HIV-positive patient Holy Moyo relaxes during an appointment at St. Paul’s Hospital. ‘As you can see, I’m doing very well, thank you,’ said Moyo, who is taking anti-retroviral drugs in Vancouver after suffering with very limited health care services in Zimbabwe.
Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider, PNG, Vancouver Sun
Holy Moyo would most certainly have been dead a long time ago had Canada not offered him a place to call home.
Three years ago, the 46-year-old HIV-positive man was accepted as a refugee from Zimbabwe, a country with almost no HIV treatment and where life expectancy is only 48.If AIDS hadn’t killed him, the former police officer would have likely fallen victim to Robert Mugabe’s repressive government.
Moyo now hopes to live to 100.
Seven years ago, Moyo was at death’s door. But there was no anti-retroviral medication available in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city – only antibiotics to treat opportunistic infections.
A friend told him that Doctors Without Borders had opened a clinic in town that was treating HIV patients free of charge. Moyo was one of the first to sign up. His CD4 count, which measures the strength of the immune system, was dangerously low.
“I was one foot in the grave,” he said.
And Moyo’s health was not the only threat to his life at the time.
During his time as a police officer, Moyo had become angry at being “an instrument of suppressing the people,” and having to shoot, beat and tear-gas people in order to enforce Mugabe’s iron grip on the country.
Moyo began reading newspapers that were not controlled by the state. On one occasion, he did not go to vote with the rest of the police officers, who were directed where to mark their “x” by their superiors; he went to a primary school to vote in private and was observed doing so. On several occasions during his time with the police, he returned home to find his house had been searched. Moyo resigned his position in 2004, left the police compound and went to live in a township.
Moyo crossed the Limpopo river, which forms the border with South Africa, with nothing but the clothes on his back, some money from selling his possessions, his Zimbabwe identification card and his AIDS meds. He joined his wife in a South African border town. They spent several weeks in another small town, but because they were undocumented refugees who would be deported straight into the hands of Zimbabwe’s intelligence ministry if discovered, decided to try to “disappear” into the vast metropolis of Johannesburg, as so many of their compatriots had done before.
There, they were directed to a support centre for Zimbabwean victims of torture. Staff at the centre got Moyo into hospital, where his wounds, which had become infected, were treated and his anti-HIV medications resumed. South African police got Moyo and his wife the appropriate documentation as refugees and human rights lawyers put them in touch with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the hopes that a permanent home could be found for them.
For a time, it looked like that home would be Australia, but they soon found out that that country did not accept HIV-positive refugees. So the UNHCR officials suggested Moyo and his wife try Canada.
Months after they’d applied, Moyo and his wife were informed they would be leaving for Canada in six days. This was not enough time to get their daughter out of Zimbabwe to join them. They left without her in May 2008, and Moyo now has two grandchildren in Zimbabwe he has never met.
Moyo is now being treated at the Immunodeficiency Clinic at St. Paul’s Hospital, a world away from the clinic where he used to get antibiotics in Bulawayo. He now takes one pill a day – with no side effects – for his HIV, has studied social work and is working on a casual basis at the Lookout Emergency Aid Society.
The clinic at St. Paul’s treats more than 50 HIV-positive refugees who are often referred there by immigration officials, said director Scott Harrison. Many are single women whose husbands have been killed in conflict. Treating HIV-positive refugees requires a different skill set than what is required for Canadian patients, Harrison said.
“People have got very traumatic injuries, so trusting institutions and trusting people in authority is often a huge step for our refugee patients,” he said.
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