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January 25, 2013

SUNY students and faculty make a difference in Rwanda

Fourth year OD student Julia Canestraro recently returned from a Student Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (SVOSH) volunteer trip to a refugee camp in Rwanda along with fellow student Quy Nguyen and SUNY alum and faculty member Dr. Andre Stanberry. Read Julia’s first-person account of the trip below: 

As our plane landed onto African soil, I was overcome by a sense of excitement and uncertainty. This was my first time in Rwanda and I hadn’t the slightest idea as to what I should expect. My uncertainties were soon alleviated as we were greeted by a group of volunteers smiling and waving at us, holding a SVOSH-ARC sign. At our welcome meeting, we were informed that we were going to be involved in a groundbreaking venture! This was the first time that any VOSH-related organization would be entering a refugee camp and our new partnership with the ARC (American Refugee Committee) made this a possibility. The ARC is responsible for providing shelter and sanitation, among other essentials, to refugees around the globe and they were equally excited to be partnering with VOSH for this trip.

The next day, we headed one hour north of Kigali to the Gihembe refugee camp located in the mountainous terrain of Rwanda. We pulled into the camp and saw thousands of clay homes topped with metal roofs, which house approximately 13,000 refugees. Children began to chase our van, screaming and waving with excitement. Everyone turned to watch us enter as they had been expecting us for weeks. We started the clinic right away and with 6 other eye care professionals and 20 volunteers, we were able to see approximately 3,850 patients in six days of hard work. We met and worked alongside many wonderful people, all of whom who had been affected by the genocide in Rwanda and the current conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We brought thousands of pairs of glasses and over $150,000 worth of medications to distribute to the community. We were even able to fund surgical procedures for 30 patients who were at risk for losing their sight. Working alongside my peer, Quy Nguyen and our mentor Dr. Andre Stanberry, I learned a tremendous amount and it is an experience that every optometrist should have the opportunity to partake in. The week was physically and emotionally draining but I would do it one hundred times over if it meant making a difference in the lives of thousands.