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MSF Soudan du sud réfugiés

South Sudan

From child refugee to aid worker for MSF

MSF-Nurse Thok Johnson working in a mother-child-project in Goronyo town, in the north of Nigeria. November 2012. © Dirk-Jan van der Poel/MSF
A refugee camp is not an ideal place for a child to grow up. Insufficient food, inadequate shelter and medical care, as well as lack of education are all typical in a refugee camp. That is where I grew up.

    My name is Thok Johnson Gony. I was born in Bor in the greater upper Nile region of then Sudan in 1975, three years after the signing of a peace agreement, which ended the first Sudan civil war. Uncertain whether the peace would hold, my family moved to Itang refugee camp in Ethiopia where I started my primary school education. 

    A life not worthy for a child

    As a child refugee, I almost lost my life to measles. Living today is itself a miracle. I went through a lot of suffering. My eyes become teary whenever I remember my childhood. It was filled with distress, misery and hopelessness in the refugee camp. We depended on humanitarian agencies for food and shelter. For social cohesion, we looked up to host communities who sometimes were hostile towards us. Often enough life tosses you along like a fretful stream moving among rocky boulders. It’s a life not worthy for a child.

    In the face of all these sufferings at tender age, I learned that I should have a purpose in life. I cleared my mind of the anguish that was consuming me. As a result, I started excelling in school, one educational level after another. 

    Finding my purpose

    Growing up seeing medical professionals saving lives in the refugee camp, including my own, deeply moved me. Their empathy inspired me a lot. At that point, I decided I would become a medical professional. I believed through medical practice, I would return the favour once extended to me when I needed help the most. The burning desire to directly help people in need of medical care became my greatest motivation. 

    Start as a national worker

    After getting my Bachelors degree in nursing I started working with MSF in 2000, in Akobo Hospital which borders Ethiopia. I worked in various departments including epidemic interventions, nutrition and medical emergency department.

    I then worked with MSF in other locations. One of the most remarkable experiences I recall is the medical intervention in Maban, just after South Sudan attained independence from Sudan. I remember the influx of returnees and the multitude of medical cases we had to attend.

    Working alongside professionals from different parts of the world enhanced my expertise, and taught me the beauty of humanity. I wanted to travel far to help those in need. 

    Missions abroad

    In 2010, I applied to become part of MSF international staff. When the news came that I was successful I had mixed feelings. First, I couldn’t believe that my hard work had won over my childhood suffering. Secondly, I was excited because I knew I was to carry the flag of South Sudan to the international humanitarian world as a health care provider – my childhood dream. The whole day a smile flashed over my face, like sunshine over a flower.

    The eagerness to go for my first mission started growing. I imagined as a professional how life would be in a foreign country and how I would connect with fellow expatriates from other parts of the world. How would the host community perceive me? All these were questions that lingered in my mind, heightening my excited nervousness.

    Since 2012 I have been undertaking assignments in different projects around the world, growing within the organisation as medical staff member to become now the Medical Coordinator in Afghanistan, where among other activities we opened a project which provides care to people with Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (DRTB).

    My experience in all the countries I have worked is a true manifestation that South Sudan is full of professionals, who can work in any part of the world.

    From a child refugee to an international medical coordinator. Isn’t it a great journey?