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INTERVIEW: CNN Hero Umra Omar Delivers Healthcare and Hope to Coastal Kenya

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Umra Omar, Safari Doctors/Photo: Safari Doctors

Umra Omar

By Pamela Burke/October 11, 2016
Photos provided by Safari Doctors

What do you do when you have a successful career but find out that people living in an archipelago thousands of miles away in your native Kenya have serious healthcare issues that need attention? Umra Omar (@UmraOmar) faced that situation head-on and made the decision to return to the land of her birth.

In 2014 she founded Safari Doctors, a program operating out of Lamu, Kenya, offering free basic medical services where there were almost none.

“We say every journey starts with a single step…The goal is to have monthly clinics targeting a minimum of 10 villages which is service to approximately 10,000 villagers treating an average of 1,000 patients a month.”  Umra Omar

CNN recently recognized her efforts by naming her a CNN Hero. We were so impressed with Umra and her team that we want to introduce her to our TWE readers. Her small group travels by air, road and boat to bring much needed healthcare to the coastal islands in the Lamu Archipelago.  The trips can be dangerous as the Somalia border and terrorists are not far away.

Meet Umra who is eight months pregnant with her second child and as committed as ever… 

EYE: First, congratulations on being named a CNN Hero! You have such a fascinating background. You were born into the Banjuni and Boni community in Lamu County in Kenya. It is isolated and primitive in many respects. Describe where you grew up and now live please.

UMRA: Asante sana – Thank you very much! Life started off on the coast of Kenya. I was born in Mombasa then spent my early childhood in Tchundwa, a village on Pate Island that sits along the Lamu Archipelago.

Who is CNN Hero Umra Omar?/Video by CNN

I had a simple and typical village life of rising with the sun and sleeping soon after it set. It was a freedom that every child dreams to have but never gets to taste in a collective society that truly embodies the proverb that it takes a village to raise a child.

I am from the Bajuni community, about 80,000 of us sprinkled around the world. Our close neighbor is the Aweer/Boni community, estimated at a population size of 8,000. After eight years of studying and working abroad, life finds me back in Lamu. the last place on earth I thought I would be at this stage of my life.

Fearing cultural suffocation and limited career growth, coming back home was not on my to do list. With no cars and plenty of donkeys escorting the cordial island pace into our lives, it has been the best place to live and serve.

Umra Omar greeting/Photo: Safari Doctors

EYE: Did you have a challenging upbringing? From what I read, it can be a very tough existence for women in that area. About 60 percent of the population live in extreme poverty.

UMRA: I would say I had one of the most beautiful upbringings with my grandmother playing a vital role. My younger sister and I spent four years of our childhood in Tchundwa Village.

While poverty might be rated in number of dollars per day and the GDP of a region, my argument would be that it is relative. We have some of the wealthiest children living in extreme emotional and nutritional poverty.

This is not to deny that there are significant challenges faced by the communities but it can not all be hyperbolized into one statistical figure.

EYE: Did you have role models when you were growing up?

UMRA: I have always looked up to my father, a very grounded and visionary soul that has planted in all of us, including my dear mother, on education. Despite a conservative backdrop and a house with nothing but women, he is definitely my hero!

It’s the way he treats other human beings and animals; the respect that he gives and commands back unapologetically. The list goes on. That was my role-model growing up and still is.

Then comes Oprah, partly because while overseas that was how my name was always mispronounced.  Second, she had the undeniable power of connecting to the human soul from a non-pretentious yet entertaining platform all the way into our living rooms in Kenya.

Umra Omar in Kiwayu Speed Boat/Photo: Safari Doctors

EYE: How did you get from there to working full-time in Washington, D. C.? Was it your dream to work in America?

UMRA: In the name of further education, I went on to study for my International Baccalaureate at the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales. This was my first time out of the country at the age of 17, immersed in a totally new world of responsibility and possibilities. Then came the undergraduate scholarship to study at Oberlin College, Ohio, where I focused on neuroscience and psychology.

While in school, I reached out to various organizations of interest for summer internships and a wonderful response came back from the late Dr. John Anderson of the American Psychological Association Office on AIDS. This was indeed a dream come true with repeat internships and finally a full-time position after graduation.

Umra Omar crew/Photo: Safari Doctors

Umra and members of the Safari Doctors team

EYE: Then you made a decision to go back to Kenya, to the area where you grew up, to help provide medical services. Was that a difficult decision?

UMRA: That decision boiled from the need of being where my services would be of greater impact. Providing medical services was not part of a preconceived planned. It just happened. The cause found me more than I did it. Going home is one of the toughest decisions I have had to make.

After almost a decade of living overseas, leaning, exploring and having no second thoughts about life, this was going to be an absolute change of pace – reverse culture shock you could call it. But it had to be done.

EYE:  What caused you to start up Safari Doctors?

Umra Omar Safari Doctors boat/Photo: Safari Doctors

Safari Doctors sets sail.

