ST. JOSEPH — Drew Aiken is on a mission.
Literally, and figuratively
The 2005 Lakeshore High School graduate and that year’s Miss Stevensville, now a lawyer, is on her second mission to Africa.
The 33-year-old graduated from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in philosophy. She then received her law degree at the University of Miami, Florida, where she also obtained a master’s degree in international law.
Now she travels the world working for Doctors Without Borders, founded in France in 1971 as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). The organization now has humanitarian projects in more than 70 countries.
Her next mission is a year-long one to Kinshasa in far West Africa. Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Julie Swidwa met with Aiken outside the home of her father, Scott Aiken of St. Joseph, before she departed on her current mission. (Scott Aiken is a retired Herald-Palladium staff writer.)
How did you get interested in this kind of work?
During law school I was part of the Human Rights Clinic there, which was very formative to my career. The University of Miami has a great hands-on clinic where you have both a theoretical component and a practical component, where you work directly on cases involving human rights. The case that I was most involved in was related to deportations to Haiti, to try to stop them after the earthquake in 2011, basically working to halt deportations, particularly for those with severe medical conditions and with family ties to the U.S. We met with some of the families whose relatives had been deported and actually traveled to Haiti. After that, that really kind of solidified my interest in human rights.
Tell me about the mission you just finished in Malawi.
It’s a small landlocked country in southeast Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world. They have a lot of challenges with their health system as many poor countries do. They have a very high HIV prevalence – about 9.2 percent of Malawians are living with HIV. With that, combined with few resources, they’re very dependent on international donors, but they do offer some amount of universal access to health services, especially for HIV and TB.
I went in September 2019. That was my first mission with Doctors Without Borders.
Tell me in your own words, what does Doctors Without Borders do?
We’re a medical humanitarian organization. We provide needed care to the most vulnerable, the most in need, often in countries with severe challenges, conflicts, displacements, natural disasters, or epidemics. We make decisions about where we work based on analysis and where we think there’s the most need. We’re kind of known for working in war zones and conflict zones which is a big part of what we do, responding post-disaster and also where there are unmet needs in general.
What is your specific job?
My title is advocacy manager. So I have a role that relates to policy and representation and advocacy, and sometimes communications. In Malawi, I was manager for advocacy and communications. I was based in Lilongwe, which is the national capital of Malawi.
Who determines where you go?
There’s a process. There will be different posts, for different positions and it’s a matching process, basically. You have a career manager and you work with the different operating centers to decide where the best fit is based on your skills and the needs.
When did you come back here from Malawi?
I came back during COVID, at the very end of March. I continued working from here. We had a choice. I could have stayed, but all the airports were closing and we weren’t sure what was happening. It was a worrisome time, and we didn’t know how long we might be stuck there. My mission was ending in a few months, so I thought I would be able to finish up from here.
What was it like there?
Malawi is very safe, fairly stable, with very low rates of crime. This year it was interesting because the election from May was invalidated by the court, so there were protests and things, so yeah, some did escalate into more like vandalism, but not a lot of serious violence. And this is a very rare year. In general things are quite peaceful.
Did you get lonely? Is it hard to do this kind of work so far from home?
I’m kind of used to it. I’ve lived in Africa most of the time since 2014. Of course, it’s hard to be far from family and friends, but you meet new friends and work keeps you pretty busy. I spend a lot of time in the field, getting to know our projects. It’s important to understand the projects, understand the needs, and to communicate with our patients.
What will you be doing on this next mission?
In Kinshasa, I’ll be doing the same role, that of advocacy manager. I won’t know all the details until I get there and get started. This mission is for one year.
Have you seen challenges related to COVID in these areas?
Yes, definitely. The health system in Malawi definitely has some weaknesses and challenges. In the beginning, we saw challenges getting PPE into the country, and other medical supplies like ventilators, and also access to existing services. There were challenges ensuring all the commodities, medicines and other tools were available for things such as HIV, TB, sexual reproductive health services. One of the biggest challenges is making sure people have accurate information. I don’t think it’s unique to Malawi, or to Southern Africa. I think in the U.S. we face some of the same challenges, as well, making sure people have accurate information so people can protect themselves and so they understand why they need to social distance, why they need to wash their hands. Decision-making around any response is only as effective as the decision-makers. So you have a lot going on, a lot of confusion, a lot of countries trying to make the best decisions they can without all the information they would like to have.
Your next mission, is it a safe area?
Quite safe. The east of the country is where there’s more conflict. This is the extreme west, at the border.
What else would you like to add?
MSF is a medical humanitarian organization. We’re focused on providing care to those neglected and vulnerable populations, and to those in need. Also very important is our impartiality and neutrality. For example, we don’t take sides in conflicts. We provide care to everyone based on medical principles, but that does not mean we remain silent.
A strong part of MSF is temoignage, a French word which means to bear witness to what we see. We should talk about and describe what we see to our beneficiaries and when necessary to speak out. For example, a big focus of one of our projects in Malawi was advanced, late stage HIV. Mortality is plateauing, it’s not reducing any more. This is concerning because the world thinks that AIDS is over, when in fact we’re seeing some concerning trends in the region.
Our project is about trying to make sure people are referred to the services they need, ensure early detection, and also have that high level of care to stabilize them and prevent them from dying when they do need to go to the hospital. What we see in remote Malawi is people coming in very sick, very thin, it’s called wasting. Maybe they had challenges or they don’t know their status. So there’s a need to make sure these models of care are there for those in specific populations.
We work with prisoners, we work with female sex workers and others that are at high risk. They need a model of care that provides HIV and reproductive health care in a friendly manner, without stigma. Our model provides a one-stop package where they can get the services they need. And there’s a community component where the peer sex workers reach out to give them information, bring them commodities and, where needed, to refer them to services.
What do you like best about the work you’re doing?
I like understanding different places and people. Living in a place and really being on the ground and working closely with our patients, you really get to understand countries and people from different cultures. And to be able to do something that’s helping those most in need is, I think, quite important.