How Dr Amna Tillisi is Taking Medical Aid to Libya

08/11/2011 23:29 GMT | Updated 08/01/2012 10:12 GMT

For Dr Amna Tillisi, the struggle in Libya isn't over yet.

Every night she sifts through the hundreds of boxes of medical supplies lining her garage in Essex, packing and labelling, and checking that their contents have not expired. She is helping ship them out to camps on the Libyan/Tunisian border, where an estimated 30,000 refugees have fled to following the uprisings in February.

By day, Tillisi, 46, organises meetings with other Libyan doctors, brainstorming ideas to raise funds for the wounded and displaced. She has recently returned to her position as a gynaecologist after giving up her job to wholly devote herself to aiding refugees.

She tells me, "I feel exhausted. You work so much, you have sleepless nights. It has been very, very busy." Tillisi is still committed to the cause, she says, "I only went back to part-time work two weeks ago - I'm still focussing on the relief effort. I'm just waiting for flights and we'll go back [to Libya] again."

Tillisi is the co-founder of Libya Medical Relief (LMR) - an organisation dedicated to providing prosthetic limbs, medical aid and relief to Libyan refugees. Founded five days after the uprisings began, the charity consists of just four other doctors - three of which are family members, and one a close family friend - and two volunteers. All are Libyans who emigrated to the UK decades ago.

For months they have been organising fundraising events and trips to Tunisia and Libya to provide some relief to the thousands of refugees - mostly women and children - and maimed and injured Libyans in the camps in Tataouin, on the Tunisian border.

To date they have raised £80,000 - and have managed to supply Libyan and Tunisian hospitals near the border with vital medicine and antibiotics. But Tillisi says that since the liberation began, funds are drying up: "At first, there were many groups set up, and much fundraising, mainly by Libyans. But at some point, people are drained physically, mentally and financially. It has been very difficult," she says.

"Not only are people drained financially, but they think: 'There are frozen assets [in Libya], we are a rich country - why do we have to give you [money]?"

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warns that the next phase in Libya is the rehabilitation of injured people from the war - and in September, David Cameron highlighted the need to help amputees by promising 50 beds at specialist hospitals to fit prosthetic limbs and provide rehabilitation - at the National Transitional Council's (NTC) expense.

And although last week saw the official conclusion of NATO's operations in Libya and the UN Security Council Mandate, NGO Refugees International estimates that more than 200,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries and refugee camps - and they are in danger of being forgotten.

When Tillisi and the rest of LMR first visited the camps in Tatouin in May - on the first ever humanitarian mission they had ever been on - they were appalled by the situation there. Pushing 40 degrees celsius heat in the Tunisian desert, they were among the first medical help to arrive to the camps, and the only people to help the thousands of refugees whom had fled the conflict.

"We were among the first group of doctors to go there, and there was nothing," she says. The first female gynaecologist on the ground, Tillisi helped establish an obstetrician clinic for women within just 48 hours of being there - and explains the dire need the camp was in for an authoritative woman's presence in the camp.

"Women were refusing to leave the camp without taking permission from their husbands, who were fighting in the Western mountains," she says. "A woman had lost her life because she refused to leave [the camp] without taking permission from her husband - but all the men were in the battlefield. A lot of women had no access to medical care, and the hospital was far away. I felt I was needed there," she adds, saying she stayed an extra week in the camps.

Staying in a small hotel in Tatouin, which had been bought by a Libyan businessman for a year to help with refugee project, Tillisi, her husband, her brother, her sister-in-law, a family friend and two volunteers set up shop for the thousands of refugees who had nothing - providing them with donated clothes, shoes and personal hygiene products. This hotel Mabrouk, which is an hour-and-a-half's drive from the camps, is now a base for all humanitarian relief efforts in that part of the country.

"On the first trip we were like headless chickens. We didn't know what we were doing," she says. None of us have been involved in relief efforts before, but now we have the experience."

But despite the difficult conditions, Tillisi is determined to continue LMR's work. She says that the tiny organisation's seemingly interminable drive is fuelled by the passion they have for what they are doing for their people. "It is displaced Libyans helping displaced Libyans on the ground," she says, "but we need support [from the international community] to provide medicine, medical equipment, vaccines."

"The biggest achievement is we managed to help people when they were really desperate and in need - like when I saw a six-year-old fitted with an artificial limb. When you see things like that you are appeased. You forget about the hard work and how tiring it was. It's very, very moving."

As she waits for funds to come in, which are not coming in, she spends her time checking and packing boxes of medicine donated by UK companies. On her next trip, she plans to take 18 boxes of medicine with her.

"My garage is full. I'd like to see how we can ship it. During the crisis it was easier to send via Malta, but now it's getting more difficult."

Practicalities are just one aspect of the mission, however. Tillisi says, "the main challenge is whether we can carry on with the same intensity and the same support, but we'll have to wait and see. There is no return. It is like a vicious cycle. But Libyan people are very strong. We will carry on."