Today, ni-Vanuatu woman, Leinasei Isno is flying from Wellington to Bangladesh with the New Zealand Red Cross to help provide life-saving emergency relief for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence in Myanmar.

Ms Isno, known to her friends as Leina, is the first dual citizen of Vanuatu and New Zealand to join the New Zealand Red Cross as a health delegate on an international mission.

Along with two other New Zealand nurses, Ms Isno will spend a month at a Red Cross field hospital set up in the city of Cox’s Bazar. There the team will face complaints ranging from diarrhoea, malnutrition, skin infections and breathing difficulties, to gunshot wounds and psychological trauma.

Ms Isno says she is feeling calm but very apprehensive about what’s ahead;

“The emotional trauma will be a big one for me being a first-timer out on deployment.”

She says the situation is very difficult and the biggest needs are food, water and health care. The confined spaces in the camps pose big risks for cholera and measles outbreaks, and child trafficking is also an immediate concern.

“These are important alarming issues that need the attention of the world to actually do something and act fast,” she says.

Ms Isno is originally from Lawa Village, South West Bay, Malekula. She left Vanuatu for New Zealand on a scholarship 17 years ago.

After receiving a Bachelor of Nursing and numerous post-graduate qualifications Ms Isno now works as a specialised peri-operative nurse in a private hospital in the capital, Wellington.

But Vanuatu is always in Ms Isno’s heart and mind, especially during times of need, and this is the motivation for her role with the Red Cross.

“In 2015 when Cyclone Pam struck Vanuatu I saw the world come to the aid of Vanuatu.

“There were 113 aid donor organisations on the ground in Vanuatu trying to help. That really struck me.”

She says she saw the generous response of Kiwis donating through the Red Cross Cyclone Pam appeal and numerous other political, education and community groups “kick into action.”

“I didn’t know how to say thank you — I just did not know how. So I thought one of the ways I could pay it forward is to go and serve – to ‘give back’ on an international scale.”

Ms Isno says she has always wanted to help people and giving back is one of the values her parents, Peter and Ruby Isno bestowed on her.

In New Zealand Ms Isno serves on the New Zealand Red Cross Pacific Advisory Board, and spent 12 years as secretary of the Vanuatu Wellington community. She works as a volunteer in refugee resettlement, and is an active member in the Mana Zonta Women’s Club. Ms Isno is a marriage celebrant, a civil defence volunteer, and a linguistics consultant.

“My father has always said that you’ve got to give back to the community, especially if you are in a foreign country where you’ve got no family. This is the backbone of society so you are going to have to do your part,” she says.

The humanitarian work of actress, Angelina Jolie stands out as a great example of this for Ms Isno; “Never mind about her marriages – it’s the work she does with the United Nations — she goes in to help the children and really be part of the crisis. That really inspired me.

“I wanted to set myself up financially so I could do that. I feel like I’ve come up to that part of my life when I can. I feel like I’m in my prime to do this,” she says.

But Ms Isno also has another, more romantic mission objective; to find a “humanitarian husband”.

“It’s been challenging trying to build myself up and be financially independent. Hence I haven’t had a lot of time to invest into a potential partner. I’ve always loved community work and giving back, and I’ve always wanted to find somebody who is on that same continuum with me. Whether it will happen I am not so sure but we will see,” she says with a laugh.

It has been difficult explaining her plans to family in Vanuatu where Ms Isno is the eldest of three daughters.

“It’s a challenge for my family. They feel like I have been so safe here in New Zealand. My mother is so worried sick about me. The first time I mentioned to her that I was going on a mission and that it wouldn’t be such a safe environment she was so much in tears she didn’t want to talk to me. My father ran off. They couldn’t cope. It was too much”, she says.

But Ms Isno says her parents are slowly coming around: “I kept talking to them. I kept briefing them. My phone bills are horrendous. I’ve spent a lot of money on the phone calls but it’s important.”

A big source of sadness was her younger sister’s reaction. “My second sister turned against me. Her reason was that I was being very selfish with having to go away and serve other people and not my family. It was something she was very adamant about. It became so hard for me. It was heart breaking. I don’t know if she has come around.

“She feels like I’ve neglected the family in the sense that I’ve lived in another country and I probably must have done so well compared to the conditions that my parents are in at the moment. I’ve never forgotten my parents. I make sure they have food on the table.

“I suppose time will tell. Once I’ve gone on my first mission and I’ll be able to come back and tell her some stories and show her some pictures of what I have seen and dealt with and I believe and hope that things will change for the better.

Longer term Ms Isno has big plans for the children of Lawa Village. “My long term goal is to head home to Vanuatu. I’d like to build a little museum for the children because our language is rapidly disappearing – it’s our identity and it has just gone out the window. I’d like to set up a community clinic that aligns with the museum on my father’s land. I see myself retiring in South West Bay on a beach front property.”

But for now she faces the tough road ahead in Cox’s Bazar where, all going well, she will spend her 37th birthday in the camps.

“I feel ready for it. I feel like I’ve been taught enough in New Zealand. I feel like it is time for me to go and share these skills. I look forward to the challenge.”

Freelance writer, Fiona Morris and photographer, Murray Lloyd are former VSA volunteers in Vanuatu. They met Leina in December 2016 when she was on duty caring for Fiona’s mother, June at Wakefield Hospital in Wellington.

The work of the Red Cross in Bangladesh

More than 609,000 people have crossed the border fleeing violence in Myanmar since 25 August, 2017 joining 210,000 others who were already sheltering in Bangladesh.

Hundreds more arrive every day, most of them on foot with only what they can carry. They are almost entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance to survive.

Red Cross has already reached more than 327,000 people with life-saving emergency shelter, food, healthcare, water, hygiene and sanitation support, as well as addressing critical protection and psychosocial needs.

Red Cross mobile medical teams have already treated almost 12,000 people on the Bangladesh side of the border; while a fully-equipped Red Cross field hospital opened in mid-October has already provided treatment to more than 3,500 patients.

“I have no words to describe what I saw out there,” says New Zealand Red Cross aid worker Corinne Ambler who has just returned from Bangladesh. “It’s wall-to-wall human suffering.”


Follow Vanuatu Red Cross on Facebook