The night before she was set to leave, Cindy Nelly’s living room was full of supplies.
A sleeping bag. A suitcase full of prenatal vitamins. An obstetrical kit.
After watching the civil war in Syria unfold over the past six years — and displace millions — the UF alumna felt it was time.
At 6 a.m. Wednesday, Nelly put her life in Gainesville on hold as she boarded an airplane bound for Turkey. Upon landing on the Eastern coast of the country, she began a monthlong medical trip, tending to women and children at more than 20 refugee camps.
“It really just calls to me,” she said. “It feels like I have to go.”
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The trip to Turkey had been weeks in the making.
On Aug. 5, the 46-year-old midwife and advanced nurse practitioner set up a GoFundMe page to funnel donations.
About a month later, the page has raised more than $8,000, which Nelly will use to buy medical supplies, like antibiotics, sutures and bandages, in Turkey.
Within the country’s borders, the money translates to nearly 24,000 Turkish liras.
Nelly said the need for health care in Turkey is palpable.
After the war broke out in Syria and refugees fled violence from their government and foreign fighters, an already overburdened medical system was stretched to its limits, she said.
“Turkey hosts more (Syrian) refugees than any other country in the world right now,” she said. “And they cannot possibly provide services to all people who need them.”
Standing outside their home as Nelly packed, her husband Peter Alcorn said the urge to help is just a part of who Nelly is.
Alcorn seemed calm but admitted feeling nervous that Nelly would be heading to a country recently rocked by a coup attempt and a handful of terror attacks.
“I’m a little bit nervous,” he admitted. “It’s a little unstable over there right now.”
But, he said, what makes him more nervous is Nelly’s unflinching drive to serve the underserved.
“If she doesn’t feel like she’s being productive in the camps, then she will be the first to sign up to go elsewhere,” he said.
As Nelly’s plane landed in Izmir, Turkey, after a 13-hour flight, four children thought of their mother.
She has twin sons, 22-year-old Abraham and Eziah, a 23-year-old daughter, Hannah, and a 13-year-old son, Cyrus.
Eziah, a student at Florida Gateway College, said Nelly’s efforts have inspired him to go on his own one day.
“Like any other kid, I’m nervous for her safety,” he said. “But I know she is doing something very good that other people can’t do.”
Cindy Nelly’s American passport sits atop her table on Tuesday evening while she prepares to leave to Turkey. As a part of other trips, the midwife has visited Kenya, Rwanda and Haiti to provide similar medical services.
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This is not the first time Nelly has dropped everything to answer a call to service.
After a hurricane ravaged New Orleans in 2005 and an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, she left home and provided disaster relief.
She has also volunteered at clinics across the world, in countries like Kenya, Gambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia.
When friends asked if she was scared to go to Turkey, she answered sternly.
“It’s really interesting that I get a lot more people asking me if I’m scared to go on this mission than have ever asked me about any other international work,” Nelly said. “It’s probably less dangerous than most of the other international work that I’ve done.”
The preparation for the trip is also different: Turkey already has a solid medical infrastructure, Nelly said, which means that instead of bringing materials, she has been asked to bring money and purchase the majority of supplies there.
“The packing isn’t as exciting this time,” Nelly said. “It’s not as much stuff as normal — it’s pretty minimal.”
Her personal items are few: A box of Clif Bars, some clothing and two dark-chocolate bars with sea salt and almonds will hold her over.
Nelly hopes the trip will give her the opportunity to speak with refugees and later share their stories and hopefully inspire Gainesville to become more active in the face of tremendous suffering.
If the public becomes more aware of what is happening, then “maybe instead of 10 to 20 thousand refugees, we can welcome more in,” she said.
“I’d like to connect with people so they can feel like we are paying attention, that there are those of us here that really do care,” Nelly said.
When Nelly returns to Gainesville, she will begin working at UF Health Shands as a midwife. After she returns from overseas, she said she hopes to continue to touch lives.
Nicholas Nourieh, a Syrian-born UF student, said he was happy — and surprised — to see what Nelly had decided to do.
The 20-year-old UF biology senior, who is also a member of the Arab Students’ Association, said he hopes Nelly’s work will lift some of the burden from the shoulders of refugees.
“These kinds of acts help give hope,” he said.
Cindy Nelly fills her bags with about 200 condoms, and dozens of contraceptive pills and pre-natal medications ahead of her monthlong service trip to Turkey. The UF alumna said she felt a calling to help refugees after watching the country implode following a yearslong civil war. “It really just calls to me,” she said. “It feels like I have to go.”