The Collegian
Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Amid violence, alumnus aids victims in Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been plagued by violence since civil war first broke out more than a decade ago. One University of Richmond alumnus has spent the past year there working to provide emergency medical help for victims.

Will Cragin, RC '09, spoke to a group of about 50 students and faculty last Wednesday in the International Commons via live teleconference about his work for the International Medical Corps and his daily life in the North Kivu province in eastern Congo.

"[The International Medical Corps] focuses on public health in emergency contexts," Cragin said. The organization supports government health centers and provides healthcare — anything from providing medicine and supplies to operating feeding centers to working with displaced people and survivors of sexual violence.

Ongoing military operations by the Congolese government against armed insurgent groups has resulted in the armed groups in turn attacking civilians, Cragin said, and it is estimated that more than 5 million people have died.

Cragin came to national attention in early August when he helped alert the world to a violent attack that took place in a village in eastern Congo, in which an armed group occupied the area and gang-raped more than 240 women. Cragin said the International Medical Corps received word a few days after the attack and went into the villages to treat the victims.

The International Medical Corps was the first organization to arrive with aid, even before United Nations peacekeepers were aware of the attack, Cragin said. Originally they found 25 cases of sexual violence, but over the course of several days the number kept growing along with the realization that the attack had been unusually violent. International media outlets soon picked up the story, and Cragin was quoted in the New York Times, the Associated Press and the BBC.

He said of the situation, "It makes me really appreciate where I'm from."

Uliana Gabara, dean of international education, said after hearing about this she wanted to arrange a teleconference for Cragin to speak to students about his work and how his time at Richmond prepared him.

Cragin said he first became interested in Africa and humanitarian issues when he spent the summer after high school working for an NGO in Tanzania. At Richmond, he majored in international studies with a concentration in Africa, which he said helped prepare him for living in Congo.

He spent time learning Swahili on the side with French professor Kasongo Kapanga. Swahili and French are the working languages in the Congo.

"You have to know one or the other," Cragin said.

Cragin also studied abroad in Tanzania at the University of Dar Es Salaam and interned with Family Health International. He wrote his senior thesis on Congo, and during the fall of his senior year he arranged his class schedule so he would be free two days a week to drive to Washington, D.C., to intern for USAID.

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"He didn't let the fact that something wasn't easily available stop him," said Katybeth Lee, assistant director of the Career Development Center.

Cragin offered advice to students interested in similar jobs. "You don't have to go abroad to get that experience," he said, citing the intercultural environment in the city of Richmond. "Read as much as you can about your interests and speak to people in the industry. I'm still learning — talking to as many people as I can."

Cragin said his commitment to his work kept him motivated even when the job was draining.

When asked by a student how often he felt like his life was in danger, Cragin said he generally felt safe. He described being caught in the midst of a firefight at an airport once, but he said he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He said he felt a sense of security due to the strong relationship the International Medical Corps had with the community, and because of the neutrality and impartiality with which it helped victims.

In January, Cragin plans to take a year-long position with the International Medical Corps in Darfur. He also hopes to attend graduate school in the next three or four years to get a masters degree in public health or international relations, he said.

Contact staff writer Anna Kuta at anna.kuta@richmond.edu

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