The power of nurses and midwives caring for refugees

How health workers are helping the vulnerable in their communities

UNHCR Canada
6 min readApr 6, 2020
28-year-old midwife Alice Lejeune holds a newborn girl, 4 hour old Iline, born to a Syrian refugee in the UNHCR Zaatari Camp, Jordan. © UNHCR/Sebastian Rich

As UNHCR joins the global fight against the COVID-19 outbreak, we are reminded of the essential role frontline health workers play in caring for their communities. Nurses and midwives are vital, as they offer quality, respectful treatment and care.

Refugees and displaced persons often face barriers to accessing health care despite being in urgent need of medical support. Health workers caring for people forced from their homes due to conflict, violence and persecution, often do so in challenging conditions. The importance of their contributions can’t be overstated. Here are five inspiring stories about nurses and midwives on the front lines of care, and the next generation preparing to join them.

Nursing a city back to health in Mali

Even at a young age, Jamilla already had her eyes set on becoming a nurse. She knew she would have to work hard, and she was ready to overcome any obstacle to achieve wearing that white nurse’s coat. But the struggles she faced on her road to becoming a nurse didn’t compare to what would come next.

In 2012, her hometown of Gao in northern Mali was overrun by militants. Jamilla and her family were forced to flee along with 80,000 others. She spent three years internally displaced in a city called Mopti, where she continued to provide care working with malnourished children. Years later, she was finally able to return to Gao after militants were forced out. Back at home, Jamilla returned to discover the hospital where she once worked was a shell of its former self.

With the help of UNHCR and partners, the facility has been repaired and is once again housing and treating patients.

Jamilla has become the head nurse in charge of 40 nurses and nurse interns. Her important role overseeing staff and trainees has not kept her from continuing to work on the front lines. She spends long days examining patients and providing care to help heal the people who, like her, have returned to Gao. And when her workday is over, Jamilla returns to her home where she cares for her family, and the 20 internally displaced people who have found refuge in her care.

“This is our region and our city,” says Jamilla. “I will work for it to my last breath.”

Empowering Afghan women through midwifery

Frozan, 24, teaches a midwifery training course at a community centre in Tarakhail Village in Police District 21.

In Tarakhail Daaq, a suburb in east Kabul, Afghanistan, a classroom full of female students listens to their 24-year-old teacher, Frozan. In the absence of professional medical care, Frozan has taken on the extraordinary role of teaching a midwifery training course for local women.

“Most of the women have themselves suffered or have heard about women having problems while delivering their babies. That’s what motivated them to learn,” Frozan says.

With limited access to healthcare, education and water, Tarakhail Daaq is one of many towns in Afghanistan that is hosting refugees who have returned home from Pakistan, as well as those who are internally displaced in their country. Making the most out of their precarious situation, Frozan is determined to help women safely deliver their babies at home, and hopes, one day, they will no longer suffer through any problems related to childbirth.

How a midwife supports Rohingya women and girls who have been traumatized by violence

Nirea Khatun, a supervisory midwife from the United Nations Population Fund works at a primary healthcare centre treating Rohingya refugees at Kutupalong camp.

When the Rohingya crisis began in Myanmar in 2017, many Rohingya women were attacked and sexually assaulted, resulting in pregnancies. Many of the rape survivors could not access healthcare in Myanmar, and the conflict forced them to flee to Bangladesh.

Since 2017, thousands of babies have been born in the refugee settlements, and many of these deliveries were assisted by a team of almost 80 midwives from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). One supervisory midwife from UNFPA, Nirea, works in Kutupalong camp’s health centre treating Rohingya refugee women. At the centre, Rohingya women are provided with much-needed reproductive healthcare, prenatal check-ups, rape counselling and more.

“They have suffered many kinds of violence and continue to need mental support as well as shelter and security,” Nirea says.

A student nurse’s dream to save refugee lives

Cheri Nibaruta is a 28-year-old student of Public Health at Livingstonia University in Malawi. War in his home country Burundi forced him to flee twice, first to Tanzania in 2007, and then to Malawi in 2015.

Cheri Nibaruta has already had to flee his native Burundi twice. Fleeing from war and unrest in the country once in 2007 and again in 2015, he most recently has found refuge in Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi. As a trained nurse with an advanced diploma in nursing and midwifery, being a refugee has not stopped Cheri from continuing his work with vulnerable people and pursuing an education in public health.

While in Burundi, Cheri worked in two different hospitals where he witnessed people dying because they lacked basic knowledge in disease prevention and health promotion. When he arrived to Dzaleka refugee camp, he observed the same thing: lives could be saved by educating people on how to prevent contracting serious diseases.

This observation, along with financial support in the form of a scholarship, motivated Cheri to begin his studies to specialize in public health.

“I wish to work with vulnerable people, assisting them in terms of providing health education about disease prevention and promotion of good health behaviors — not only in Malawi, but all over the world,” Cheri says.

While still a student, Cheri is already putting his knowledge and skills to good use. He has started volunteering as a sanitation and hygiene monitor in Dzaleka refugee camp and has been instrumental in the formation of a community health group.

How a retired nurse became “Grandma” to a Syrian refugee family in Spain

Resettling into a new country as a refugee is not an easy thing to do. Fortunately, for Syrian refugees Minwer, his wife Wafaa and their four children, being part of a community sponsorship pilot project in Spain has made resettling into the Basque country from Jordan slightly easier.

Through this pilot program, local volunteers, like retired auxiliary nurse Begoña, have come together to provide Minwer and his family support as they integrate into Spanish society. Begoña gives her time by babysitting Minwer and Wafaa’s children. The warmth and generosity shown by Begoña and the other community sponsors has made the newcomer family feel at home.

At first, Begoña volunteered to babysit on days when Minwer and Wafaa were taking Spanish lessons. Soon, she was spending time with the family daily. What began as a volunteer opportunity for Begoña, quickly grew into a strong friendship forged between her and the refugee family. And she has become much more than a caregiver and source of support: she is viewed as a part of their second family.

“They say to the parents, ‘Why hasn’t Grandma come today?’” says Begoña, smiling. “For me, it is a great honour.”

You can support UNHCR’s efforts to provide healthcare to refugee families in need. Please give today:



UNHCR Canada

The UN Refugee Agency in Canada is dedicated to providing life-saving support to refugees, displaced and stateless people.