From refugee to international aid worker. This man's story is remarkable.

Thok working with Médecins Sans Frontières.





It is World Refugee Week and we’re thrilled to be publishing this story from Médecins Sans Frontières nurse Thok Johnson, which details his journey from refugee to aid worker. 

Thok and his family escaped Sudan, fleeing to Ethiopia to a refugee camp where he dreamed of one day working as a nurse to help other people in his situation.

In 2000, after completing his diploma in nursing he returned to Sudan to help his people.  This is his story…


When I was nine-years-old, my family was forced to escape Sudan. That was in 1986. I still remember the fear that was around at the time. We heard that more and more people in the South were being persecuted and abused, even small children. So almost everybody in our village packed up their belongings and fled to Ethiopia. Many did not make it, they died of hunger or thirst along the way. Some we had to leave behind because they fell ill and there was no clinic or doctor.

We were on the move for a long time, four or five months, before we reached the refugee camp in Ethiopia. I lost my family along the way. I felt so alone. I thought I was the only member of my family to survive and make it to the camp. But eight months later, I met my mother again. She was with my sister and younger brother. I was so happy!

My father wasn’t with them though. It was three years until we had news of him. He was living in Bilpam, a town in what is today South Sudan.


Life in the camp

My sister, brother and I all got sick with measles in the refugee camp. Luckily, there was a tent clinic and we received treatment there. Teams from Médecins Sans Frontières and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency teams were working in the camp. This was the first time that I thought maybe one day I could be a nurse and work for an aid organisation.

It was a dream that was out of reach then. Our reality in the camp was marked by hunger and disease.

I was able to go to school though. We had classes under trees that gave us shade. We didn’t have pens or books, but used chalk to write on cardboard.

Despite the aid, life in the camp was very hard. Many people died, including some of my relatives. My brother Gatkhor was one of them. “Will this nightmare ever end?” we used to ask ourselves.

The football club was the only thing that gave me hope. One of our teachers had set it up. I remember I wore the number nine on my shirt, and scored a goal almost every game. It made me a little bit famous in the camp.

When I was 14, there was political unrest in Ethiopia and I was forced to flee back to Sudan. It was two years before I could come back to Ethiopia and finish school.

When I passed my final exams, I felt free, for the first time in my life. And I felt that dream again: to become a nurse and help people in need. I signed up at the medical college in the Ethiopian capital Addis Abeba and 18 months of intensive study later, I had a nursing diploma.

‘I returned home to help my people’.

I returned to Sudan in 2000 to help my people. They were still suffering the consequences of fighting and displacement.

I applied to Médecins Sans Frontières and was taken on as a nurse. I went on several assignments, including to a cholera epidemic in Aboko and to Leer, one of the biggest hospitals that Médecins Sans Frontières runs in todays South Sudan.

I worked in Leer for three years. During this time, Médecins Sans Frontières gave me the opportunity to train and develop my skills, such as learning how to treat children for malnutrition.

Then I was called on an Médecins Sans Frontières assignment to the refugee camp in Jamam in the North of the country, on the border with Sudan. The work that Médecins Sans Frontières does there is so important. Men, women and children who live in the camp were forced to leave their home, they are completely dependent on humanitarian aid. They need food, water and medical care.

It was very emotional for me to work there. It often reminded me of my own childhood and the other children, cramped conditions, hunger and heat in the refugee camp.

Work today

One day, while working in Jamam, I had an email from Médecins Sans Frontières asking me to work in Nigeria. It was the first time I was offered a management role, and one abroad, too. It was the best moment of my life: it showed me that hard work and study pay off.

I am very proud of what I have achieved. I was a refugee and now I am an international aid worker. My job makes me very happy.

To learn more about Médecins Sans Frontières and the work they do, click here.