Thursday, December 26, 2013

South Sudan Trip Cut Short - Back in the U.S.

Hello to everyone (or jambo as they say in Kenya, where I just returned from),

I arrived back in the U.S. last night.  Flights out of Nairobi, Kenya were difficult to get.  I was lucky because the airline didn’t charge me for changing my flight from January to December.  Delta waived the fee for travelers affected by the conflict in South Sudan.

By now, I’m sure that most of you have noticed South Sudan’s situation in the news.  I saw that NBC Nightly News and other major news agencies have been covering it.  President Obama has made statements, as has the U.S. representative to the United Nations, Samantha Power.  A few stories on the continuing conflict are here:

The Sudan Tribune has some good updates, also Twitter (#southsudan #southsudancrisis #juba are some good hash tags to search).

The Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP) has pulled all volunteers out of South Sudan.  We chartered private small planes from Kenya directly to the village of Old Fangak, in Jonglei State, where ASMP works, and back to Nairobi, Kenya.  Other volunteers and I were in a holding pattern in Nairobi for several days waiting to see if we could go in after all, or if the violence would get worse.  UN Peacekeepers from India were killed last week during an attack on a UN compound, and an American plane was shot at while trying to land in Bor, South Sudan and 4 U.S. military members were wounded in the incident.  It’s been a stressful past couple weeks, and I feel great sorrow for the people of South Sudan.  Their 2.5-year-old country has so much promise (The Economist magazine named it as one of their finalists for “Country of the Year 2013” due to its impressive economic growth). 

While there is no way of knowing how this will progress and when nonprofit organizations, Embassy staff, and aid groups will return to the country, I wanted to emphasize to those who donated to ASMP through my fundraising project, it was not in vain!  ASMP has been at work this year since October in the village of Old Fangak, and this money was able to go toward multiple projects that were completed before ASMP evacuated.  During the 2013 building season (October-December), the following was accomplished, thanks to donors' generous support:
  • Five water wells were drilled.  In the previous two years, one and two wells were drilled respectively.  This large increase in productivity was due to new drilling equipment, personnel, and the generous support of donors.  Each well costs around $5,000 to complete, including the well casing, pump, pipe, personnel, etc.
  • The foundation for the new tuberculosis clinic was substantially progressed.  The foundation is being built out of concrete and steel.
  • Some repairs were made to the main health center.
  • ASMP’s agriculture project made great leaps forward this year.  The farmers participating in ASMP’s micro loan and farmer training program had a good harvest, ensuring food security this season (main crops are sorghum and maize).  Notably, several women are participating in the program.
  • Numbers of those suffering from Kala-azar are lower this year in the village.  This parasitic disease that is spread by mosquitoes normally affects the very young and the very old, and is a debilitating, deadly sickness.  The reasons for the low numbers of infections are unknown at this time.  It could just be part of a multiple year cycle, or due to increased education and work by ASMP in this issue.
  • Two medical incinerators were purchased.
  • Volleyball equipment, cotton balls, syringes, tuberculosis medicine, and various other medical supplies were purchased.
  • Many of Dr. Jill Seaman’s local South Sudanese staff (around 60 individuals) were sent away to training and school to increase their knowledge in public health and medicine.
  • Three South Sudanese men were trained in well-drilling and how to repair the wells.
I was able to meet and spend substantial time with this year’s ASMP volunteers, most of whom had already been in South Sudan for 6-8 weeks when I arrived.  It was wonderful to hear about Old Fangak and ASMP's work from these people.  There is substantial need there, but also lots of progress.  Dr. Jill Seaman (who has worked in South Sudan and this village for over 20 years) has been evacuated (pretty unwillingly) to Nairobi also, but is standing by to return as soon as the violence calms.  If ASMP continues to operate in South Sudan, I will definitely be returning.  My experience in Africa was amazing and cemented in me the fact that I want to volunteer there and be a part of ASMP.  

