Augusta Kpanabum and Dr. Kanneh in Mercy Hospital Sierra Leone

9 Powerful Lessons from People From Shithole Countries

Donald Trump’s question, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” shows he clearly doesn’t hang with the right crowd. If he did, he might learn a thing or two.

I know I have learned a lot from people hailing from so-called “shithole” countries. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet them through my work on the Morrow Methodist Church Global & Community Outreach committee. So here are 9 life lessons I’d like to share from all the visits, the talks and the friendships with people from shithole countries.

Lesson #1: How to be Brave in the Face of a Global Epidemic

I met many nurses in my travels in Sierra Leone in the Spring of 2016.  The stories about their bravery during the  Ebola crisis still inspire me today.

Over the impassioned objections from their families, nurses at the Connaught Hospital in Freetown Sierra Leone showed up for work every day during the Ebola crisis. Some nurses were even thrown out of their houses for fear they would bring the virus home. Another nurse was told by her husband, “don’t risk your life, if you don’t go to work, your hospital will still be standing but if you die, your family will have a big hole in it.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Nurse in yellow scrubs from Freetown Sierra Leone in Connaught Hospital
Nurse at the Connaught Hospital in Freetown Sierra Leone

Lesson #2: Religious Leaders Can Play on a National Stage

One of the great tragedies of the Ebola crisis was the delay by the Sierra Leone government in seeking help from the world health community. Valuable time and lives were lost. Behind the scenes, the Methodist Bishop of Sierra Leone, John Yambasu, used his access to the world media to quietly pressure the government to ask for assistance in combating the deadly Ebola virus.

And the World responded.

Bishop John Yambasu

Lesson #3: How to Power Through the Hard Times

Imagine waiting for months in a detention center until a judge is able to hear your asylum case. Detainees’ daily routine consists of mind-numbing monotony punctuated heart-pounding panic. As a volunteer for First Friends of NY/NJ, I visit people from “Shithole” countries while they await their asylum trials. I’m floored by how they maintain a positive attitude. They actively discipline their minds, hearts and spirit.

One Nigerian man nicknamed “AB” (who incidentally lived in an apartment building in Nigeria, not a hut), disciplined his thoughts by reading Joseph Murphy’s The Power of Your Subconscious Mind.” Faith also plays a large part in detainees’ ability to power through the hard times (Read how Abu’s faith helps him stay positive during his time in detention).

And all this resilience came without bitterness. 

PS: Both AB and Abu won their asylum cases! 

AB, the young Nigerian man who was granted asylum

Lesson #4: Creating Something from Nothing

When Augusta Kpanabum came to work at Mercy Hospital in Sierra Leone’s rural Bo region, she was shocked to find that her new hospital lacked an operating room. So Augusta called on her nursing community back in Freetown for help. Augusta procured one surgical instrument, one light, one table at a time until a small maternity waiting room evolved into a makeshift operating room. She showed me the small notebook where she tracks every operation.

Seeing so much progress with so few resources, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) funded the creation of a first rate “operating theater” at Mercy.

Augusta’s probably tracking the operations on an ipad now.

ead Nurse, Augusta Kpanabum sitting outside of Mercy Hospital in Sierra Leone
Augusta Kpanabum, Head Nurse at Mercy Hospital, Bo, Sierra Leone. Picture Source: Helping Children Worldwide Website

Lesson #5: Caring for Others When You Have Little Yourself

Starting out as an asylee in the US is hard, time-consuming work. There are mounds of paperwork to complete to receive basic benefits, find a place to live and get a job. But that didn’t stop Edafe, another non-hut dwelling Nigerian I know.

Once Edafe received asylum, he returned to the detention center to lift spirits and provide much needed advice to his friends awaiting their hearings. Edafe gives of his time freely, even though he is busy too—working at the Hyacinth AIDs Foundation, studying at the Columbia School of Social Work and volunteering as a board member for First Friends.

Edafe Okporo speaking at a First Friends Benefit Dinner

Lesson #6: Supporting Women Transforms Communities

I have visited Haiti several times, once with my church and another time as a volunteer working to capture all the good work Haitian Artisans for Peace International (HAPI) was doing in the rural community of Mizak.

What i saw was Haitian women transforming the economy through their entrepreneurial spirit and hard work. Watch this video about how Haitian women have rebooted their family’s lives with their hard work and determination with help from HAPI..

In the video, you’ll meet Yolande Zephir who started as an artisan and is now the director of Community Health, overseeing a major expansion of maternity health services. Around the world, building women leaders creates strong societies that invest in education, infrastructure and health care, even in “shithole” countries

Lesson #7 Appreciating the Small Things

Scan an American newsstand and you are sure to see a multitude of articles about how to get off the constant accumulation treadmill and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. I read them all but it was not until I visited an exiled African politician in detention that I really learned the lesson about savoring the small things in life.

I sent “Mr. T.” a Christmas card, a simple gesture on my part. When I later visited him, Mr. T. described my Christmas card in detail, telling me how the aluminum ornaments on it shone through the night.

I suddenly felt very sheepish about how I treated the Christmas cards I received—as just part of my everyday chore of getting through the tons of mail.

Christmas card with glowing ornaments

Lesson #8: Religious Tolerance is Possible

Muslims and Christians live together peacefully in Sierra Leone. Given the bigotry against Muslims in the US, I was amazed at the high degree of fluidity between the two religions. Back home, doing a little research, I found that both Christians and Muslims alike celebrate religious tolerance in Sierra Leone and that “marriage across sectarian lines is common, as are religious conversions” (The Economist).

In fact, the Methodist Bishop of Sierra Leone, John Yambasu, who I met on my church trip to Sierra Leone, was born into a Muslim family.

A picture of a muslim and a christian girl in school together in school
Christian and Muslim children study side by side in Sierra Leone.

Lesson #9: Living Your Dream

You’d think it is hard enough, just trying to survive in a new country. But TJ, a recent asylee, doesn’t’ just survive—he thrives. Not only does he freelance at my company as a graphic artist, TJ has designed a new men’s wear line, which will debut in February 2018. He had a dream and he is making it happen on a shoestring budget.

TJ modeling a muslin sample from his line

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