By Oakland Voices contributor Sultanah Corbett
OAKLAND, CA – In early September, four advocates from Oakland’s Allen Temple AIDS Ministries made their way to Harare, Zimbabwe to continue the work and vision of the late Dr. Robert Scott III, who founded the group a decade ago.
“We have over a thousand lives in the balance that we are responsible for providing medicine to,” pointed out Gloria Cox-Crowell, ATAM chair and facilitator of the mission.
ATAM visits Zimbabwe four times a year to conduct its clinic.
The group’s mission was interrupted when they and a Zimbabwean doctor were arrested and cited for operating a clinic without a license, and for not having a pharmacist present to administer antiretroviral drugs.
The group was arrested and held for four days in a city jail.
With just a ceiling window and no washing facilities, the 96-hour lock down took an emotional toll. Cox-Crowell recalled thinking to herself “you know this to shall pass and you know that this is not going to be forever” to keep her spirits up.
The jail also did not provide them food. Cox-Crowell said her group survived thanks to her church community. “Excellent friends affiliated with a partner church brought us breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it was more than enough. I actually gained weight.”
Overall, The ATAM mission group said that despite the uncomfortable jail conditions, they were treated very well. In fact, Cox-Cornwell was asked by the jailer to conduct an educational forum for women on HIV and AIDS.
Upon their release, the group was summoned to a Zimbabwean court. They were all later pardoned before boarding a flight back to the US.
The experience isn’t likely to sway ATAM’s commitment to Zimbabwe.
“We are not deterred by any of the incidents that occurred during the course of our clinic visit in September,” Cox-Crowell proclaimed during a press conference the group held last week. “We plan to go back. We encourage other humanitarian groups to join us in our efforts to eradicate HIV and AIDS.”
The Ministry of Health there welcomed the group back to continue addressing the impact of AIDS on that southern African nation. An estimated 1.4 million Zimbabweans are living with HIV or AIDS.
“We really felt like we were caught up in some ‘political ping pong,’” Cox-Crowell explained, “and until they sorted it out, we were going to be held. But there was no fear about being held and we weren’t scared. We were feeling inconvenienced only.”
Cox-Crowell, Dr. Anthony Jones, and nurses Gregory Miller and David Greensberg are responsible for providing basic humanitarian support to more than a thousand Zimbabweans living with HIV and AIDS.
For several years, ATAM has been providing food, clothing and generic antiretroviral drugs purchased from a Zimbabwean pharmacy.
Dr. Jones has taken his first trips ever to Zimbabwe as part of ATAM. “I feel privileged to be a part of this operation. As a clinician, to look through the charts and see how the people have gotten healthier over the years speaks to the success of the operation.”
Stressing the value of their mission, he added that HIV and AIDS patients are put at greater risk when they don’t receive regular treatment.
Gregory Miller, who works with HIV and AIDS patients in Oakland, said, “I, like the rest of the group, feel blessed that I am involved with a humanitarian effort like this. When I arrived in Zimbabwe and saw the devastation that the virus has caused to the people of Zimbabwe, it was unbelievable and overwhelming.”
He said the arrest and time spent in jail had not discouraged him from the bigger picture – saving lives.
David Greensberg has been with ATAM from the beginning, and worked closely with founder Dr. Robert Scott. It was the supportive synergy of the Zimbabwean people that made the legal ordeal bearable.
“Whether it was the inspectors that arrested us or the officers where we were in jail,” Greensberg recalled of his international mission work, “or people on the street that saw us in the news, they all thanked us and wanted us to continue our work.”
At the press conference, Congresswoman Barbara Lee expressed her gratitude for ATAM’s involvement in the fight against the AIDS pandemic.
“Anything that I can do through our congressional office, and as chair of the congressional Black Caucus,” Lee pledged, “to make sure that the people of Zimbabwe that your serving continue to receive the care and the treatment they need and deserve, we want to help them.”
Lee acknowledged the work performed in health care advocacy by ATAM members, and encouraged them to persevere.
“So many people are being helped and you’re saving so many lives, you’ve got to continue doing this,” Lee said to the group. “The work that you do to help people with HIV and AIDS is very critical.”
“The kind of work that we are doing in Zimbabwe,” said Cox-Crowell, “we are also doing right here at home in Oakland. We feel it necessary to not only be global but to be local. It’s our calling and it’s what we do.”