Behind the scenes in Bekaa

"Time passes very quickly and I realised that it’s been a month already since I arrived in Lebanon." 

Nicole Bachtold

Nicole is working in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, an area close to the border with Syria. Her project focuses on providing medical services for Syrian refugees in the area, and Nicole is in charge of making sure the project has the staff and finance systems it needs to provide vital health care.

Time passes very quickly and I realised that it’s been a month already since I arrived in Lebanon. For my friends on Facebook, it might look like I’m having a very relaxing time, enjoying time with my colleagues, BBQs and having fun at night with a glass of wine and some music… That’s only a (small) part of my life here, so I would like to give you a bit more information about what I do on a daily basis to complete this picture…


We are busy! With 150 staff in the project, there are regular job openings and thus recruitment going on – we need medical, paramedical, logistics and administrative staff to keep the project running smoothly. 
This building is part of the MSF project in BekaaNicole Bachtold / MSF

Most of the time, we announce an opening on – a website with humanitarian jobs listings in Lebanon. We also put it on the board in our clinics. When the applications come in, my colleagues Hussein and Nawal sort them and make a shortlist, those shortlisted are invited for a test and those who pass the test get invited for the interview. After the interviews, we compile a report to explain why we chose which candidate. It sounds straight forward, right? But what looks quite straightforward can bring some complications… 

It is very important to make the selection process transparent and fair to ensure equal treatment for everybody. However sometimes people remove the job ads from the boards because they want to be the only one applying to get the job. In Arsal, a town close the border with Syria, we are the only organisation offering jobs because of the unstable situation there. It means that every time we have an opening, we have many applicants, and “recommendations” coming from everywhere. 
Another part of my job is assisting in any HR-related problems between staff. I have already had to initiate disciplinary sanctions and a dismissal. While this isn’t new to me, the fact of involving the Lebanese Labour Ministry isn’t something I would have thought about before. This part of my job is definitely the most challenging and time-consuming part…
When employees are leaving, we have to prepare work certificates, calculate any outstanding payments and update the system. And during payroll week, we have to control all attendance sheets, manually calculate overtime, do all the consolidation sheets as we have different types of contracts, prepare the cheques, encode them in the system and send the information to the coordinator in Beirut. With 150 staff, it’s a very busy week!
contracts covering the table and the floorPhoto: Nicole Bachtold / MSF

We also are currently running a project in Lebanon implementing the new international salary and function grids and so we had to prepare about 150 contract amendments (see picture) and hold meetings in each clinic to inform the staff. It took more than a week, including working full Saturdays… Many employees were worried about their salaries and were calling the office to know about their situation before we even presented it… I was glad that we could present to them many new advantages of employee benefits and the messages were mostly well received. We now need to make sure to get all contract amendments signed, and follow the changes in the system for the next payroll.

A big frustrating part for me is that I neither speak the language nor can prepare any document myself, as it always needs Arabic translation. I’m not used working in an environment where I really don’t understand anything. For a mediation session or disciplinary measure meetings we always have someone translating, but it is very tiring, time-consuming and frustrating. This is why I decided to pick up Arabic lessons: if I can at least understand some basic conversations after a few months I will be very happy.
That’s the HR part of what I do here, but another part of my job is everything related to finance. Hussein and Nawal process the invoices, while I need to check they are allocated correctly. I have to sign cheques (paying invoices or employees), verify that the validation process was followed and I update the budgets regularly to see where we stand in our monthly and yearly forecasts and actuals. And of course I need to follow our bank account movements to make sure that we always have enough money to pay the invoices and the staff!
Photo of Nicole's home in BekaaPhoto: Nicole Bachtold / MSF
So all that means very packed days, sometimes working without a break, until late at night and during weekends. But whenever I have a Sunday off, yes, we go out, do picnics in West Bekaa with amazing views over the valley; BBQs with wine and Tony the logistician playing guitar, visiting the amazing Baalbek ruins; prepare a sushi night under Marina’s supervision (she is our Japanese midwife…and I have to admit that I enjoyed preparing sushi a lot and was very proud of the result) and try to relax and take advantage of the sunny weather. 
I definitely can’t complain, I have very nice colleagues and a very decent standard of living for an MSF project, with my own room and meals made by a really good cook. Mayada makes sure that we get good, local, fresh food prepared by her every day and this is worth a LOT to me, as those who know me know that I hate cooking… I’m more of the cleaner and even started to find ironing relaxing (I know, kind of scary feeling…) ;-)
Let’s see which surprises the next weeks will bring…
Nicole leaping, in the sunshine in LebanonPhoto: Photo: Nicole Bachtold / MSF