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Refugees offer medical experience to help tackle coronavirus crisis in France

A young man smiling

Somali medic Yasin translates documents for asylum seekers on lockdown in France. © UNHCR/admin

Doctors from Libya and Somalia are among refugee medics joining the battle to fight COVID-19 and save lives.

By Celine Schmitt and Rachel Jenkins in Paris


The COVID-19 crisis has sparked an outpouring of solidarity from people around the world and that includes refugees, keen to help in the countries where they now live. Many refugees in Europe involved in medicine in their home countries are finding new ways to use their skills to help care for those in need. Below are two examples from France.


Mohamed’s Story

Mohamed, 39, worked as a doctor in his home country of Libya and was training to become a surgeon until violence forced him to flee to France in 2016. The hardship of the sea crossing did not diminish his desire to serve and pursue his career.

He passed the French language exams required to start the process of registering as a doctor and completed internships where he shadowed senior doctors at hospitals in the northern city of Rouen and Limoges in the centre west of the country. He also volunteered for French charities including “Les Restos du Cœur,” and is prepared to go wherever he is needed.

“My dream is to work as a doctor. It’s my life. It’s my oxygen,” Mohamed says.

When the COVID-19 crisis began in France, he immediately registered on the emergency roster set up by the Ministry of Health to support medical staff in hospitals.

“I am ready to do anything to help.”

“Refugee doctors can contribute to support and fight the virus. I have seen that in other European countries, refugee doctors are also called to work and help with the emergency situation”, Mohamed says.

“I am ready to do anything to help. I can work in the emergency room in a hospital at any position. I can be an assistant nurse; I can help in giving information. For all these positions, it’s very important to have staff in hospitals who know how to deal with such a situation. You have to be very careful, even in carrying the garbage,” he said.

Mohamed says his experience of war in Libya has taught him to remain calm and focused in difficult situations.

“An epidemic can be stressful, but it’s nothing compared to war. I am not scared. I am ready to go anywhere in France to help,” he said.


Yasin’s Story

Before Yasin fled Somalia three years ago, he studied medicine and qualified as a doctor. When he arrived in France he was eager to continue his work as a medic. In the event, he was unable to find work and eventually spent time living on the streets of Paris.

Undeterred, he founded an NGO, Network of Exiles in France, to make a difference in his new home country. Refugees and asylum seekers are heavily involved in the organization, participating in language exchanges and volunteering to translate documents.

The pandemic has given the charity an opportunity to contribute directly and has also made them extra busy.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, volunteers translated around 10 documents per week, primarily helping asylum seekers with the asylum process in France. Now they are translating documents that provide information on the lockdown in France and advice on who to contact if a person is feeling unwell. In all, they have translated over 220 documents.

“Stay home. Stay strong.”

“Hospitals, charities and accommodation centres have been sending us documents, certificates  and flyers, and we have been translating them for free,” Yasin said. “Some asylum seekers don’t understand the lockdown, so we help to explain in their own language.”

“During difficult times, the language barrier can become frustrating. We want to help.”

Once the lockdown is over, Yasin and the other volunteers plans to chart a new way forward but for now they have a simple message:

“Stay home. Stay strong,” Yasin said.

Originally published by UNHCR on 14 April 2020