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Dallas-Fort Worth volunteers confront COVID-19 surge in home village 8,700 miles away

·4 min read

People shop in crowded markets without masks and no social distancing. Running water is scarce, making it difficult for people to wash their hands. COVID-19 tests and vaccines are hard to find.

As COVID-19 surges through Kenya, a group of Dallas-Fort Worth residents is working to bring tests and vaccines to the Nyanza province, where few people are vaccinated, the nearest hospital with oxygen is an hour and a half away, and a COVID test costs $85, a month’s salary for a school teacher.

“It’s a game of who can afford it and who cannot,” said Rebecca Bochaberi, a project coordinator with Dallas-based MEDS for Africa. She added: “No one is going to give up their salary to buy a test.”

Bochaberi is from Nyanza, as is MEDS for Africa board member Rebecca Opar and her husband, Paul. They are among the nearly 8,000 Kenya-born residents in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

“There’s a lot of Kenyans in the DFW area who are citizens, and our people back home are just dying,” Bochaberi said. “We’re trying the best we can, but testing is not available.”

MEDS for Africa was founded in 2008 by Dallas-Fort Worth residents Cherry and David Haymes with the goal to bring aid to Kenya in three areas: health care, dental care, and education.

The Opars are on the front lines, confronting the crisis in their home country of Kenya, where only 1.1% of the population has been fully vaccinated. They returned from Kenya on Wednesday after distributing medical supplies, masks and sanitizers throughout the province and attending a funeral for Paul’s father, who died of COVID-19.

They’ve flown the 8,700-mile, 21-hour trip twice since June for funerals (Paul’s stepmother also died of COVID-19 and his brother is recovering from the virus).

“There are no words to describe it. Everybody’s gone. And that is a hard pill to swallow,” said Rebecca, who graduated from UT Arlington in 2008 with a master’s in nursing practice and is now an associate professor at UT Arlington’s school of nursing. “It is scary to me. One life lost is too many. We have lost four in one home that is too many. That is everybody that matters to you in the home gone in one month. It’s hard to recover from that.”

The Opars distributed 1,800 hand sanitizer wipes, 600 KN95 masks, 200 gloves, 100 disposable isolation gowns, 80 face shields, 50 surgical gowns and other medical supplies. MEDS for Africa worked with Baylor Scott & White Health Faith in Action initiative program to get access to the medical supplies.

“When we go over there we invariably hear people saying to us, ‘Just you coming gives us hope,’ and so I sort of like to think that we’re in the hope business — that we’re giving those people who really don’t have very much some hope by showing up and bringing supplies,” said David, who was a practicing internist in Dallas for over 40 years and was a former member of the Board of Directors of the Dallas County Medical Society.

But delivering supplies can be challenging. Cherry, who is a graduate of TCU, said the time difference makes communication sporadic and delivering supplies usually requires someone to accompany them to make sure they get to the right place.

“That was the first line of defense,” Cherry said. “Now we’re working on the second line of defense which is COVID testing kits and vaccinations.”

Bochaberi said if testing were available people would know when to isolate from others and the spread would slow.

The Opars posted 500 posters around the province in Swahili and English showing basic rules to follow to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Information is power,” Bochaberi said.

Rebecca, who received her doctor of nursing practice in 2012 from Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions, said the area is in chaos. A 7 p.m. curfew is not helping, she said. She hopes the supplies and information they gave people will help slow the spread until testing and vaccines are available.

“I hope that they are compliant,” Rebecca said. “I hope that they will appreciate that some people are trying to take action to care about people’s lives and that they themselves can take it serious to care about their lives.”

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