The eastern coast of Kenya is riddled with danger. Once a sought-after tourist destination, today people are being warned to stay away because of threats by Islamist terror group Al-Shabaab. Others are fleeing the area for good.
But Umra Omar keeps going back.
In the remote area of islands near the Kenyan-Somali border, the Lamu Archipelago, aid groups have stopped working and infrastructures are crumbling.
“We have about six villages that have absolutely zero access to health care,” Omar said.
She and her group, Safari Doctors, travel by boat, road and air to bring medical care to people living along the insecure and hostile region.
“There is a lot of caution of, ‘Why are you going here? You’re not supposed to,’ ” said Omar, 33. “And as a woman running around pushing this project, it’s like, ‘Why do that? Why not just stay home, get taken care of.’ “
Omar could have continued living the American dream she had worked so hard to carve out.
Raised in Kenya, she had earned degrees from two prestigious American schools, completed graduate school and was working full-time in Washington, D.C.
But Omar says cubicle life wasn’t for her; she was longing to return to her native country.
“When all is said and done, it feels like a lie to only work to get a paycheck,” said Omar, who moved home in 2010. “It was kind of a sense of responsibility.”
On a visit to her childhood community in the islands, she learned about a life-saving medical aid project that had been abandoned because of the security concerns.
Today, Safari Doctors provides free basic medical services — including immunizations, maternal health care and treatment for malaria and other common diseases in the region — to more than 1,000 people a year.
Despite the risk, and Omar’s current pregnancy, she makes bi-monthly trips as much as possible to help those who desperately need it.
CNN spoke with Omar about her work. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
CNN: You now live full-time on one of the islands; you also lived there as a young girl. What are these communities like?
Umra Omar: We are identified as the Bajuni and the Boni communities who are the indigenous people. So we have people who’ve never stepped out of the village at all; never, maybe, had an experience of running water. We have communities that, right now, have no schools within walking distance. Lamu is the only county in Kenya that has less than one kilometer of paved road.
The same thing that makes it beautiful, isolated and pristine, is the same thing that presents the challenges for access to health care. From the southernmost tip, which is in Lamu, all the way to the northernmost tip, that’s a two-hour speedboat (ride), about $300. For the average person from Lamu, that’s not something you just cough up to run to the district hospital.
CNN: How does it all come together?
Omar: We put together a trip for Safari Doctors like we would a thousand-piece puzzle. You just have to know what the picture looks like to put it together.
We’re fortunate to be from a very intertwined area, from government all the way to the fishermen on a boat. And we at Safari Doctors are tapping into that to be able to fill some of the gaps in accessing health care.
So it’s just a matter of us pulling in different pieces to see how we can work on this issue of accessing health care from the very basic level of getting medicines out to people to a more complex angle of bringing in consultants and professionals.
CNN: Do you feel scared?
Omar: Scared, no. It’s only dangerous if you feel really threatened. And frankly speaking, we don’t feel like we’re doing something that should warrant us being threatened or a target, because there’s no agenda other than life behind it. And if anybody feels like life is wrong, then there’s nothing we can do about it.
CNN: You are 6 months pregnant and have a toddler at home. What keeps you going?
Omar: So I’m pregnant, but not yet barefoot! And that’s supposed to be happening in November. But it’s something that I feel like wouldn’t necessarily put the brakes on anything in any way whatsoever. I think this is a Safari Doctors baby!
Being here, being close to home, to be able to fill some of the gaps in accessing health care, it’s kind of been an IV drip for life and purpose.
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