Basalt man on a mission to help Uganda |

Basalt man on a mission to help Uganda

Aaron Hedge
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Photo courtesy Harold Ulibari Children in a village near Lira, Uganda, surround an aid vehicle from nonprofit Global Refuge International. The organization is hosting a benefit event at the Mountain Chalet in Aspen on Tuesday

ASPEN – Entering an ailing Lira, Uganda, hospital, Harold Ulibari was struck by a number of things – the administrative offices with no paper; just a desk and a chair for each worker; the patient care units with nothing but mattress skeletons.

“They were just metal springs,” he said.

Patients awaiting help had set up make-shift campsites outside with firepits. Ulibari didn’t know how long they had been waiting for the one doctor.

But perhaps the most disturbing image he remembers from that day about three years ago was a young woman standing in the run-down lobby holding a baby who was gasping for air.

“The baby couldn’t breathe,” Ulibari said.

Ulibari doesn’t remember what caused the baby’s coughing. But he does remember the overwhelming feeling later that day when the woman, with a smile, took him to a room where the baby lay on one of the spring mattresses, a dirty blanket for padding, with an IV in its arm, breathing smoothly.

Most people wouldn’t have used that blanket, but the woman was happy to have it for her baby, Ulibari said.

That is one of the hundreds of images the 69-year-old Basalt barber recalls from his 18 days in the impoverished country in 2007. It is also what drives him to advocate locally for Global Refuge International, a nonprofit group that has fallen victim to the tough financial times.

It is the reason why, when asked by the group to contribute more than just his 2007 trip, he organized a benefit event to raise awareness, and hopefully some cash. The event is planned for Tuesday at the Mountain Chalet in Aspen at 7 p.m.

“They’re just trying to stay afloat,” he said, hoping to draw a large crowd for Tuesday’s event. Ulibari said he has been handing out fliers on the streets and spreading awareness of the event through word-of-mouth efforts.

The organization administers relief efforts in Third World countries, specifically focusing on medical issues in Uganda’s small villages, many of which have no hospital.

The efforts are “like house calls, but they’re hut calls,” Ulibari said, referencing the tiny mud buildings roofed with thatched local flora that line the roadways of the villages. He remembers pulling into the villages in Global Refuge cars and being immediately surrounded by hundreds of dark-faced village children.

“Before they got out of the car, they came from everywhere,” he said. In addition to providing medical support, the volunteers teach the children simple games, like hop-scotch, to take their minds off their extreme circumstances.

Many of the services Global Refuge is able to provide with its grassroots campaign, though, are rudimentary at best.

Ulibari said it provided a motorcycle to the Lira area for an ambulance. Patients ride on the back of the bike, fastened to the driver with Velcro straps.

It utilizes emergency medical technicians in the communities surrounding Lira to keep people alive until they can be seen by a doctor. But sometimes, those efforts are not enough.

He remembers one time, in a small village two hours from Lira, caring for a man who was suffering from severe dehydration. The Global Refuge caretakers tried tirelessly to find a vein to insert an IV. Because of the man’s dark skin and a lack of advanced medical equipment, they couldn’t.

The man died right there.

“That was really heavy on me,” Ulibari said, “because I’d never seen anything like it.”

For now, he said, the operation runs mainly on volunteer work.

But Ulibari hopes in the future to establish a funding stream for Global Refuge that will sustain a professional employee network so that incidents like that don’t occur again. Tuesday’s benefit, which will feature a presentation by organization leaders, is a step toward that end.

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