Field Operations

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From 1995 - 2012, Refugee Relief International conducted fourteen relief missions along the Thai/Burmese border to treat victims of landmines, many of whom were small children.

This area is crowded with refugees from the Karen (pronounced "Kuh-REN") people in Eastern Burma. The military dictatorship in Burma has expelled ethnic Karens from the country, so they now live in squalor in refugee camps across the border. The need there is so great that RRII could literally operate there year-round, but is limited by the amount of funding available.

Typical Relief Mission

Upon arrival in-country, an RRI team of four-six medical people travel by land across dense jungle to get to areas beyond the reach of civilian medical services, usually escorted by locals who know the area and who provide local security.

Upon arrival at the converted medical facility which is often just a converted jungle hut, the team assesses the local situation, medical staff and patients. Working closely with the local medical practitioners, a surgical unit is organized and setup to perform three to ten operations per day.

Operations run the range from simple surgeries to amputations of limbs, and usually are done without running water or electricity. Since our teams can work only with the equipment they can carry on their backs, we have developed special sterilization and anaesthetic techniques that require minimum equipment and yet work well in a jungle setting.

RRII has an ongoing relationship with the hospital in Bluefields, Nicaragua to help the Miskito Indians and conducts ongoing operations in Cambodia and Burma. Additionally, an RRII team member worked in the hospital in Sarajevo during the siege and two RRII team members were deployed to Rwanda to do an assessment. Since the U.N. was in Rwanda, it was decided that we didn't need to go: RRII focuses on areas where other humanitarian agencies will not go.

Mission Profile

The purpose of this article is to provide pre-deployment information to Refugee Relief International relief mission volunteers. Suggestions about team and personal equipment, locations of points of departure, ideas about procurement of airline tickets, and description of types of RRII deployments are presented.

Team and Personal Equipment

Team equipment is generally divided into two categories:

  1. Medical and surgical supplies to be used on, or delivered to, the indigenous population of the visited country;
  2. Personal equipment carried by individual team members.

The team medical and surgical equipment boxes are packed and shipped from the San Francisco Bay Area site of RRII's storage facility. Prior to mission departure, the team has a "packing day" at or near that location. Volunteers going on the mission are asked to attend if possible, even if it means a day or two flying out to the Bay Area and then back home. This meeting allows team members to inspect, organize, and familiarize themselves with the packed equipment, and to meet the other team members.

The team boxes are packed under the guidance of experienced RRII members to maximize the capacity and coverage of medical/surgical equipment. Weight is a constant consideration in the packing and shipping of liquid medications and metal instruments.

Personal equipment may reflect the specialty of the team member, such as orthopedics, OB/GYN, nursing, engineering, or construction. Personal gear can be packed in soft or hard bags, or cargo boxes. It may include survival gear the team member carries specifically for his/her own use, such as a compass, rain gear, insect repellent, map of the region, first aid kit, local language book, etc. The list can be as individual as each member of the team, but there can be no firearms, ammunition, or incendiary devices.. Contact the Team Leader in advance of a mission for a recommended list of equipment.

Often, much of this personal equipment can be purchased in the visited country. By purchasing in-country, there is less carry-on or checked baggage by the team member. This allows the RRII team to collectively carry more medical/surgical equipment, thus increasing the overall effectiveness of the relief mission.

Points of Departure

The RRII team usually departs as a unit from the San Francisco Bay area storage site, making a half-hour drive to the San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Transportation to the airport is provided from the storage site.

Team members may elect to rendezvous at the San Francisco Airport or at another pre-determined site, either enroute or in-country. It is suggested that all team members meet at SFO in order to maximize the effectiveness of collective baggage allowance. Often the team equipment boxes are overweight, and a team member with a lighter personal load may be able absorb some of the weight by redistributing supplies accordingly.

The Team Leader, as appropriate to the specific mission and country visited, will discuss in-country points of departure with mission volunteers.

Ticket Procurement

Due to Refugee Relief International's nonprofit, 501(c)(3) tax status, donations to RRII may be tax-deductible. Team members who purchase an airline ticket to fly to the relief mission sites should check with their tax advisor to determine if the cost can be listed as a tax-deductible donation to RRII.

Another cost-saving option for the volunteer is to find a sponsor for the price of the airline tickets. A sponsor can be a person or a group with an interest in humanitarian service, such as an expatriate of the country RRII will visit, or a religious,medical, veteran, or human rights organization.

The use of accumulated frequent flyer miles is an option several volunteers have used to reach mission sites.

Types of Deployment

Refugee Relief International is involved in providing health care to persons denied such care due to "regional or local armed conflicts". Because of these regional or local conflicts, there is an inherent element of danger associated with the relief mission.

Accordingly, RRII conducts two types of deployments. One is a structured site visit within the borders of a host country where the locals are friendly and the danger from attack by hostile forces is fairly remote. Usually, this type of mission consists of setting up a medical/surgical clinic and providing health care treatment and training to the local people. Conditions on a site mission are often safer and less harsh compared to the "field" mission.

A "field" mission takes the RRII team potentially into harm's way, and may include the threat of landmines, gunshot wounds, artillery or mortar attacks, or capture by armed and hostile forces. As an example, less than two weeks after a field mission created a medical clinic inside Burma to treat Karen and Shan refugees, the clinic site was destroyed by mortar fire, then overrun by Burmese Army soldiers, known worldwide for their human rights abuses.

Volunteers for a field mission need to be in excellent physical shape, and be aware of the potential for serious injury, capture, or death. They must have excellent field and survival skills (be "good in the woods"), be willing to take orders from the RRII Team Leader without question, and be able to contribute to the team's overall effectiveness while enduring multiple rigorous physical and psychological challenges. Personnel selection for field missions is based on several factors, including: specialty knowledge, language skills, physical ability, past military or other relevant experience operating in a hostile environment, plus the team leader's professional and personal judgment of the character of the volunteer.

Persons volunteering for a field mission should be prepared to challenge the elements, the terrain, and themselves, all within a potentially hostile environment while at the same time delivering quality medical care and training to needy refugees.

About Refugee Relief International

Refugee Relief International Inc., a non-governmental organization (NGO), has a history of providing medical care to less fortunate people around the world. Founded in 1974, RRI teams of volunteers have medically trained and treated refugees in Bosnia, Central America, and South East Asia. RRII's continuing mission is to provide humanitarian assistance to the victims of armed conflicts, particularly to those people oppressed by tyrannical regimes.

Statement from an RRII trained General Medical Officer.

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