The volunteers that work in this region are gifted, selfless, and generous... I met David who works as a peony farmer in the summer outside of Anchorage, and for 3 months a year in South Sudan with ASMP.  Elyse is an EMT in Colorado currently and spends 3 months per year in the village with ASMP taking care of everything from cancer to tuberculosis to snake bites.  Denny is a construction worker most of the year in Anchorage and spends 1-2 months annually in South Sudan.  Rob works for a contractor for oil companies in Alaska most of the year, and this is his fourth year volunteering with ASMP.  They all had to return to the U.S. earlier than expected, like me. 

I will keep you all updated on developments for ASMP and South Sudan.  I still have hope that this crisis can come under control, or at least stabilize, and ASMP can get back to work.

Here is a photo of Patrick, a Kenyan who works for ASMP as a well driller.  One of the nicest people I've met, with a real heart for helping others.  He's sporting one of our team shirts.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I have my South Sudan visa! Countdown to trip: one month

My trip to South Sudan with the Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP) is fast approaching!  I will be there December 15 - January 11 doing public health work in the village of Old Fangak, South Sudan.  This week I took another step closer to the trip; I applied for and received my visa to travel to South Sudan!

ASMP Program Director Jason Hahn is already in Nairobi and has been coordinating the arrival of building materials for the health clinic and other supplies, many of which were donated by Alaskans (bicycles, medical supplies, medicine, watering cans for the agriculture project, canoes...) 

Boeing offered to transport ASMP humanitarian supplies to Africa in an empty, new 777 it is delivering to Kenya Airways in Nairobi, Kenya. Here is a photo of Jason Hahn receiving the humanitarian cargo with South Sudan Deputy Head of Mission, Mariano Deng Ngor. 

In the village of Old Fangak, where ASMP works, they've also begun to drill a water well, using a drill purchased with ASMP funds. 
Having access to clean water is a struggle in the region, and many villagers use river water for cooking which can lead to disease.  While I'm in Old Fangak, I may work on a water use survey that was started by an Alaskan volunteer last year.  The survey will help determine why people choose river water over well water or why not, how they deal with waterborne disease, and asses the best locations to drill a well for the community.
That's all for now.  More updates soon.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Security in South Sudan

On the news recently, there have been stories of violence, border disputes, and killings in South Sudan.  Many people (including my parents) have asked me if I'll be safe when I go to South Sudan in December to volunteer with the Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP).  The Program Director for ASMP provided some good background on the security situation in the small village I'll be staying in for 3.5 weeks.  I feel that I will be safe when I travel there, and I really trust the ASMP team.  See what he wrote about security below:

"The area that we work in has been safe for several years. In the past this is area has not been a particular security risk. Most of the risks related to any miiitary or militia activity is far to the north near the border, and far to the south near Pibor county.

'The government of South Sudan has been aware of Dr. Jill and ASMP's prescence in Old Fangak for many years. There is a small contingency of government troops in Old Fangak whose job it is to provide peace and security in the area. 

"With that said, this is South Sudan, and as many places in the world, security can not entirely be guaranteed. To mitigate risks, ASMP is in constant communication with those in the village including Dr. Jill to stay apprised of any developing security risks. We have a rapid evacuation plan in case anything should arise, which includes rapid, immediate deployment by planes operated by Mission Aviation Fellowship, who can reach Old Fangak in a relatively short period of time. This safety plan also covers medical emergencies. Also, if we anticipate security risks, we will not send in volunteers. About three years ago we did this for one group, however it was only out of extreme caution."

I hope this puts you at ease; it certainly helps me feel better about the trip.  From my experience in Peace Corps, I know that often violence can be concentrated in urban areas and in the small, rural villages, there are no issues.
To date, I've raised $4,400!  I'm going to increase my fundraising goal from $4,500 to $5,000; just for the challenge!  Please pass on my Fundraising Web Page to anyone you think might be interested in my project!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

$1,000 left to fundraise! My South Sudan trip inches closer...

