Sightsavers stories

Living with trachoma in a refugee camp

Rebecca stands with her arms folded outside her accommodation in the Kenyan refugee camp

Life with trachoma can be painful, particularly if you live in refugee camp with limited facilities. But thankfully for Rebecca, a Sightsavers programme restored her sight.

Rebecca, from South Sudan, who has trichiasis (also known as advanced trachoma), has been living in a refugee camp in northern Kenya since 2013. Rebecca says the lack of medical services in South Sudan means she probably would have gone blind had she stayed in her home country, so in many ways, being there has not only given her safety, but saved her sight too.

Rebecca is incredibly warm and welcoming despite all she has experienced. This is her second time in the Kakuma camp: the 37-year-old first came to the camp in 2004, but when peace returned to South Sudan she went home. However, she had to flee for a second time in 2013 when war erupted once more.

The sudden unrest scattered Rebecca’s family and she got separated from her five children. Her mother and father died before they could escape the fighting, and she still doesn’t know what happened to the rest of her community. She made the difficult journey across the South Sudan/Kenya border to the refugee camp without her sons and daughters, but thankfully, she later discovered they had also reached safety. The six of them now live together in the camp as a family.

A man talks with community members.

The Accelerate trachoma elimination programme

The Accelerate programme aims to eliminate trachoma in at least eight African countries and make significant progress in several others, including Kenya.

More about Accelerate

The journey to the camp was not easy. Rebecca explained how many people walked for up to 21 days to get there. Some would try to use buses or motorbikes, but they would often break down.

When Rebecca started to feel pain in her eyes, she decided to travel the long distance – several hours’ walk, sometimes on dangerous, flooded terrain – from the camp to the nearest clinic to have her eyes tested. She explained to the ophthalmologist there that she felt discomfort, especially in reaction to daylight, and that she could feel her eyelashes rubbing against her eyes. She was later diagnosed with trachoma.

A lack of resources in Kakuma means the clinic there does not have a functioning operating theatre. But thanks to Sightsavers and partners as part of the Accelerate programme, surgeons and ophthalmologists are able to come to the camp and do the surgery there. They make the two-hour drive along half-built, often-flooded dirt roads, to bring surgical equipment from Lodwar, the largest town in Northwest Kenya. Once they arrive, the team sets up a makeshift operating theatre, ready to treat the many people waiting for them.

On the day of her operation, despite her arduous journey and the pain in her eyes, Rebecca is first in line for surgery. After less than 30 minutes, she is out of the makeshift theatre and back to her joyful, joking self.

On getting her bandage removed the following day, Rebecca gave us a big thumbs up: “Yes. I am good now.”

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