Group braves danger delivering health care to rural Kenya


Story highlights

Threats by Islamist group Al-Shabaab have caused residents to flee the eastern coast of Kenya

Safari Doctors travels the area, offering free basic medical services to thousands of people

Omar was honored as a 2016 Top 10 CNN Hero | Tribute Show video

Lamu, Kenya CNN —  

The eastern coast of Kenya is riddled with danger. Once a sought-after tourist destination, today people are being warned to stay away because of threats by Islamist terror group Al-Shabaab. Others are fleeing the area for good.

But Umra Omar keeps going back.

In the remote area of islands near the Kenyan-Somali border, the Lamu Archipelago, aid groups have stopped working and infrastructures are crumbling.

CNN Hero Umra Omar
CNN Hero Umra Omar

She and her group, Safari Doctors, travel by boat, road and air to bring medical care to people living along the insecure region.

“There is a lot of caution of, ‘Why are you going here? You’re not supposed to,’ ” said Omar, 33. “And as a woman running around pushing this project, it’s like, ‘Why do that? Why not just stay home, get taken care of.’ “

Omar could have continued living the American dream she had worked so hard to carve out.

Raised in Kenya, she had earned degrees from two prestigious American schools, completed graduate school and was working full-time in Washington, D.C.

But Omar says cubicle life wasn’t for her; she was longing to return to her native country.

“When all is said and done, it feels like a lie to only work to get a paycheck,” said Omar, who moved home in 2010. “It was kind of a sense of responsibility.”

On a visit to her childhood community in the islands, she learned about a life-saving medical aid project that had been abandoned because of the security concerns.

02:18 - Source: CNN
Top 10 CNN Hero Umra Omar

Today, Safari Doctors provides free basic medical services – including immunizations, maternal health care and treatment for malaria and other common diseases in the region – to more than 1,000 people a year.

Despite the risk, and Omar’s current pregnancy, she makes bi-monthly trips as much as possible to help those who desperately need it.

CNN spoke with Omar about her work. Below is an edited version of the conversation.

CNN: You now live full-time on one of the islands; you also lived there as a young girl. What are these communities like?

Umra Omar: We are identified as the Bajuni and the Boni communities who are the indigenous people. So we have people who’ve never stepped out of the village at all; never, maybe, had an experience of running water. We have communities that, right now, have no schools within walking distance. Lamu is the only county in Kenya that has less than one kilometer of paved road.

The same thing that makes it beautiful, isolated and pristine, is the same thing that presents the challenges for access to health care. From the southernmost tip, which is in Lamu, all the way to the northernmost tip, that’s a two-hour speedboat (ride), about $300. For the average person from Lamu, that’s not something you just cough up to run to the district hospital.

CNN: How does it all come together?

02:25 - Sourc