It's time for another update; I'm about two months away from my trip!  To date, I've raised $3,575 (WOW!) out of my goal of $4,500.  My fundraising website is here: My ticket to South Sudan via Nairobi, Kenya has been purchased by the Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP)!  I will be there December 15, 2013 - January 10, 2014.  I'm taking off a few days early from school (I've arranged with professors to take a couple final exams early), and will miss the first two days of the spring semester, but I'm making it happen!  I'm preparing my South Sudan visa materials (this process should be pretty easy since I know the South Sudanese woman who processes visas at their embassy here in DC), and starting to think about packing.  Lightweight tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, antibiotics...  I feel like I'm returning to the Peace Corps!  I'm going in for some vaccines and to pick up preventative malaria medicine next week at the Georgetown student health center.  It's really happening!  Although, I still have a little bit to go to reach my fundraising goal.

I am SO grateful to those of you who have donated to my project thus far.  As I prepare to travel and after my trip, those of you who have donated will hear much more from me as I write blogs and share my experience.  I encourage you to pass on my fundraising page to others! I've been amazed that people who I don't even know have seen my page and donated; I'm feeling very empowered by your trust and energy, and excited for the trip.  For reference, here is a map of Africa highlighting South Sudan's location:

And here is a more detailed map of South Sudan, with a red arrow at the top pointing to the Old Fangak region where ASMP works and where I will be visiting:

I couldn't help but think about those less fortunate this week when the the annual Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) checks were disbursed to eligible Alaskans.  Many of you who read my blog are friends and family from back home in Alaska who receive this yearly check ($900 this year), which is a distribution of the oil wealth our state enjoys.  This check was undoubtedly a needed boost for many families dealing with the high cost of living in Alaska and rising heating and travel costs.  As Alaskans debate whether or not to raise or lower oil taxes, and how to best develop our resources and plan for the future, I am reminded of the similar struggle happening in South Sudan.

South Sudan is also endowed with oil reserves, however their journey to develop those resources has been fraught with war and fighting with the north.  Most of the oil is now produced in South Sudan, but the country is landlocked and remains dependent on Sudan because it must use Sudan's export pipelines and processing facilities. In early 2012, South Sudan voluntarily shut in all of its oil production because of a dispute with Sudan over oil transit fees.

Last month, two oil fields in South Sudan came back 'on line', 21 months after they were shut down.  South Sudan’s Petroleum Minister said the reopening of the fields will not only lead to an increase in oil production but also signaled a warming of relations with Sudan.  According to the Oil & Gas Journal, Sudan and South Sudan have 5 billion barrels of proved crude oil reserves as of January 1, 2013. According to BP's 2013 Statistical Review, approximately 3.5 billion barrels are in South Sudan and 1.5 billion barrels are in Sudan.
I hope that the development of these resources can be a force for development in South Sudan, rather than a catalyst for division and fighting over borders and wealth-sharing between the north and the south.  As I've mentioned in previous blogs, South Sudan is just over two years old - having declared independence from the north in July 2011.  Last month in New York City at the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting, South Sudan's Vice President James Wani Igga spoke to delegations on his country's relations with Sudan. Igga said that it has been “a mixture of cooperation and squabbles” but acknowledged that there is “no alternative to lasting peace other than harmony and cooperation.”
That's all for now.  Please pass on my fundraising page to those you think might be interested in this project; I have about $1,000 left to raise for ASMP (of course, I can go over this goal, also) :)
Thank you for reading this blog and for supporting this project!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Peace Corps and Sexual Assault

I received an email update this week from Peace Corps on their efforts to reduce sexual assault and the risk faced by Peace Corps volunteers abroad.  This is a highly relevant issue in Peace Corps around the world; especially in Central America where I served.  During my Peace Corps service, there were several incidents of sexual assault involving fellow female volunteers.  It was a traumatic experience that I am still processing.  I'm glad Peace Corps is taking steps to reduce sexual assault, but there is still much more that could be done.  The message from Peace Corps below:

Dear Peace Corps Family,

On September 1, the Peace Corps formally launched the final stages of our Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program, which has been developed over the past few years in consultation with post staff and Volunteers worldwide, as well as nationally recognized experts, including recommendations from the Department of Justice; the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN); and the Peace Corps’ newly developed Sexual Assault Advisory Council.

With their help, we have developed a two-pronged approach. The first part is to reduce risks through training for Volunteers, including bystander intervention, risk assessment, and other skill-building sessions during pre- and in-service training; the second part is to ensure that Peace Corps staff responds effectively and compassionately when incidents do occur, through staff training, the new Office of Victim Advocacy, and the appointment of trained sexual assault response liaisons at each post.

