sailing from war-torn Syria to Greece during the biggest migration crisis in living memory.
At first, the couple tried to offer two mothers surrounded by children money. They refused it. So they decided to start raising money in their home country so they could buy supplies.
They want to supply bottled water, fresh fruit, food, toiletries and sanitary products. The extent of the facilities the couple witness was two portable toilets and access to a hose nearby. They decided to spend the rest of their two-week vacation trying to help the refugees.
Niamh has been a nurse for 27 years, and not works full-time campaigning for the elderly. They hopes to raise money and continue to deliver aid through a local contact, and said that it was well worth helping the refugees and giving up her vacation.
Around the same time, 11 Syrian refugees died off the Kos coast trying to reach safety, and over 2,500 died that year fleeing the violence, oppression and persecution.
The Ugandan Diaspora Nurse
Miriam Namulindwa Aligawesa also fell into humanitarian work when she realized the benefits of organizational partnerships.
Miriam is a nurse who I moved to the UK in 1998 to join her family after primary school. She became a registered mental health nurse through hard work and study, and began working in multiculturally diverse crisis and intensive care inpatient mental health services.
She became interested reducing inequalities and in the impact of cultural beliefs and views on health and illness. She explored these issues in an MSc degree in medical anthropology at University College London in 2012, while working.
Focusing on the integration of traditional healing systems with biomedical approaches used by mental health services in Uganda, she started to contribute to mental health services within her community in Uganda and the UK.
Getting The Ball Rolling
Miriam began to kickstart her interesting work when she got involved in a partnership between the East London NHS Foundation Trust and Butabika National Referral Hospital in Uganda.
While she was in Uganda in July, 2011 doing field work for her dissertation, she co-facilitated an evaluation of part of a capacity-building project in Eastern Uganda undertaken by the Butabika-East London link.
Afterwards, she got involved in establishing the Uganda Diaspora Health Foundation (UDHF). It aims to integrate the expertise of UK-based Ugandan health professionals and to reduce health care inequalities in Britain and Uganda.
Many of their members had been involved in the Butabika Link, and felt a formal diaspora group would provide greater opportunities for involvement and leadership.
In order to acknowledge the importance of addressing broader interrelated physical and social health care needs, the group has expanded to include a wide range of health professionals and members with difference skills within the two countries.
One of the projects Miriam has been promoting within UDHF is the prevention of non- communicable diseases (NCDs) among people with mental health problems in Uganda.
Globally, people experiencing mental health face stigma, which hinders their access to physical health and wellbeing. Barriers, including social exclusion and negative attitudes to mental health problems, lead to increased rates of physical illness compared to the general population. This can lead to premature death and reduced healthy life expectancy.
This increased morbidity and mortality is associated with the fragmentation of physical and mental health care, as well as the effects of psychotrophic medication, and related behaviors like smoking and a lack of physical activity.
Shaping Strategy, Building Capacity
Miriam coordinated and facilitated an educational awareness initiative in February, 2014, in collaboration with C3 (Collaborating for Health), Uganda Non-Communicable Disease Alliance, Heartsounds Uganda and Butabika Hospital.
She brought together organizations from Uganda and the UK to shape the physical health strategy for a mental health hospital in Uganda and bring knowledge back to the UK.
The workshop had 65 participants, including both nurses and mental health service users, such as peer support workers from Heartsounds Uganda, recovering inpatients, allied mental health professionals and student nurses.
This was part of a developing program used to develop the work carried out through existing initiatives, and raises awareness and builds capacity for the prevention of NCDs. It focuses on individuals and families affected by mental illness. The workshop met the needs of nurses and peer support workers to understand the problem of NCDs and the opportunities for nurses, health workers and peer support workers to help prevent them. Read the project report here.
The rewards of global health work
Miriam´s involvement in global health work has improved her confidence, leadership, project management, public speaking and facilitation skills.
She has become more aware of the complexities of navigating a project with various parties from different backgrounds, organizations and health systems. They all have different goals! She has enhanced her sense of belonging in the professional communities she´s work in, and within global mental health and nursing.
As a diaspora nurse, she works between and within local needs of service users, mental health workers, Uganda hospital management and the Ugandan Ministry of Health, writing projects, presenting at conferences and evaluating work through research or service evaluation projects.
She hopes that her involvement has influenced and will hopefully continue to motivate other diaspora nurses to get involved in initiatives in their home countries and with UK-based organizations.