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Sudanese Canadians return to heal their shattered homeland

Dr. Okony Simon Mori, a Canadian physician at the biggest hospital in Juba, Sudan.

Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail.

The blood-stained floor of the emergency ward is crowded with wounded bodies, huddled on the floor, waiting for treatment. A car crash has injured 16 people and doctors are rushing to help, overwhelmed by the carnage.

In another ward, a gunshot victim is recovering from a three-hour operation that saved his life. But his brother has been told to search for a blood donor - because the hospital doesn't have enough blood to keep the patient alive.

Here at the biggest hospital in southern Sudan, the blood shortage is far from the only crisis. There is such an acute shortage of staff that the doctors are working seven days a week, struggling to cope with some 200 surgical cases every day. "It's exhausting, but we have no choice," says Okony Simon Mori, a Canadian physician at the hospital.

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Without the Canadian doctors, the shortage would be even more extreme than it is. One-fifth of the hospital's 25 doctors are Canadian citizens - all of them former refugees who escaped from southern Sudan during its long civil war, which killed more than two million people.

The doctors had better-paying jobs in Canada, but chose to sacrifice their Canadian lifestyle. Returning to the land that they once fled, they have accepted lower salaries in an attempt to rebuild their shattered homeland, one of the poorest and hungriest regions in the world.

Dr. Mori had a comfortable life in Brooks, Alta., until he decided to return here. Now his salary is just $400 a month and he never gets a day off.

"It's my duty," he says simply. "Canada is my home, but Sudan is also my home, and it needs help more than Canada."

The hospital's chief doctor and medical director, Makier Isaac, lived in Canada for 10 years before returning here in 2007. His salary is one-fifth of what he was making at a private research company in Ottawa, where his wife and children still live.

"I don't see my family for a year at a time, but I do this for my people," Dr. Isaac says. "I love the people of southern Sudan and they need me more than Canada does."

Until recently, there were only about 50 doctors to care for the 10 million people in southern Sudan. Now they have been supplemented by 15 doctors from Canada, under a unique project by the University of Calgary, the Canadian government and a charity called Samaritan's Purse, all of which are providing training and funds for the returning doctors.

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Dr. Mori fled from southern Sudan with his parents in 1984 when he was 12. He was living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia when guerrilla leaders chose him as one of 600 children for an unusual mission: to go to Cuba to train as doctors and engineers to prepare for the building of an independent South Sudan. Many of the 600 children were among the famed "Lost Boys" - traumatized orphans who had fought as child soldiers in the war or fled the fighting by walking for weeks to the refugee camps.

Half of the children, including Dr. Mori, were loaded onto a Soviet ship for a 24-day journey to Cuba. By 1999, he had graduated from medical school in Cuba, but the civil war was still raging in Sudan and it was too dangerous to return home. Instead about 200 of the young doctors, including Dr. Mori, were accepted as immigrants to Canada.

His medical degree from Cuba did not allow him to practise medicine in Canada, so he worked at a meat-packing plant and a disabled children's program in Alberta. After the peace agreement in Sudan in 2005, he knocked on doors in Canada to raise money for his dream of returning home. By the end of 2007, after nine months of medical upgrading at the University of Calgary and a training program in Kenya to prepare him for African diseases, he was back in his homeland.

While the war is over, violence and disease still plague southern Sudan. About 2,500 people were killed in tribal clashes last year, while malaria and malnutrition claimed many more lives. The Canadian doctors are crucial to the future of the south as it prepares for a referendum on independence in January.

"I feel that I'm participating in building a nation," Dr. Mori says. "People thank me for helping them, and we keep this in our hearts. These people need a lot of help and love. I went to medical school to save lives, and now I feel that I've achieved my dream."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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