“Positive stories” is a theme I don’t generally get to talk about.
As the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, most of my work is focused on responding to crises and supporting aid workers as they seek to ease the suffering of tens of millions of people. They help innocent people who have had their lives turned upside down by persecution or conflict but go on to demonstrate real resilience.
One of the lessons I’ve learned in my travels is that people don’t need much to turn their lives around. A well-designed program run by organizations that are staffed by smart, compassionate professionals, can have a catalytic effect, saving and sustaining lives.
Let’s start with a story about the amazing ability of children to bounce back. They can survive the worst and go on to grow and thrive. The story of baby Minaj turned me into a convert to the miracle of Plumpy’Nut, the nutritional supplement made from peanut paste that many aid agencies use to feed starving children.
In July 2011, as Somalis fled famine, Minaj’s mother brought him to Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp where his tiny, skeletal body was examined by the medical staff. Only 7 months old, and on the brink of death, the shocking photograph of this emaciated baby in international media made him the face of the famine — a living example of the pain so many children were enduring. Through the use of this supplement, provided by dedicated humanitarians, Minaj was brought back to health, and soon came to resemble any other chubby-cheeked baby his age. Today, thousands of children are returning from the brink of starvation in the same way — each one an example of how timely aid can save lives, even under adverse conditions.
More recently, I traveled to Kenya and visited the Heshima safe house in Nairobi. It was a hive of happy activity populated by refugee girls and adorable young children. This Kenyan nongovernmental organization has been supported by our bureau for the last six years. It offers a sanctuary for young women and girls who have fled dangerous situations and are orphaned or separated from family. Some are already mothers and need a safe place for themselves and their infants. In addition to keeping them fed, clothed and sheltered, Heshima also educates them and passes along life skills.
Some of the residents learn to make beautiful scarves to earn money. You can see (and purchase) their wares on Etsy. At Heshima, a girl or young woman who has lost her home, and maybe also her family, is given a chance to start again. They are eager to make a fresh start in the shadow of a difficult past.
On a day devoted to learning more about reproductive health programs in Burkina Faso, I visited a site of real salvation: the Rama Foundation recovery center for women and girls ravaged by obstetric fistula. Girls develop obstetric fistula because they give birth before their bodies are ready. Every year, 2 million girls under age 14 become mothers. At the recovery center, I heard heartbreaking stories about being abandoned by husbands and families, and met women who had suffered for decades. The Rama Foundation arranges surgery, and gives women a place to stay, learn a trade and rebuild their lives.
It would be very hard to do my job if I were not also continually inspired by the people I’ve met in my travels. A healthy baby brought back from the brink of death. Girls who have grown up much too soon getting a second chance to learn, play and have a future. Women, rejected and abandoned, receiving needed medical attention that heals their bodies and gives them dignity and their rightful place in society. These are the positive stories that keep me, and people involved in humanitarian work around the world, motivated and convinced that a little bit of help can rescue lives — time and time again.
Anne C. Richard is the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration since April 2012. Her bureau's mission is to provide protection, ease suffering, and resolve the plight of persecuted and uprooted people around the world on behalf of the American people.
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