This new strategy incorporates more than 30 policy changes, extensive training for Volunteers and staff, and new clearly defined procedures for reducing the risk of sexual assault and responding to Volunteers who are victims of sexual assault. The program exceeds the requirements of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, signed by President Obama in November 2011, reflecting our ironclad commitment to the physical and emotional well-being of every single Volunteer.

We are working hard to make sure each and every Volunteer is familiar with these program changes. As with any new policy, there will be some adjustments, but I strongly believe the steps we have taken will result in better outcomes for our Volunteers. We will continue to evaluate the impact of this program as it is fully implemented and make adjustments as necessary.  For more information on Peace Corps’ Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program, visit this link.

With warmest regards,
Carrie Hessler-Radelet
Acting Peace Corps Director
RPCV/Western Samoa, 1981–83

Saturday, August 17, 2013

South Sudan in December!

Yes, that's right!  I’m trying to spend Christmas 2013 in South Sudan, Africa volunteering with an Alaskan nonprofit organization that works in public health.  

As you may know from having read this blog, I served as a community health volunteer in the US Peace Corps in Nicaragua from 2009-2011.  I worked in a small village to promote maternal and child health and prevent HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy.  These two years in Nicaragua were life-altering.  I will never again take for granted the clean water, nutritious and accessible food, and economic opportunity we enjoy in the developed world.  After returning to Alaska after the Peace Corps, I began to search for local volunteer opportunities. A friend told me of the famed Dr. Jill Seaman (a 2009 MacArthur fellow) and her involvement with the nonprofit, the Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP). Since 1989, Dr. Seaman has split her time between Bethel, Alaska working for the Indian Health Service, and in the outer reaches of South Sudan in Africa.
In July 2011, after more than 50 years of bloodshed, Africa’s largest country split in two and the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest country. South Sudan just had its second ‘birthday’ last week.  I thought Nicaragua had dire health conditions, but after speaking with Dr. Jack Hickel, a friend and colleague of Dr. Jill Seaman, I realized that South Sudan’s plight is much, much worse.  In 2007, at Dr. Seaman’s invite, Hickel visited the remote village of Old Fangak, South Sudan.  Soon after, Hickel – who has a degree in tropical medicine – founded ASMP.  South Sudan has a struggling if even existent health care system and very limited access to infrastructure like running water or electricity.  I began volunteering in 2011 with ASMP locally in Anchorage, Alaska.  I’ve helped with fundraising, and continued to do so when I moved home to Sitka, and now in Washington, DC where I currently attend graduate school.
The remote reaches of South Sudan carry some of the worst health statistics in the world. The infant mortality rate is 70 deaths per 1,000 births (the US has a rate of 6 per 1,000).  Thirty-six percent of children are malnourished and just 10 percent of children have had full childhood immunizations. Due mainly to substandard health care, average life expectancy is just 42 years.
With help from ASMP, the village of Old Fangak is now is finishing construction of a health center and has begun building a second clinic. ASMP also is assisting in the construction of a school and to implement an immunization program. Past successful projects include construction of wells, latrines and the development of several vegetable garden small-businesses. One of the most important things to me about ASMP is that it strives for sustainable development where it works, providing jobs and opportunities for locals. With assistance from ASMP, villagers have been trained as community health workers and to work as welders.  ASMP also hopes to teach locals to use the drilling equipment and build new water wells, creating a lasting impact in the region. 
