Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said is the 2013 Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award winner. The award is the National Peace Corps Association‘s highest honor, given to Said in recognition for his contributions to peace in Kenya. In addition to practicing medicine in the country, Said is a former president of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims – the first African to hold that position.
Said rose through the Kenya Red Cross Society to become president of the organization and oversaw the world’s largest refugee camp in neighboring Somalia. He is lifelong member of the Kenya Medical Association and founded the KMA Human Rights Committee.
Said also works as a coordinator for the Africa and Middle East Reconstructive Surgical Camps for Fundacion Pedro Cavadas, headquartered in Spain. Said’s team has performed reconstructive surgery on children and adults from eight African countries. Also active in education, Said serves as chairman of Bungoma Muslim Secondary School and is a board member of the Mumias Vocational Secondary School for Deaf Girls, where he has helped secure Peace Corps and U.S. Embassy support.
Dr. Said sat down with Julie Strupp of AllAfrica in Washington, DC, to talk about his work and the Global Citizen award.
What inspired you to go into medicine, as opposed to other careers?
I come from northern Kenya, which was a closed and remote frontier during the colonial era. I was the first person from my district to go to medical school. It was in my heart from the beginning to assist people, and medicine is the best way to reach out to everybody.
How did you get involved in human rights work?
Around 1991 there was a lot of advocacy for democracy and there was suppression by the government, and so many people were beaten, detained, tortured or even killed. A group of lawyers and doctors came together and formed the Independent Medical Legal Unit Kenya to treat victims and give them free legal service. And for those who died in custody we gave them free post mortems. We could not register an NGO of that kind at that time, so we used the professional association in the town we were in. I have been a member of the medical association and a chairman of the chapter in the area I was. So we created a human rights committee, which I chaired.
Through that committee we were able to go around the country educating lawyers and doctors on medical-legal aspects, such as how to document torture cases. What was happening was that sometimes people were shot, and the medical-legal reports showed the point of entry of the bullet and the exit, so you would conclude that the person had been shot while running away, yet the police would claim that they shot in self-defense.
Through that organization we joined the African Network of Rehabilitation Centers. Then in 2006 I was elected to represent Africa on the board of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) based in Copenhagen. In 2009, I was the first African to be elected president of IRCT in the organization’s 25-year history. The organization has 150 centers in 75 countries.
Through this bigger network we are able to train internationally on the Istanbul Protocol http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/issues/torture/international-tort ure.html and on the use of forensic documentation to fight against torture, because once you report correctly and when you go to the court it stands because you have evidence. Last year I was here in Washington for a workshop for forensic experts from all over the world held in partnership with the School of Law, American University. Throughout our centers we have been assisting over 100,000 torture victims. We give counseling, medical treatment and legal advice.
You also do reconstructive surgery with the Pedro Cavadas Foundation. Is there a big need for reconstructive surgery in Kenya?
Dr. Pedro Cavadas is a good friend of mine. He is a leading transplant surgeon in the world. We have been holding reconstructive surgical camps in Kenya for people with deformities, injuries through gunshot wounds, congenital malformations from Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan. I take cases with tumors and other complicated ones to Valencia, Spain, for specialized treatment.
Through the foundation, we decided to put up a prosthetics center and early this year I got some equipment from Spain. Last year when I took the patients I took one of the Red Cross volunteers who was trained as a technician and we managed to do the first prosthesis three weeks ago. We fitted the leg of a nine-year-old boy. As he was getting out of the car after the prosthesis, his father ran towards him crying. Humanitarian work gives you the pleasure of assisting people.
I am also the president of the Kenya Red Cross Society. We are in charge of one of the largest refugee camps in the world, holding over 600,000 refugees.
What are some of the challenges you face in running that camp, Dadaab?
It is not far from the Somali border and because of the war there is an influx of refugees. Some of the refugees come with a lot of ammunition and grenades. The security is not so tight, but we have managed to build a hospital and there is water and sanitation. There are a lot of challenges but we are managing.
What inspired your involvement with girls’ education?
There is a girls’ school, St. Angela Vocational Secondary School for Deaf Girls in Mumias, which is one of the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. We are involved with that to make sure the deaf girl child is not left behind because what happens is that usually the disabled are the last to get education.
Besides that, in the arid and semi-arid areas in northern Kenya, parents marry off their daughters once they are 13 years old to get the dowry.
As we go around with the prosthetic camps, we hear that a certain girl has passed primary school and can be admitted into a good secondary school and we pay her school fees. We also pick a few boys. About 30 students are in high school, some are going through college, and five have already graduated from college.
Are there any human rights issues going on in Kenya right now that your center is addressing?
Our center continually works on human rights issues. There is a lot of human rights abuse still going on, but it has reduced with the new constitution, which has allowed accountability. Torture was not accounted for in the previous constitution, so if someone was tortured the case would be heard as an assault case.
Police reform has been very slow. We have managed to improve the situation in the prisons, because now we are collaborating and they allow us in to hold medical camps and educate prison officers on international guidelines and principles.
Recent floods in Kenya displaced a lot of people. How did the government respond to that, and what is the Kenya Red Cross doing?
Arid and semi-arid areas in Kenya experience alternating drought and floods. Government action was slow. The Red Cross volunteers were the first to arrive at the affected areas. We hired helicopters to pick people up, put up camps and ensured we had medical teams on the ground with necessary equipment.
We had the Kenyans for Kenya Program, through which Kenyan citizens and corporations raised one billion Kenya shillings (U.S.$11.4 million). The donations were used first to attend to the elderly and children. The remainder was used to build greenhouses, deep wells for irrigation, and dams to store water. Some of those areas became green islands and produced so much that we advised them to create cooperatives and sell their surplus. In some areas we gave out seed like maize, and the product was 18-20 bags per acre, which if stored well, can be used for two years.