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Buffalo refugees return to Congo to give care: 'It really came just full circle'

There’s a palm-sized scar on Maggie Nichols’ right knee, a reminder of what life was like when she was a little girl in the Congo, before she and her family fled to a refugee camp in Kenya and then resettled in Buffalo.

She thought of the night she spent bleeding because there wasn’t a doctor, of the fly-filled clinic her mother eventually carried her to on her back, of her vow to her mother that she would become a doctor to take care of people like themselves.

All of that was on her mind as she joined a team of health care workers from Buffalo earlier this month on a journey back to her homeland for the first time.

“It really came just full circle,” she said.

Nichols is the chief officer of development and strategic partnerships for Jericho Road Community Health Center, which provides medical care to refugees, immigrants and other low-income people in Buffalo. Jericho Road started as a clinic on the West Side, but is adding another facility on the East Side this summer. It also has opened health centers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, two countries where many of their patients and staff come from.

Magdalena Nichols, chief officer of development and strategic partnership at Jericho Road Community Health Center, talks about her recent trip to the agency's clinic in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Dr. Myron Glick, who founded Jericho Road 21 years ago, has encouraged resettled refugees who work with him to travel back to their homelands to spend time at the clinics. The goal is to give them a chance to reconnect and heal while giving back to their communities.

“Too many people view refugees as helpless and beat up and as takers,” Glick said. “But the reality is many gain strength here in this country and get involved in what is happening at home to try to make a difference. This is not unique to Jericho Road.”

Glick just a led a team of eight, four of them resettled refugees, to Jericho Road’s health center in Goma, on the eastern side of the large central African country. Three of them – Roseline Kabongo, a nurse from the Congo, K.C. Suteh, a physician assistant from Nigeria and Magdalena "Maggie" Nichols – spoke with The Buffalo News about their emotional journey.

Jericho Road opened its Wellness Clinic in Goma in December 2016.

The country has been torn apart by civil war in the last two decades and there are renewed fears of more violence as an election approaches this December to replace a president who has overstayed his term.

“100,000 people are fleeing Congo every month,” Glick said he was told by State Department officials. “That’s on par with Syria.”

Glick’s team traveled to Goma to offer their medical skills and expertise at the clinic and surrounding areas. There’s no government-funded medical care for the poor in the DRC, Glick said.

Medicines and surgeries often are too expensive so people are “doing without and suffering,” Glick said. For a C-section, patients are expected to pay for their own sutures and surgical tools, even the diesel fuel to power an operating room, Glick said.

Dr. Myron Glick, founder of Jericho Road Community Health Center, talks about his recent trip. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

'They don't have food'

For Roseline Kabongo, it was her second time back to her home country after fleeing 19 years ago when she came to Buffalo to join her sister and applied – and received – asylum in the United States.

Her country was in the midst of civil war when she left, she said. Now, there’s still violence and the poverty has gotten worse.

“People are so poor they don’t have food,” she said. “A long time ago, it was difficult. But we had food. We didn’t have so many people who were malnourished.”

At the clinic, dozens of children are being treated for severe malnourishment. Kabongo described a 2-year-old child who weighed just five pounds.

“The mother had no food,” Kabongo said. “She was breastfeeding but she had no milk left.”

Roseline Kabongo, a nurse at Jericho Road Community Health Center, said poverty has gotten even worse in the Democratic Republic of Congo since she fled the nation's civil war 19 years ago. “People are so poor they don’t have food,” she said. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Kabongo also worked with many patients with insulin. She found many had dangerous misconceptions about the disease. Many believed taking insulin meant they would die soon. They also believed eating beans was bad for diabetics. “Beans are actually good for you,” she would explain.

Kabongo taught the staff at the clinic, all local residents, how to use an EKG machine.

“We bring them stuff but they don’t know how to use it,” she said.

'Reaching out'

K.C. Suteh, who is the director of Jericho Road’s surgery clinic, was eager to be part of the mission.

He fled Nigeria nearly two decades ago and had never been to the DRC before. “It’s my way of reaching out to the continent where I was born,” Suteh said.

