Student Joins Rwandan Relief Efforts By Christine A. Rowett As a volunteer with a Christian organization working in Rwanda, Bethany Bransford helped set up an orphanage and administer health care to thousands. Sadly, many of the war orphans did not live to be adopted. But Bransford, a committed Christian, found solace in the losses. "I always felt my arms weren't big enough [for all the children]," the senior Nursing student said. "In heaven, they would never be put down. They would always be loved. That was a big comfort to me." In June, Bransford, 21, decided she wanted to go to Rwanda, the embattled African country plagued by military uprisings and massacres for the past 30 years. She contacted the Christian relief organization Samaritan Purse, and by June 14 she was there. Bransford recalled the 2 1/2-hour drive to the former town of Rutare, which had been transformed into a refugee camp. "The whole countryside was completely bare. It was an eerie feeling," Bransford said. "We didn't see but two people on our drive." When they reached Rutare, however, they saw more than 105,000 people, living in makeshift huts in a town that was previously home to 5,000. The population included between 400 and 500 parentless children, so the volunteers, including members of Samaritan Purse and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, first established an orphanage. They also set up immunizations clinics and dispensed vitamins. For many, they were too late. AIDS, dysentery and starvation claimed their victims. Bransford said the exposure to death and suffering gave her a new perspective. "In the medical profession, sometimes we feel like we've failed," she said. "I was reminded of a couple of passages in the Bible. The Lord talked about letting the children come to him." A history of violence In "Exile from Rwanda: Background to an Invasion," Catherine Watson, consultant to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, traces the unrest in Rwanda to a well-established caste system that was dissolved when the monarchy was overthrown in 1959. The royal family and other notables were Tutsi; soldiers and croppers were Hutu; and a small group of hunters and potters were Twa. Bransford and a small group of volunteers left the refugee camp and went to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, west of Ngoro-lero, where a substantial number of Tutsi had been killed, reportedly by Hutu civilians. The previous violence there was evident from bullet holes in the door of the home where they stayed and from the blood-soaked backyard. "There was a real sense of rage and violence in that house," Bransford said. Though there were several bedrooms, the group spent the first nights together in the living room. The volunteers found further aftermath of violence at the clinic where they worked: scant metal beds, several directly under a hole in the ceiling caused by a mortar shell. "I shed a lot of tears," Bransford said. Harvard medical student Steve Swanson was among the volunteers at the clinic. For Bransford, he was a "godsend." "It was great just to have someone there to vent," Bransford said. "It's amazing when you're in an experience like that how you get to know people very quickly." Lessons in life Bransford's family has a history of service to humanity. Her father, a surgeon, is a Hopkins graduate who worked with Samaritan Purse in Somalia. Her mother taught at a missionary academy for years. Two years ago the couple, both missionaries in Kenya for the past 17 years, adopted a 2 1/2-year-old boy who had been abandoned. One of Bransford's older brothers is in medical school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.; the other is in a discipleship program studying with a pastor in Texas. "I always knew I wanted to do medical work," Bransford said. Though she was initially pre-med, the future nurse changed her course of study after talking with several medical professionals, including her father. "I know he would like to spend more time with patients," Bransford said. "In nursing I could do that more." In Rwanda, it was the patients and their families who helped her. "It was an incredible time to be in that country," Bransford said. "I just love the people there." Bransford specifically recalled talking with a Rwandan woman who had witnessed the brutal killing of her own brother. The women met at a small church. "Her faith was just amazing," Bransford said. Coming home By the time the group was ready to leave the home that had been filled with rage, "there was such love and happiness there," Bransford said. It was transformed, she said, by the positive work and attitudes of the volunteers. She admits returning to Hopkins was "a little bit of culture shock" after witnessing the brutalities of war and the sparse medical facilities in Rwanda. "It renewed my desire to go into nursing and help people," she said. "It made me more excited to finish off school and learn as much as I can." She and Swanson have since had some emotional conversations that included "memories we hadn't dealt with because we were just too busy," she said. But she has no regrets. "Even though some of the work was seemingly a failure, it was not in vain," she said. "I really feel that God wanted me to do this for the summer."
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