Ever since I was teenager I remember wanting to work as a nurse in Africa. I was motivated by the fact that I wanted to work overseas to help people in need and to better understand the world I lived in.
Shortly after obtaining a nursing diploma from a college in Ottawa, and following a two-year stint at an Ottawa hospital, I decided to expand my horizons and moved to Switzerland. It was during my time in Europe that I heard about a course on the study of tropical diseases at the “Prince Leopold Institute of Tropical Medicine” in Belgium. After enrolling in the course, I still had no clear idea on how, when or where I would apply this new knowledge until a recruiter from Médecins Sans Frontires came to the Institute to introduce his medical organization. I knew then that I had found the way to fulfill my dream.
I took the plunge with MSF and embarked on my first humanitarian mission in January 1994, to provide health care for Somali refugees who had fled to Kenya during the Somali civil war. As soon as I arrived, I discovered that the learning curve would be steep but that the challenges would be equally rewarding.
In Hagadera camp, some 40,000 refugees found themselves completely dependent on humanitarian assistance to feed, house and treat them. Although Hagadera camp had the reputation of a camp of “luxury”, due to its regular food distributions, access to schools and sufficient clean water, the reality was acutely different. The refugees were in fact suffering from a lack of shelter and had difficulty accessing their drinking water. The most vulnerable refugees lived in the camp’s outskirts and were at constant risk of physical assault and rape. Over time, the more I saw, the more I became indignant with the idea that these refugees were living “luxury.”
As a nurse and project coordinator, I was responsible for a 100-bed hospital in the camp by supervising and training the hospital health staff, and also coordinated the local pharmacy. To this day I have vivid memories of my experience there, such as that of the Somali midwife Lool, standing in the middle of the hospital compound during a severe rainstorm and crying out loud, “I’m sick of this life! My children are drowning in our hut and I can’t even be there to shelter them!” Or the dazed and exhausted look on Magali’s face, our Swiss midwife, after she had been beaten with a thorn tree branch by a local staff member she had recently dismissed. The staff member’s reaction was a sharp reminder of the frustrations and aggressions that some of the refugees still felt, after years of suffering war and trauma.
Yet despite the challenges we faced daily, the rewards were equally important. The people I worked with, the work itself and the opportunity to experience a different culture captivated me. For the next five years of my life, I provided support in nutritional programs and primary health care, coordinated emergency mass vaccination campaigns and performed war surgery. In fact, one of my most rewarding and memorable missions was in 1995, during Chechnya’s war for independence from Russia. I was sent there to be part of a five-person surgical team to treat the war wounded. I had never practiced war surgery in such a volatile setting. It was a unique opportunity to learn the art of emergency triage, and to assist the surgeon and anesthesiologist during the operations and provide post-operation patient care.
Following my years in the field, I decided to approach MSF from a different perspective. I was offered a position in the U.S. head office as the medical volunteer Recruiter. This evolved into a position as Advocacy Officer, then as Government Relations Officer with the Canadian office.
In addition to my “desk” job with MSF I work as a nurse in Ottawa for the regional program for Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. My fieldwork with MSF has provided me with an incredible experience and resource upon which I draw every day for my work in Canada. Indeed, MSF proved to be an invaluable and extremely enriching part of my life.
Although MSF recruits hundreds of doctors and nurses each year, they are always looking for more who are willing to share their skills. For more information on working with MSF, visit www.msf.ca, or email Simona Powell at email@example.com.