Being a Refugee Shaped My Perspective on Global Health and the Ebola Crisis – LIRS Academy Graduate Shares Her Passion for Change

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Faith Cooper gives a lesson at Sis Lye Orphanage in Monrovia, Liberia.
Faith Cooper gives a lesson at Sis Lye Orphanage in Monrovia, Liberia.

Every year, the LIRS Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy brings together leaders who are passionate about creating change. Today, I’d like to share an interview with Faith Akovi Cooper, a former refugee from Liberia and Academy graduate who, while praying for the health of her family in Liberia during the Ebola crisis, helped to guide Liberia in strengthening its disaster management system to support the Ebola crisis.

This interview was carried out over email by LIRS Outreach Intern, Juliet Sohns.

Juliet Sohns (JS): As a global health practitioner and a former refugee, what are the distinct challenges that refugees have to overcome when accessing healthcare in the United States?

Faith Akovi Cooper (FC): It has been an amazing experience working across multiple continents to assist countries in enhancing their capacity to prepare for and respond to public health emergencies.  My work has taken me to more than 22 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  I started my career working in health and healthcare disparities with organizations committed to ensuring equal access to quality healthcare for minorities and vulnerable populations.  I soon realized the link between socio-economic status and health outcome.  There are many healthcare challenges faced by refugees and immigrants, especially as it relates to access and quality.

This became apparent to me when I immigrated to the United States in the early 90s as a refugee after escaping the brutal civil war in Liberia, which claimed the lives of thousands (close to half a million according to some reports).  Those first few years in a new country, the United States, were probably some of the most difficult times for me.  I was one of three children to a single mother who lost her husband during the war.  My mother worked two jobs to support us and attended nursing school at the same time.  At an early age, I took an interest in health, but I focused on the psychological trauma of war on children.  Although the war erupted in Liberia when I was just 9 years old, I have a very vivid memory of the inhumane treatment of humans and overall suffering.

After my family escaped Liberia, we lived in a refugee camp in Ghana for close to three years with virtually no access to healthcare.  As a result, my vision of healthcare in the United States was based on a complete dream: low cost, equitable access anytime.  I quickly realized that my understanding of healthcare was not the reality. As a foreign-born family, we experienced many challenges including cross-cultural communication, distrust, different health beliefs, and limited cultural awareness from the provider perspective.  With gradual assimilation into the society, we were able to adjust and overcome those challenges!  Everything that I do in my career is linked to my experience as a young refugee child with limited understanding of the healthcare system in the United States.  Those experiences guided my professional interest in health care disparities later transitioning to global health.

JS: You have an expertise in global health and one of your focuses is emerging infectious diseases.  How have you been dealing personally and professionally with the Ebola epidemic that has been tragically affecting your home country?

FC: The impact of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) across the West African region is disheartening!  To date, more than 23,000 were infected and there were over 10,000 deaths across the region, according to the World Health Organization.  For a long time, Liberia was the epicenter of the disease, reporting close to 4,000 deaths since the outbreak.  There is no doubt that I was scared for my family.  While several of us reside in the United States, I still have siblings and a host of cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and colleagues who feared for their lives every day in Liberia.  At the height of the Ebola outbreak, I would wake up in the middle of the night with tears streaming down my face wondering if my family would survive.  Each call from Liberia brought knots to our stomach!  Thankfully, they all survived.  I pray daily for families who lost loved ones to this devastating disease.

At the professional level, I have been a foot soldier for stronger disaster management systems in Liberia. While I am not directly engaged in the Ebola Virus Disease Response in Liberia, I have been working with key government entities at the strategic level since 2012 to build Liberia’s capacity to prepare for and respond to future pandemic outbreaks.  Over the last year, I have been to Liberia at least four times in support of the U.S Government Disaster Preparedness Program working with Liberia to strengthen its disaster preparedness systems. During my tenure at the Center for Disaster and Humanitarian Assistance Medicine, U.S Government Federal Health Center, I managed a large program portfolio consisting of four international programs implemented in six regions of the world.  One in particular was the United States Africa Command Pandemic Preparedness Program where I led coordination and planning for the disaster-related projects in 16 African countries.  While I was excited to work throughout Africa, I was even more eager to ensure that my native land, Liberia, would benefit from this program.  In 2012, I returned to Monrovia, Liberia, to advocate for Liberia’s utilization of this program to build the country’s disaster preparedness capacity.  This was pre-Ebola when we started this important work in Liberia.  Thinking back to my first visit, I had not been to Liberia or more than 20 years.  Understandably, the fear of returning to a nation I once fled created some anxiety.  Yet, I focused on the ultimate goal of helping Liberia prepare for pandemics!

My visit to Liberia led to Liberia’s full involvement in the disaster preparedness program.  In January of 2013, I was deployed to Liberia with the U.S government to work with Liberia to develop its National Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response Plan.  We retuned in March at the beginning of the Ebola outbreak and again in July at the height of the pandemic to deliver the National Pandemic Plan. One of the highlights of my career has been my work around disaster management in my native land.  What an irony!  I fled as a result of war and would return 20 years later to strengthen disaster management systems?  For me, this is truly a dream come true, and I am indeed fulfilling my passion.

If you are a migrant or refugee leader, please apply to LIRS’s 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy! Applications are due April 14. The Academy brings together immigrant leaders to advocate for immigrant rights on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. 

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