South Africa is a unique and amazing nation; the spirit of ubuntu lives in us. In a series of five articles, we share stories from Gift of the Givers volunteers in their own words as the organisation marks its 25th year of serving humanity. In this article, the first of five, we chat to medical co-ordinator, Dr YM Essack to find out more about his role.
South African humantarian organisation Gift of the Givers is celebrating 25 years of philanthropy this year. In that time, the largest African organisation of its kind has brought aid and comfort to people in need in 43 countries.
The group, founded and led by Dr Imtiaaz Sooliman, has helped to deliver water to drought stricken areas of South Africa and fed refugees in Somalia. It has ongoing feeding programmes in South Africa, humanitarian missions in war-torn Syria and has helped to free South African hostages in Yemen and Mali.
Dr Sooliman has built an organisation that lives the very African spirit of ubuntu. He has done so in the company of a group of dedicated volunteers. We spoke to a small selection of them, and will share their stories in a series of articles. From medical staff to logistics, we find out more about Gift of the Givers through its volunteers.
In this first of five articles, medical co-ordinator, Dr YM Essack, tells us more about the missions he has been on.
Dr YM Essack: medical co-ordinator
I remember, we were in Dharkoush [Syria] when a child, ten or 11, was brought to us after being shot. He had been accidentally shot by his father who was cleaning his gun. The boy’s father stood at the foot of the bed weeping and caressing his son’s feet as our trauma team tried to save his life. The father kept asking in Arabic, “Is he alive?” We could not save his life.
Countless emotions ran through the entire ward. We all felt so numb as he broke down. Outside the mother was beyond consoling. What a fruitless and senseless war. All those civilians caught in the quagmire, armed with weapons they don’t know how to use to defend themselves.
I have been the Gift of the Givers’ medical co-ordinator over many missions and, in spite of my theoretical knowledge, the reality on the ground is the great leveller. There is always the stark reminder that there exists a need that can never be completely fulfilled. There is, at times, for me this hollow feeling that my presence is not going to change a situation.
But for recipients of the aid we bring and the medical assistance that we supply, people often in the most hopeless situations, we are a reminder that humanity still exists at a universal level. That connection between us makes us family.
I don’t like talking about myself, but I have a family and I have my own private practice. Everyone knows that I will drop everything else when the call comes. They understand that I have made a commitment to Gift of the Givers. They know that I believe in its mission and that the “Best among people are those who benefit mankind”.
Our motivation, the belief that Dr Sooliman lives by, has a deep spiritual base that ensures unbiased, fair and well thought-out service across racial, religious and geographic barriers. The scope of aid provided is mind-boggling, from material through to medical and psycho-social needs. The emphasis is always, as Dr Sooliman says, to do God’s work as his agents on this Earth.
I first met Dr Sooliman in Mozambique in 1991. I was working at a mobile clinic offering primary health care and he was involved with a relief programme. It was clear from the beginning that there was a synergy between us. We both shared the view that service to the Almighty was achieved through serving the needs of humanity at individual, community, national and global level.
When Dr Sooliman began developing the Mobile Containerised Hospital I offered my assitance. I was present [in 1993] when the hospital was shipped from the shores of Durban to Bosnia and Herzegovina. My responsibilities have grown over the many missions I have been involved in.
I am the medical co-ordinator; my responsibilities encompass preparation and readiness for whatever may be required on a mission. I need to assess the personnel needs, procure equipment, medicines and consumables. I network with specific teams whether they are orthopaedic, surgical or anaesthetia. I am a part of a core team involved with logistics and that deployment fits the context on the ground. With 27 years of family medicine experience, I am able to work as a doctor when required.
As important, I provide support to Dr Sooliman with team members. This involves ensuring team harmony, allocation of human and material resources and help with the psychological well being of volunteers.
Read the next profile on beekeeper, Owen Willams.
Emily Thomas, who works in logitistics at Gift of the Givers shares her story.
Ahmed Bham is the head of search and rescue. Read his story here.
Dr Livan Meneses-Turino describes Gift of the Givers as a family. Click here to find out more about what he has done with the organisation.
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