UMRA: After a solid job in Kenya, upon my return I resigned and started consulting, going back and forth between Nairobi and New York. Then starting a family found me spending more time in New York where my husband lived.

We came to Kenya for vacation with our newborn, which is when I learned of the medical need in Lamu and the projects that had come to a standstill given the perceived insecurity in the region.

With a little more research on the reality and the challenges, I decided to start up Safari Doctors.

EYE:You provide services to people who live in a group of islands where there are few paved roads, where at times you connect with patients via hours of travel on a speedboat. How do you even begin to cover such a large area?

UMRA: There are actually no paved roads. We say every journey starts with a single step. This is what we did for our first year actually. Our nurse would go out on monthly motorbike outreach clinics delivering immunization, maternal health services and basic treatment.

Then came the attacks in June, 2015 that burnt down the clinic that he was operating out of so he had to be relocated and we had to re-strategize. So we started off one village at a time, each with an average of 100 patients. We have been able to reach out to four villages most recently.

The goal is to have monthly clinics targeting a minimum of 10 villages which is service to approximately 10,000 villagers treating an average of 1,000 patients a month.

EYE: You have one child and almost ready to deliver another. How do you manage to keep going with such an arduous job?

UMRA: The best part about where I live and what I do is the support and flexibility. I might have an intense week of work and our toddler would spend that week with his grandparents living on the next island or my sister next door who had a little one of the same age. Home is a stone’s throw away from the office and I make it a point to go back for lunch.

As for the pregnancy, it just makes deadlines even more important. I keep thinking I have to get this done before I get too slow. But now I think it’s time to start putting on the breaks in what is my last month after the most recent clinic that was a couple of weeks ago.

Umra Omar at a Team Briefing/Photo: Safari Doctors

Umra at a team briefing onboard the Safari Doctor boat.

EYE: What is the biggest challenge you face?

UMRA: It’s the bad publicity being afforded by the media because of a security incident that has lead to a blanket classification of Lamu as a dangerous part of the country.

This has lead to the withdrawal of development projects and also makes it challenging for us to access volunteers and specialists in this line of work. It seems like Nairobi and Paris are allowed to move on but Lamu is not.

Another big challenge is personal more than anything – juggling family life, living a way from my husband with a little one. This is a sacrifice that we both realize we have to make.

Pertaining to work, it’s actually the little annoying stuff like ‘don’t sit too close to the edge of a boat’ because women cannot swim, ‘how does your husband let you do this,’ ‘what about your family?’ and the list goes on.

Umra Omar in Kiwayu/Photo: Safari Doctors

Planning the clinics and making sure all the pieces come together (medical team, sailing crew, medicines, meals) are intense since we are a very small team, but that is a necessary challenge that we are still in the process of mastering.

EYE: You are faced with the possibility of terrorism as you are near the border of Somalia where there are very dangerous groups. What keeps you going in light of the possibility of violence?

UMRA: More civilians lose their lives in the hands of law enforcement than to terror attacks by virtue of proximity to the Somali border…for the same reason that we get into a car despite the possibility of getting into an accident. What keeps us going is that the need is real and someone has to step up and serve.

EYE: Will you continue your work once you have your baby?

UMRA: A.b.s.o.l.u.t.e.l.y. Counting down the days.

EYE: Do you see yourself going back to America or staying in Kenya to help your people and family?

UMRA: I see myself as a citizen of the world. From wherever I might be, the room is always there to be of service.

Umra Omar, Safari Doctors/Photo: Safari Doctors

EYE: What would you like to see improve where you are living, especially for women?

UMRA: The one thing that I would like to see improve is the attitude that we have towards one another; the attitude that clouds our lives with fear of judgment, being ostracized, silencing talent, questioning potential, not being beautiful enough. You name it. This is all fueled by culture, religion, or lack-there-of.

EYE: Is there any way people can help you and Safari Doctors? Do you see expanding your mission and your group?

UMRA: We would not be where we are today if it was not for the help that we have been receiving from friends and strangers alike. So far we have been operating fully on third party support, financially and in kind. The goal is to grow Safari Doctors into a franchise of local health solutions for local health challenges with global connectivity.

Umra Omar/Safari Doctors/Photo Safari Doctors

EYE: Do you have any advice for people thinking of striking out on their own and starting a project like Safari Doctors? You have taken on a huge challenge.

UMRA: Three words (hijacked from Nike) – Just Do It!!! Take a leap of faith, follow your gut and never let the inevitable be an obstacle; go beyond. It is important to know your strengths and focus on just that – that is what the world could use from you.

Involve close partners/friends/family that believe in you as if they were getting paid to do so, then you have no choice but to deliver. You won’t know if you don’t try it.

EYE: Kudos to you, Umra, for all that you and the Safari Doctors do. We wish you great success in spreading your knowledge, good will and medical services.

Safari Doctors boat/Photo: Safari Doctors

A friend and TWE contributor Susan Podbielski is raising money for Umra’s Birthday Wish on this crowdrise site. It’s Umra’s wish for a clinic where mother’s thrive. Take a look if you are interested!



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