The tasks at hand for the new country are great and I am heartened to see an organization like ASMP that is leading the way in health care, development and service. To learn more, check out ASMP’s Facebook page or their website.  An amazing 37-minute video spotlighting the organization’s work entitled “The Village” is available here.   
I'm planning to go to South Sudan with ASMP’s annual winter trek of volunteers that go to build, train, and volunteer their time in Old Fangak.  I’ve been thinking about traveling there with ASMP since 2011, and this is the year I can finally make it work.  I’ll go for three weeks during my winter vacation from school (December 2013-January 2014).  While in the village of Old Fangak, I will assist in tuberculosis clinic construction, well drilling, health education, youth outreach – (similar to things I did in Peace Corps) – and also get firsthand experience that can help me continue to be an advocate for ASMP back in the US.  While in Washington, DC I’ve been engaging with the new Embassy of South Sudan.  At my invite, my school – Georgetown University – hosted the South Sudanese Ambassador for a speaking engagement this spring.  I’d like to continue fundraising and advocating for ASMP’s work and awareness of South Sudan and its future challenges and opportunities.
I’m humbly asking for donations to ASMP and my trip over to South Sudan this winter. I need to raise $4,500 to make the trip to South Sudan.  Some of the funds will go toward ASMP and supplies for clinic construction and trainings, and some will go toward my plane ticket from DC to Nairobi, Kenya, and then travel to South Sudan. I am grateful for a donation of any amount.  Right now, I'm about 60% of the way toward my fundraising goal!
I am using a website called FirstGiving to collect donations.  You can pay online at my Fundraising Page, and while there, read more about ASMP and keep track of how much I’ve been able to raise.  
You may have seen some things about South Sudan recently in the news, and have questions about the safety of the country.  There have been some changes in the government; the President, Mr. Salva Kiir removed many people from power in his cabinet and government, including the Vice President.  Maybe people were worried this would lead to violence and unrest, exacerbated by tribal alliances and conflict over oil between Sudan and South Sudan.  The New York Times had an article recently on the issue.
However, like many conflicts located far from the western world, not all of the nuances are being written about or portrayed correctly.  Last week, I met with a South Sudanese friend of mine who works at the Embassy of South Sudan here in Washington, DC.  She assured me that on the ground, things are safe in most areas of the country, including in the region/village where I will be traveling this December.  She says the Embassy is still issuing dozens of visas per day to travelers, and the President is quickly reappointing people to the vacated positions.  He is downsizing much of government to prevent corruption, and appears to be committed to democracy.  There are still unanswered questions moving forward, and the situation is evolving, but I feel confident after speaking with her that on the ground, things are safe.  I also spoke with ASMP staff last week and they were still moving ahead with plans for volunteer trips and construction this winter.
Please feel free to pass my fundraising page on to anyone else you think might be interested in contributing or just learning more about the organization.  I'm optimistic that we can make this happen, and I'm so grateful to those of you who have already contributed. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Spring Break Travels: Russia and Czech Republic

