Libyan refugee returns home to offer psychiatric care to traumatized patients, clinicians
When fighting broke out in Libya in February, psychiatrist Omar Reda was half a world away in Portland, Ore., where he works at Oregon Health & Science University. A former Libyan refugee who settled in the United States a decade ago, Reda learned from various news reports that hospitals were in dire need of medical supplies.
What could he do? He wasn't sure, but he started calling aid agencies, offering to shepherd supplies to his native country.
To his surprise, there was one such agency "right next door," Portland's Medical Teams International. "They were very kind and generous and they basically gave me $400,000 worth of medications," says Reda, who has relatives in Benghazi. "And they told me it would be nice if I could fly with the medications, which I did."
Portland's Libyan community, which numbers about 200, hosted a fundraiser that brought in $20,000 for the trip, and Reda paid his travel expenses out of his own pocket.
Medical Teams International, which had never sent a team to Libya before—although it had shipped supplies through other organizations—was grateful for the help.
"When it's a conflict, there aren't people willing to put themselves on the line," says Medical Teams Vice President Marlene Minor. "Especially people who have the language skills. We don't ask people to go into war situations."
Reda, who in 2009 earned a master's degree from Harvard University in refugee mental health, ended up spending 13 days in Libya. He delivered supplies to seven hospitals in Ajdabiya and Benghazi, where air missile strikes had been launched and Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's forces were descending. He also provided trauma counseling at each hospital—psychological debriefing and psychological first aid—to violence survivors and medical team members who were on the scene.
"It was a quick assessment of needs," he says. "Many people had lost loved ones, many people saw their friends die in front of them, many people lost an extremity. There were physicians overwhelmed by what they saw, and children having nightmares."
Reda flew in through Egypt, where he picked up the supplies that had been shipped through the Netherlands. He then rode with others in a van to the eastern border of Libya, where a hired car took him to Benghazi.
"The eastern part of the country was not under the control of Mr. Qaddafi, so it was very easy crossing the border from Egypt and going all the way into Benghazi," he says.
When he arrived, "the situation was worse than I had expected," he recalls. He was able to help with triage, having worked as a trauma surgeon before he fled Libya.
Reda's own brother disappeared—assumed kidnapped by Qaddafi's soldiers—and two of his cousins were killed in the fighting.
He also paid a visit to the state psychiatric hospital outside of Benghazi, where the doctors told him the number of admissions had quadrupled since the fighting. "People are having reactions like acute-stress disorder and brief psychotic disorder," he says. "Nobody was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder yet, because of the time frame, but many of them are going to have it."
He would like to return to Libya "immediately," but he has three small children in Portland and a Libyan-born wife who fears for his life. Reda fled Libya in 1999, when the government pegged him as a resistance sympathizer for providing financial and medical help to families of political prisoners.
His dream is to work nine months a year in the United States and then spend three months ministering to mental-health patients in Libya. "They don't have the psychiatric infrastructure there," he says. "Whatever symptoms people have, they end up going to a state hospital because that's the only facility. Even people who are having mild anxiety or mild depression go to be evaluated at the state hospital, which can be traumatic in itself."