The conditions are volatile, the experiences sometimes harrowing, but for people interested in serving populations in need, Doctors Without Borders could be a fitting option.
This independent, humanitarian organization, known internationally as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for its French origin, sends medical and nonmedical aid workers to areas throughout the world, especially regions affected by conflict, epidemics and disasters, often in partnership with the closest Ministry of Health.
“We’re always focused on the medical gaps, usually in emergency situations,” said Rogier van Helmond, a Field HR Officer for the United States office (MSF-USA) who has completed several MSF assignments since he joined in 1995.
In December, van Helmond visited Flagstaff, the first of three stops in Arizona, to share information on the organization and its continuing need for applicants.
At any given time, MSF teams are working in 70 countries throughout the world. According to an annual report, MSF-USA sent 375 U.S. employees on their first assignments in 2018, with South Sudan holding the most total staff for the year at 3,682. Van Helmond said there are a total of 41,500 field positions with MSF and 56% of all programs are based in Africa and of all programs, just over half occur in areas of conflict or internal stability.
MSF teams address dozens of medical issues, from access to medicines and malnutrition to sexual and gender-based violence and maternal health. Assignments typically last at least nine to 12 months in teams ranging in size from a dozen to hundreds of workers, 91% of which are locally hired.
Applicants are asked to have at least two years of professional experience, whether in the medical field or other areas like finance, human resources, or technical skills like sanitation, electricity or mechanics. Language skills in French and recent travel or work outside the U.S. are strongly suggested. Flexibility, though, is the most essential qualification.
Pediatrician Karen Yates knew she wanted to join MSF when she was 17, but it was not until her schedule opened up years later, after becoming an empty-nester and closing her longtime practice in Prescott, that she applied and was given her first assignment: the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than 75 rebel groups’ violent activities leave civilians in need of constant medical care.
Despite the surrounding conflict, though, Yates said MSF’s work area, a weapon-free zone (the standard for MSF sites), remained untouched.
“I believe [MSF has] the best security in the world as a humanitarian organization,” Yates said. “I always felt safe and taken care of.”
In situations where safety is jeopardized, like a November aerial attack that destroyed part of an MSF hospital in Yemen, staff and patients are evacuated and activities are suspended until it is safe to continue. Fortunately, in the situation in Yemen, there were no casualties.
The starting salary for MSF employees is $2,039 a month, plus in-country per diem. Yates said she was able to save almost all of it because food, housing, supplies and credentials like malpractice insurance are all provided by MSF.
Yates fondly called her Congo housing her “little wooden box,” though it did contain numerous furniture pieces: a bed, desk, chair, drawer and shelves. She was even able to grow wildflowers outside.
As a high-conflict area, Yates and her teammates in Congo were also given benefits such as a mandatory four-day weekend every six weeks and a 16-day break halfway through the assignment, for which MSF provided travel funds. Psycho-social support is also provided throughout assignments.
After Congo, Yates participated in two other assignments: addressing famine in Nigeria and non-communicable diseases in Kenya.
Like any organization, Yates said MSF has good, bad and ugly components.
For her, the biggest challenge was working in conditions of poor sanitation and heavy air pollution as well as an administrator’s behavior. Van Helmond said most MSF-USA workers similarly list teams as their biggest challenge in an assignment, though, followed closely by burnout.
On the other hand, though, Yates said the patients made her experiences worthwhile. She recalled a mother who gave her six eggs to thank Yates for her treatment of her young son’s tuberculosis, and in Nigeria, where patients affectionately named her “Mommy.”
“I just loved that. They had such respect for us,” Yates said.
Although the application process takes two to three months, accepted applicants are unlikely to receive their first assignment right away because the U.S. has recruited too many participants — intentionally.
“We like to have an overrecruited pool in case there is a big emergency, so we can send people out,” van Helmond said. “Ultimately, I’m sure of the people we recruit, 90 to 95% of them we find an assignment for. The difficulty is when. Sometimes people have to wait one month, sometimes nine months, sometimes one and a half years. The need will always be there, though.”
The U.S. office accepts about 9% of all applicants, or about 150 applicants each year. Van Helmond estimated there are about 60 to 70 people in the U.S. currently waiting for an assignment, but 85% of all vacancies are for people who have already done an assignment. Most first-time assignments require fluency in French.
“The beginning is hard. It may be frustrating, but once you get your first assignment, it’s really easy to carve out a career in the direction you want to go,” van Helmond said.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (928) 556-2253.
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