For spring break, I jumped on a great flight deal from DC to Moscow and decided to visit my dear friend Amy who works for the State Department in Moscow.  I also went to Prague, Czech Republic for a few days during the week.  This was the furthest east I had been in Europe and it was an eye-opening trip.  It was my first time leaving the United States in almost two years (since I returned from the Peace Corps in April 2011!)  It felt liberating to travel again, especially to an area that was so unknown to me.

Russia was cold (15-20F some days and windy) and appropriately very "Soviet" feeling; there were no tourists besides me.  Without my friend, it would have been very difficult to get around on my own.  I couldn't read the Russian alphabet, so it was hard to even sound-out words that I saw written.  We did a whirlwind tour of Moscow and saw all the main sights in just a few days: the Kremlin and its Armory full of Russian treasures and jewels, St. Basil's Cathedral and Red Square, Cafe Pushkin, a concert, hockey game, the Bolshoi Theater (we went to the ballet), and the Soviet version of "Epcot" - an exposition center that was built in the 1940s.  The exposition center is known as the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements and is an impressive monument to Soviet past.  There are various pavilions built in the Exhibition to showcase each of the Soviet republics (Belarus, Armenia, etc.) 

US Diplomats vs Russian Diplomats hockey game we attended.  Guess who won?? :)
At the Soviet Exhibition Center - each golden statue at the fountain represents a Soviet republic
Ballet at the Bolshoi Theater
This Russian babushka was sitting outside the metro playing music for coins.  It was International Women's Day (March 8) and someone must have given her the tulips in her bag to recognize it.  All the women had flowers
Walking around Moscow
Inside Russian Orthodox Cathedral at the Kremlin
Me in Red Square
St. Basil's Cathedral 
Prague was quite different from Moscow - I took a three hour flight to Czech Republic to see a friend from undergrad.  It was much warmer to begin with, most people spoke English, and there were many tourists.  It felt much more like Western Europe.  People call Prague "the poor man's Moscow" since it is a popular place for Muscovites to move due to its much lower cost of living.  Many multinational corporations are also based there since they can pay employees less and have less operating costs, relatively close to Western Europe.  I met several Prague residents who were originally from Ukraine, Germany, Poland, Spain, Canada and the US who were working or studying there.  It was a popular destination because of its low cost of living combined with a wealth of cultural activities and its Western European "feel."  Prague truly was a "fairy tale town," around every corner and on every hillside there was a different palace, synagogue, cathedral or church.  It was a very walkable city and I spent most of my two days there walking and sightseeing.


Prague's Vltava River

Looking west in Prague

Traditional Czech pastry.  The dough is rolled over hot coals to cook, then covered in sugar
Blowing bubbles in the Prague old town square

It was a wonderful week-long break, and now I'm back to the grind in DC.  This semester ends in two months; the end is in sight!  I'm not sure what my summer plans will be yet.  I've applied for a few internships (some abroad, some here in DC).  I hope to find out soon!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Obama's Second Inauguration

I got a golden ticket!  The US Presidential Inauguration Committee allocates tickets to each Congressional office to award to constituents based on a lottery system.  I applied for tickets through each of my Alaska representatives' offices, and was awarded two tickets to Obama's second Inauguration, held on January 21, 2013.  My friend Adrien (also from Alaska) and I attended, braving the cold and the crowds to witness history!

For President Obama's first Inauguration in 2009, I was in Miami, Florida about to depart for my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua.  Wow, how time has gone by!  I remember the excitement and the energy my fellow volunteers and I felt as we boarded the plane to leave the country, with Obama just being sworn in.  We were on a "service high," and ready to work for our country.  Four years later, the excitement has lessened, and my idealism has been tempered by the very real hardship I experienced in Peace Corps.  However, my admiration for President Obama continues and I was very excited to be able to attend the Inauguration.

Here in DC, I live very close to the National Mall and the US Capitol, so thankfully Adrien and I got to skip the horrendous commute.  We got in line at about 8 AM, and quickly went through security (there were airport TSA screeners).  The photo below shows the lines to enter the white tents where the metal detectors were located.  The attendees to this Inauguration estimated to be about half of those in 2009, drawing 1 million people to DC.

The ceremonies started around 11 AM.  Adrien and I were in the "yellow standing area" behind the Capitol reflecting pool.  People brought blankets, picnic food, and plenty of warm clothing because it was very cold!  (Of course, it was also very sunny with blue skies, so on TV, it looked like an amazing day.  I, on the other hand, couldn't feel my hands or feet most of the morning). Obama scarves, hats, gloves, pins, and t-shirts were everywhere.  Some attendees had also been to his Inauguration in 2009; others had traveled from far away to attend for the first time.  During the down time between when we entered the secure area to when the festivities began, we chatted with other people, jumped around to keep warm, and people-watched.  This kid in the photo below even decided to take a nap on the grass while we waited...  I liked his initiative.

The view of the crowds looking behind us toward the Washington Monument
The ceremony did not disappoint.  Although we had to rely on the jumbo TV screens to see exactly what was happening, it was exhilarating to be in the presence of so many amazing leaders and even celebrities.  Obama's speech was inspiring; I especially enjoyed his focus on climate change.

The view of the Capitol from where we stood
After the ceremony ended in the early afternoon, Adrien and I stumbled home through the crowds to take hot baths and nap.  The city was abuzz all evening; I live near the Washington Convention Center where the official Inaugural Ball was held, and all night long I could hear helicopters, sirens, and yelling out in the streets.  ATVs had replaced many vehicles in the streets around my house since traffic was in gridlock, blocking any other way of transporting VIPs and others who needed to get places quickly.  Happy Hours, special Inauguration brunches, and parties were held all over DC throughout the day.  While I spend the rest of Inauguration Day 2013 sleeping, I was content in the fact that I had actually been there that morning and witnessed this historic event.