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Sera Bonds helps refugee women get the care they need

Sera Bonds, founder of Circle of Health International, wants to help women and children get the care they need — regardless of their immigration status.

March is Women’s History Month, and women have come a long way since the days of fighting for the vote. But women around the nation and around the globe are still fighting for equality in many realms, including in education, technology, equal pay, campus sexual assault, and beyond. All month long, is highlighting women leaders who are fighting for the women’s rights issues of 2015. 

Sera Bonds founded Circle of Health International (COHI) in 2004 as a way to help women get reproductive, maternal, and newborn healthcare in areas affected by disasters and war. In just more than 10 years, the organization has helped women across the world, from Palestine to Haiti to Sri Lanka, and many refugee women here at home, especially along the U.S.'s southern border. COHI, which is based in Austin, Texas, works with dozens of partner clinics to offer women the healthcare they need. One of their clinics is located in McAllen, Texas — the border town that last year became the epicenter of the immigration debate. Political stances aside, Bond's mission is to provide women who are in crisis with the reproductive and maternal healthcare that they badly need. 

Bond answered our questions about her work and discussed the women COHI has helped. Check out her answers below and watch the video to hear more from her and the women COHI worked with in McAllen.

To begin with, tell us about Circle of Health International. What inspired you to start the organization? What is your mission?

I started COHI after observing, first hand, a need for community based, comprehensive maternal, reproductive, and newborn health care in the world’s hardest places. I’d worked with large NGOs and small ones in some very economically impoverished regions of the world, and I felt there was a”middle path” that was not often traveled in international development work. The organizations on this road maintain the nimbleness to respond quickly and as needs emerge that small organizations employ and are also engaged at the multinational level to ensure that the often quiet voices of local women are heard by leveraging our networks and privilege to amplify these voices.

The mission, therefore, is to provide quality maternal, reproductive, and newborn health care in crisis settings.

How big is COHI’s footprint? Where are its clinics? What kind of work is COHI doing around the world and here at home to help women?

COHI doesn’t “have” clinics, per say. We work locally, always, with a local partner who tells us what they need. We do our best to engage our resources (human, monetary, intellectual) to get our partners what they need. We’ve responded to 17 humanitarian emergencies, estimating that we’ve helped to provide care and supplies to over 3 million women. We’ve helped to train over 7,000 healthcare professionals working in the world’s hardest places, and they are the ones who truly make the impact as they are working outside of their comfort zones to meet the needs of local moms and babies every day, often without the supplies and technology that they truly need.

You recently celebrated COHI’s 10th anniversary in 2014. How has COHI grown in those 10 years?

We sure did! That was a very big deal. Most NGOs don’t last that long, in fact 80% don’t make it to see their 10th birthday, and we’ve now made it to our 11th. Growth for us seems to come in waves, and we do our best to ride them gracefully. We’ve not yet enjoyed that growth that comes with a sustained funding source, so we do our best to respond according to the resources available to us when we are asked to contribute. We’ve worked all over the world, we’ve helped to start four organizations in communities where the women there felt they needed that kind of institutional foothold to make the change they want to see. We’ve helped to ensure that babies are born safely in refugee camps, birth center, urban hospitals, and at homes around the world. 

COHI has provided aid to women in many areas, such as Haiti, the West Bank, and Sri Lanka, that have been affected by war or natural disasters. What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered working in these areas? How did you overcome them?

It's like that parable says: It's not the mountains you climb that wear one down, but the stone in one’s shoes. Or something like that. The challenges are seemingly small, really. Like paperwork for Palestinians and Israeli midwives and mothers to meet. It took us two years to get that paperwork. We often aren’t solving the world’s meta-problems, just filing paperwork. Other challenges are things like roads, reliable power sources, transportation that works when women need it to. Childbirth doesn’t stop when wars, tsunamis, political unrest strikes. Responding to the needs of women and children in need in these situations requires creativity, quick thinking, and the ability to find humor in any situation. I don’t begin to assert that I can do all of those things everyday, but I do my best.

COHI has a women’s clinic in McAllen, Texas, a town that has become the epicenter of the U.S. border crisis. Tell us about your work with immigrant women there. How has COHI been able to help women crossing the border?

We traveled to the Rio Grande Valley for the first time over July 4 weekend, which seemed an appropriate thing to do that weekend. We conducted a rapid health needs assessment, and staffed the clinic so that local staff could have a day off for the holiday. What we found during that assessment, and have continued to see over the last seven months, is that this is a refugee crisis. The folks we see at the clinic here present, clinically and psycho-socially, with the same kind of health conditions that refugees around the world present with: acute dehydration and malnutrition, abrasions, anxiety, and very high rates of PTSD. Since July, through close collaboration with Catholic Charities and the Hope Family Health Center, our collaboration has provided:

  • 65 volunteer clinicians from throughout the United States whose travel costs, local food/housing, and medical supplies and equipment were raised through a combination of grants and donations from generous individuals and private foundations

  • care to over 3400 women and children

  • interviewed 120 refugees in a survey implemented by the staff of the Center for Torture Survivors, Bellevue Hospital, New York City, to inform the psychological first aid that the volunteers in the clinic are providing

  • outfitted the clinic with a donated computer and monitor, complete with database management software to help facilitate patient intake, follow-up, and review notes

  • dispensed over $10,000 of medical supplies to refugees passing through

  • COHI’s staff has trained 50 community members on issues of human trafficking, community asset mapping, and vicarious trauma exposure in the Rio Grande Valley

The border crisis has become a topic of intense debate for politicians, some of whom have never been to the border themselves. Having worked with so many women immigrants who have crossed the border, what’s your message to Washington? What do you want them to know about these women immigrants?

COHI is a humanitarian organization, and our mission urges us to provide care to whomever needs it, politics aside. That said, this crisis is especially heartbreaking to us because it seems mean spirited. The U.S. is a country that exists, thrives, because of our immigrants, and always has. We are a country built by immigrants, and it serves us to welcome these families, embrace them, train and support them, and invite them to help strengthen our communities.

You recently talked to Austin’s KUT News about how you’re trying to build a database of health care providers willing to provide pro bono services to immigrant women. Can you tell us more about this effort?

Yes, thanks for asking. It is frightening to consider the dangers that this vulnerable population that COHI serves through this clinic faces upon arrival in the U.S. I wish it wasn’t the case, but their vulnerability doesn’t end once we meet them at the clinic. They are heading into the U.S., and that is a great unknown. Human trafficking, exploitation — these are the areas we are aiming to learn about by providing follow-up care and contact for the refugees when they arrive at their “final destination” in the U.S. It's too easy for these mothers and children to disappear when they leave the clinic, and we hope that, by tapping into a national network of health care providers, COHI is doing what we can to offer follow-up care and support — well beyond pediatric and OB/GYN care — for these brave folks.

And lastly, what’s your hope for the next generation of women?

Don’t be afraid. Period. Don’t be afraid of success, of failure, of rejection, of joy. Just do what needs doing, according to the values that you hold dear. Laugh too much, and love, love, love.

Learn more about Circle of Health International here.

Read more profiles in our Women's History Month series here.