Ethiopian Humanitarian and CNN Hero Ensures Medical Supplies Reach People Affected By Conflicts

In the Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan, donated medical supplies are vital to the survival of thousands of Tigrayan refugees who fled their homes in Ethiopia due to war. More than 2,000 miles away, Ukrainians who’ve fled their homes due to the Russian attack on Ukraine have similar emergency needs.

Ethiopian humanitarian Freweini Mebrahtu, born and raised in the northern region of Tigray, has joined forces with SOS International to deliver donated medical supplies to health facilities around the world.

Mebrahtu stands by for the final closure of a recent shipping container of supplies to the Um Rakuba refugee camp. Photos courtesy of SOS, Mebrahtu.

SOS is accredited by The Task Force’s MedSurplus Alliance (MSA) which is the only cross-sector, multidisciplinary alliance working to improve access to quality donated medical supplies, equipment and medicine through program standards, accreditation and initiatives.

When medical supplies or food arrives to refugee camps and relief areas like Um Rakuba for humanitarian crises, “the impact is so immediate,” said Mebrahtu.

Sprawling two kilometers across flat, arid land in eastern Sudan, the Um Rakuba refugee camp has two health facilities and a COVID-19 isolation center that serves more than 19,000 refugees who have been fleeing violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region since 2020. With temperatures surpassing 38 degrees celsius (100 degrees fahrenheit) in Sudan and nothing but tents for shelters, the camp exposes residents to immense health challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mebrahtu said “from something as simple as gauze to as complex as ultrasound machines” the donated supplies make all the difference for people there.

Mebrahtu has a unique perspective on this work: she is both a Tigray native and a women’s activist. Trained as a chemical engineer, she earned CNN’s Hero of the Year award in 2019 for contributions to empowering Ethiopian women and girls. She founded an all-women organization in Ethiopia that manufactured reusable feminine hygiene pads which she designed to build dignity around women’s periods. Lack of menstruation support and supplies can drive girls to drop out of school, with a reported 1 in 10 girls in Ethiopia missing school for reasons related to their periods, a figure that in some rural areas increases almost 50%.

The year after receiving the award, everything changed. Not only did 2020 usher in the pandemic but violence in Tigray ignited a war, leaving more than one million people internally displaced and forcing another 60,000 to flee the country thus far. This is compounded by Ethiopia’s worst drought in 40 years with below average rainfall for the last four rainy seasons.

We can do better than this. The world can do better than this. There are enough supplies. There is enough money. Each person has to do their part whether it is one dollar or one hour of your time to volunteer with organizations like SOS. We’re talking about survival, and people are forgetting about being true human beings.”

Responding to the health challenges caused by these crises, SOS works with the Health Professional Network for Tigray (HPN4Tigray) to ensure that health facilities have the supplies they need to provide quality services to residents. SOS has sent approximately 1,000 boxes of critically needed medical supplies to the camp. A recent SOS shipping container of supplies sponsored by HPN4Tigray included food and nutrition emergency supplies in addition to medical equipment. Currently, supplies are only able to reach the region’s surrounding relief areas like Um Rakuba, and SOS and HPN4Tigray work closely with the refugees and staff in Um Rakuba who manage the donations when they arrive at the camp.

Thanks to medical surplus recovery organizations like SOS, unused medical supplies and equipment of high quality that would otherwise be discarded can be diverted from landfills to be used where most needed. MSA’s accreditation helps ensure that the donations are ethically donated and delivered.

Since the war started, Mebrahtu’s feminine hygiene organization has closed, the instability forced her to leave Ethiopia for the U.S., and she has lost contact with many of the women she supported through her organization. Her sadness about the situation is evident even through a Zoom call.

“I feel hopeless,” said Mebrahtu. “The last two years have been the most devastating. I eat, but I’m not hungry.”

However Mebrahtu isn’t giving up. She remains committed to helping people affected by humanitarian crises.

Emergency support in Ukraine and neighboring countries due to the Russian attacks are eerily similar to the situation in Tigray, Mebrahtu said. The instability and violence has caused immense needs and matching up donated supplies with the supplies requested is an essential step to ensuring that donations have the biggest impact. MSA members are hard at work supporting the areas in and around Ukraine, working with partners to equip those on the ground with the items they need to provide care.

As an SOS Humanitarian Ambassador, Mebrahtu’s passion focuses on raising awareness about the immediate impacts and needs of humanitarian crises like the wars in Ethiopia and Ukraine, along with the opportunities to help through efforts like those by the medical surplus recovery organizations.

“We can do better than this,” said Mebrahtu. “The world can do better than this. There are enough supplies. There is enough money. Each person has to do their part whether it is one dollar or one hour of your time to volunteer with organizations like SOS. We’re talking about survival, and people are forgetting about being true human beings.”

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