Suteh opened the clinic’s new surgery center, which cost $70,000 and was funded by a grant and three Buffalo donors. Procedures done there would be considered minor in western countries, but were life-changing to the patients he saw in Goma.

“I had a patient – she traveled about three hours from her village. She’s had this huge tumor in her left shoulder. She told me so many doctors said she would have to live with it for the rest of her life,” Suteh said.

He examined the non-cancerous fatty tumor and told her he could operate that day. “Are you ready for your procedure?” he asked. She was thrilled. A few hours later, Suteh, had removed the growth. “Just to see the smile on her face,” he said. “She was hugging us and insisting we take a picture with her.”

Dr. Glick saw patients, too. In emails back to Buffalo during the trip, he described his experiences. He recounted being rushed to the delivery room to try to help a baby who had just been born.

K.C. Suteh, a physician assistant at Jericho Road Community Health Center, opened the new surgery center at the agency's clinic in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  He fled Nigeria nearly two decades ago and had never been to the DRC before. “It’s my way of reaching out to the continent where I was born,” he said.(Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

"Immediately, I recognized that the baby was in trouble and I also recognized the delivery team had not done everything they should have to that point to resuscitate the baby and that the basic equipment I needed including an ambu-bag and suction catheter were not readily available,” Glick wrote.

The baby had a misshapen skull due to a congenital brain anomaly, Glick said, which he knew meant the baby would not survive. The child was admitted to a hospital but died, he said.

But he and his team experienced joy too. A little boy he and Kabongo had helped treat for seizures the last time they were in Congo happened to visit the clinic. “Today he walked into the exam room smiling and shook my hand,” Glick wrote.

'We open access'

Returning to Congo brought back a flood of memories for Nichols. As the children at the Hope Center flocked to them, she remembered how when she was little and a tourist would come by, she and her brothers and sisters would run to them and insist on taking pictures. She made a point of taking lots of selfies with all the kids she met.

She also remembered what it felt like to go hungry and for her belly to swell with hunger.

When Nichols was young, she had told her mother she wanted to become a doctor. When she got to college, she quickly realized she didn’t have the stomach for practicing medicine. Wanting to stay in health care, she ended up working on the administrative end – working on ways to make sure people can get health care.

“There was no access to health care to go that evening,” she said, when she cut her leg as a child. “We open access where the need is.”

Nichols and Glick, along with three others from the team, traveled to a Rutshuru to learn about a “church empowerment zone” which brought together 202 local churches, Protestant and Catholic, who work with area tribes to try to solve conflicts. Jericho Road, in conjunction with River Rock Church in Buffalo and the Wesleyan Church in Hamburg, is working with World Relief to do a similar project around the Wellness Clinic.

“I was overjoyed to see God’s hand at work,” said Nichols, who like the other refugees and Glick are deeply guided by their Christian faith.

Throughout the trip, Glick and the refugees struggled with the overwhelming amount of poverty and suffering, while there are many in the Congo who are wealthy. They talked about how there were times they felt powerless to help, but they reminded each other about how one small act can make a difference.

“I cannot help the whole world, I can’t help my whole country,” Kabongo said. “But if I can do something I can start somewhere. It’s little, but it’s a lot.”

They also saw much beauty. Goma is lush with trees and Lake Kivu has sparking waters, they said.

"The people are so vibrant," Glick said. "People end up thinking it's a crazy place. But there are people living there living normal lives. Playing soccer. There are even wealthy people. Just really extreme poverty, too."

They were reminded of how fortunate they are in their new lives in Buffalo.

To pay for the clinics, Jericho Road needs $550,000 a year. About 20 percent is covered by fees for service by the patients who can afford to pay some amount. The rest comes from donors and churches in Buffalo, as well as Jericho Road’s annual Bridge the Gap Gala. The next one is on June 28 at Statler City.

The resettled refugees came back with a renewed sense of what it means to be able to provide care for those in need.

As an African immigrant, Suteh said he felt he could make a special connection with his patients as well as with the more fortunate in Congo to encourage them to do more for their own people.

"It was for me, in a sense, a way to replicate the service I provide here [in Buffalo]," Suteh said. "It really makes me realize why we're doing what we're doing, why we're in Congo, why we're in Sierra Leone."

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