When Connie Venuso arrived in Bangladesh late last year, she’d seen enough refugee camps, cared for enough of their sick to know life in these places can be untenable.
That kind of bird’s-eye view allows us to look at people as just “people” and not make any judgments.
And so having looked into the faces of thousands of immigrants, Venuso can’t help feeling disheartened about the government’s recent refusal to endorse efforts to protect young undocumented immigrants and accept other foreigners looking for a better life.
“The contrast of an incredibly crowded country like Bangladesh opening its arms to 670,000 refugees when no one in the world wanted them in comparison to the United States not only refusing refugees but deporting long-time immigrants and threatening the welfare of dreamers is stark and disillusioning,” she said. “I long for the time when we treated those in need with more compassion.”
Venuso, a 71-year-old grandmother of three, lives on a quiet street in Medlock Park, where she raised a son and a daughter and taught them to esteem others better than themselves and to abide by the golden rule.
The moment the last of the two went off to college in 1989, Venuso decided she’d go, too.
She earned a registered nurse degree in 1995 and joined Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as a neuroscience nurse.
It was her dream job, but Venuso also dreamed of traveling the world.
After a pleasure trip to Nepal in 1999, a colleague at CHOA told her about a trip she’d made to Peru with Medical Expeditions International, a now-defunct Atlanta-based volunteer medical team that made house calls around the world.
Venuso immediately signed up and in 2003 made her first trip with the organization to India, where she helped provide medical care to the locals and the monks and nuns based at the country’s Buddhist monasteries.
She’d soon travel to Tibet, Ecuador, Cambodia, Vietnam and again to Nepal.
“It’s the best thing you can do,” Venuso said.
By 2013, the stress at work had become too much. Venuso retired from CHOA but continued pediatric home health care and her volunteer work.
She was working in a refugee camp near the South Sudan border in Uganda when she heard about another medical mission to Bangladesh.
“That sounded like the trip of a lifetime,” she said.
But she was worried whether the group, Medical Teams International, would accept her. She was 70 years old and, unlike other trips, this one would be disaster response.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims had been forced to flee from their homes in Myanmar to escape killings, arson and other mass atrocities.
As their homes and villages went up in flames, the women were being raped, the elderly tortured and children burned to death. Those who made it out alive found sanctuary in neighboring Bangladesh, left to deal with a “human rights nightmare.”
There was religious or political persecution mingled with cholera epidemic mingled with famine and every disease imaginable.
“I wanted badly to go, so I wrote to ask if I could be part of the team,” Venuso said. “They knew I was willing and eager.”
They said yes.
The trip to Bangladesh would be her 11th trip with MTI, a nonprofit that provides medical and dental care as well as resources to achieve a healthier way of life in impoverished countries worldwide.
After 12 days at home to rest up from a trip to Uganda, Venuso boarded a flight on Nov. 12 to Qatar then Dhaka and finally Cox’s Bazar, a district of eastern Bangladesh.
For the next five weeks, she and some 20 other team members left their apartment at 7:30 a.m. and made their way — an hourlong drive — to the refugee camps. Once there, it was a 40-minute walk through the sprawling camp to a clinic, a small compound that included a pharmacy, lactating room, emergency treatment room, four consultation rooms and a waiting area. It had been up and running only two weeks when they arrived.
Venuso spent the day administering IV fluids and antibiotics, dressing wounds or finding the sickest refugees and bringing them in to see the doctors. She assigned numbers to those who weren’t quite as sick and could wait.
In all, 625,000 refugees had just arrived from across the Myanmar border, Venuso said. Many had not had medical care in a long time. Some were suffering from sepsis, some diarrhea and diphtheria, or severe dehydration and malnutrition.
“Every family had lost lives,” she said. “Mothers who had seen their children being murdered. Many women had been raped. One grandmother, who looked 70 but was only 50, had been badly beaten and could hardly walk. She watched all of her children and grandchildren be killed, except for one child.”
Sixty percent of everybody in the camp were children.
“I think that’s what made it so intense and every day thousands were coming in,” she said.
This wasn’t Venuso’s first experience with refugees. The first was in 2010 when she traveled to Haiti after the earthquake.
Seeing people picking up the pieces of their lives and starting over after losing loved ones and everything they had with such courage changed her life. Working with refugees became a passion, taking her from Haiti to Lebanon, the Congo and Somalia.
“It’s difficult for most people in the United States to imagine what it’s like to have everything you own in a small garbage bag,” Venuso said. “For a family of five or seven to start their life over with absolutely nothing in a strange place is unimaginable. The courage, resourcefulness and resilience of these people is so inspirational and focuses on what really matters in life.”
The experience has ignited in her a deeper resolve to work toward shifting U.S. policy toward accepting more immigrants.
As a decision on the country’s immigration policy loomed, Venuso said she hopes lawmakers, President Donald Trump in particular, will rethink their stand on immigration.
“We could be a safe haven for many thousands, and it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
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