“I am proud that I made a difference… and I was not alone”

Dea reflects on how growing up during the Lebanese civil war influenced her decision to join MSF, and the lessons she's learnt during her latest assignment in the Central African Republic.

Everybody has a personal reason for joining MSF…

I was born under the bombs of the Lebanese civil war. I remember when I was seven years old, continuously nagging my father to get out of the public underground shelter in Achrafieh to check our house. One calm day, he went out and he submitted to my requests to join him.

Everything was seriously damaged along with a big hole in the ceiling. I still remember the joke I made when I first entered the living room, ‘Ah! Look daddy the TV is still intact!’ When I think of it now, I am surprised that I was not scared. In fact I wanted to see more, I was curious enough to want to witness the reality.

I remember the day when the reporter on TV (Yes, the same TV that survived the bombs!) declared the end of the war, my parents were ecstatic and everyone celebrated this so-called 'happy ending'. The reality of this war, the indifference, the dispassion is still in our hearts, minds and souls.

As a child, I saw what I was not supposed to see. I heard what I was not supposed to hear. I witnessed the anxiety of my parents when approaching checkpoints. Ever since, I knew that I needed to assist, to witness, to give something of myself to others. It shaped who I am today. That component encouraged me to join humanitarian organization like the Lebanese Red Cross, and later on Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).  

Nurse Dea stands by an MSF Land Cruiser

A change of perspective

My story is unfortunately still the reality for millions of children living and experiencing war, hunger, inequality, discrimination, racism all around the world. The long civil war in Lebanon resulted in tens of thousands of dead, wounded, orphaned, widowed, kidnapped and disappeared. It was a huge defacement of our city, our country, our society. Young and old of all factions and parties became militants, attempting to defend their particular borders and their communities against everyone else.

The question, ‘What is the hidden opportunity within what I experienced?’ changed my perspective from a narrow, self-centered one into a much wider view. I have learned that when you ask yourself this question, ‘Does someone have it worse on this planet?’ The answer will definitely not result in positive thoughts, yet I understood throughout my life that I have much to be grateful for compared to others.

To assist, to witness, to work with MSF

I specialised as an operating theatre nurse, did a Master's in Community Development, and began this amazing experience with MSF in 2014. My first project I worked in was in Chatila/Beirut, a refugee camp which hosts Palestinian and Syrian refugees, domestic workers, and even poor Lebanese families. I was a primary health care clinic supervisor. I wanted to use my skills and experience in a humanitarian context and MSF brought together my passion for life, medicine, cultures and languages.

Recently, I was dispatched for a short time to an MSF project in the Central African Republic (CAR). The first time I read the name of the project, Bangassou, I quickly searched for the location (probably you will do the same). Where is Bangassou on the map? What are the living conditions, the culture?

I wanted to find out more – even though MSF provided me with information about the context and the project I was being sent to -- and I searched for pictures to understand more about where I was going to spend my days. Despite all the pictures and all the documents I had amassed, what I experienced first-hand in the field was still surprising and illuminating. 

It’s super tough working with MSF, especially after returning from an assignment, but you walk away with huge satisfaction. I felt that I made an impact. When you are in the middle of your daily tasks, your supervision and training responsibilities, you are motivated to help and do your utmost best.  

Different in every aspect

If you want to work for MSF, be prepared to work in places which will be considerably different from your everyday life in nearly every aspect imaginable. You need to quickly adapt to different cultures, contexts, living conditions. If you wish your job was like an intense camping trip, you will definitely adore the experience. But it is not a hobby or simply an experience of pure fun; you have to have the right skills, experience, and most of all, the right attitude and mentality. 

I learned to work quickly, as if every surgery was an emergency, because this is what efficiency means here in the field, while it doesn’t apply everywhere else in the world. I learned to watch, listen and understand the rhythm of work and the personal productivity of others, and help the team to increase the level of their preparedness when an emergency occurs.

Extremely challenging 

Everyone who has the same experience agrees that humanitarian work can be an extremely stressful experience, from the living conditions to the security measures within a project. My most stressful situation I can remember now was when I was in front of a patient that we couldn’t help at all, because it was too late. In the Central African Republic, people often come to the hospital very late – because in some cases the distance travelled for patients is very far from their homes; one of the most shocking sights I witnessed was a pregnant woman who was close to term being transported on an old, broken-down bicycle on worn-out dirt roads – or they try traditional medicines through a traditional healer.

MSF’s projects in CAR are an attempt to support the population due to the chronic health emergency afflicting the country. The political crisis and violence that has shaken CAR since 2013 has furthered the problem with a shortage of skilled medical personnel, especially in the provinces like Bangassou. The war in CAR may be over, but the challenges for the population remains. 

This recent assignment in the Central African Republic altered me in positive ways

MSF supports Bangassou Regional University Hospital, assisting the medical departments, heavily disrupted due to the crisis, to resume their activities. Now the hospital has a capacity of 118 beds and has internal medicine, maternity, paediatrics, neonatology and surgery departments. The hospital provides primary and secondary healthcare to an estimated population of 200,000 people living in the region.

Bangassou is the capital of the Mbomu prefecture. In addition to giving support to peripheral health centers' activities, MSF set up a referral and ambulance system between the hospital and health facilities in four sub-prefectures in Mbomu.

I felt fortunate in terms of living conditions, because only moments away, there were people living in terrible conditions. I learned that working well with others is crucial in reducing stress and ensuring the best possible care for people in need. There is a great sense of community and friendship among MSF teams that you need to nurture and can be developed without any effort. This is important to keep each other going. Great football and volleyball teams and jogging buddies can be created. Teamwork is absolutely vital!

Are you happy here?

While I was working and talking with people, I kept asking myself if they were happy in Bangassou. Were they satisfied with the limited living conditions? My personal thoughts were always ‘Of course not.’

Yet, one day I asked Quentin, a nurse from CAR, ‘Are you happy here?

He smiled, and answered politely, ‘Yes, I am. We are safe.’

I was impressed by his response. Unfortunately for most people, being happy was related to how much money one accumulates, the products one owns, and that is probably why I was sure that the people in CAR were unhappy due to their limited means.

Quentin’s answer was enough to help me understand that people need to be safe and secure far above what they own. I am saw parallels with my parents. I feel that if I had asked them the same question after the Lebanese civil war, they would have had a similar response as Quentin. Safety and security of one’s life is hard to describe or comprehend, but it is truly valued in these difficult circumstances.  As a nurse working in MSF, I felt that we were and are supporting this sense of safety and security for the population, at the very least from a medical standpoint. 

All of these life experiences I had - from childhood in Beirut to Central Africa - defined who I am today. This recent field work in CAR altered me in positive ways, and I felt that I witnessed a moment in which good work can have a powerful impact. I am proud to say that I did make a difference, no matter how small it was… and I did not do this alone, I did this with a wonderful and committed group of people.    

This post was originally published on Raseef22.