A journey from within
05 January 2009
by Rosie Williams
To mark International Volunteer Day I interviewed one of Australia’s many unsung heroes, Olivia Yacoub. A volunteer with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Olivia agreed to reveal what inspired her to take on field missions and what the process had given her in return.
"I was indecisive with regard to my career path as I left school," begins Ms. Yacoub, "and chose to study medical science. I was lucky enough to travel overseas almost every year in my uni breaks to many different parts of the world.
"[Ten years into my career] I felt a void in my life and was eager to fill it. I attended an HIV/AIDS conference in Nairobi by chance on one of my trips away and this was perhaps what truly inspired me to investigate my options.
"I saw little opportunity for a medical scientist except when [my sister] told me about MSF and the great work they do in the field. After attending MSF recruitment evenings I applied to be a field volunteer and was determined to fit in a mission. I just needed to be patient and wait for the right time." How did your employer and loved ones react to your decision to work for MSF, where missions can last from weeks to a year or more?
"At the same time as I changed jobs," she answers, "MSF recruited me as a field volunteer. After a few months of my employ I knocked on the director’s door, stated my situation and asked my options. He was very understanding and said that I would be able to go after a year.
"I was content with this decision and, aptly, MSF called after 10 months and offered a one-year mission in Malawi. As I had anticipated my goal would be fulfilled."
The youngest of three siblings, Olivia was lucky to have the full support and encouragement of her family in such a life-changing and at times, challenging decision.
"My father passed away when I was 21 years old. I knew he would be supportive of my decision as he himself was a very caring, dedicated doctor. My mother was very supportive of me. She reassured me that she is always by my side in spirit together with my father no matter where I am on the globe. I realised that it was not easy for her to ‘let go’ and made sure I maintained close contact with her every step of the journey."
Potentially life-changing events such as the missions offered by MSF also help to put one’s personal life into perspective.
"At the time of applying for MSF I had no partner or dependents, however I entered into a relationship a few months after I had decided to go. Such was my desire to achieve my goal, I never considered the impact of [my absence] on this relationship but reassured him that I would be faithful.
"I pride myself on honesty and loyalty so for me it was never going to be a struggle. It didn’t occur to me that he would struggle with the idea until I mentioned my intention. When I realised it was a point of ‘contention’ I avoided talking about it with him. This was difficult because it was the most exciting plan I had ever made!
"As I discovered on my return, this would be too much for our relationship and he revealed that he had been unfaithful. I understood his standpoint and wished him well. I had no regrets."
Along with the risk to burgeoning relationships, volunteers for MSF also must deal with potential security risks at their destination.
"My first mission was in Malawi which is low danger as far as a ‘scale’ would go. Malawi has never been through a war and so there was little risk as compared with missions in war zones. All the same, as a foreigner you are definitely in the minority and I needed to exercise a higher level of caution than normal. MSF imposes security rules for each mission which include not walking on the streets alone at night. The risk was there but not great.
"My second mission in post-war Liberia was higher security with a greater threat as the country is still volatile with the recent induction of a new government and peace is held by the 15,000 strong United Nations Mission in Liberia. The whole time I was there I was never threatened and maintained close friendships with fellow local staff members who ensured our safety and highlighted potential dangers.
"On the whole, the understanding is that MSF are there to help and this is respected."
With all this in mind, many of us might have second thoughts but Olivia left for deployment with "a true sense of calm and contentment and no real sense of danger or hesitation- moreso that of adventure!" She adds: "This was my passion and I was excited to see what would unfold."
Describing a humanist outlook, Olivia says that making others happy whilst remaining humble is the key to her sense of satisfaction and serenity.
"I know that the future will reveal itself and worry little about what might happen... MSF’s stance on religions fits in well with my own in that we treat all people regardless of race, political affiliation or religion.
"I became more spiritual after returning from mission. I was lucky to be part of a well-functioning unit. The success of the mission was thanks to a well-structured organization in MSF."
While a certain level of adaptability is called for in volunteering to help the world’s most desperate populations, the experience has its challenges, says Olivia.
"I struggled a little on returning from mission because of the culture change and readjustment of integrating back into my own society as I had made some truly powerful and lasting friendships whilst on mission.
"The MSF Camp in Your City helped me to re-integrate back into Australian society as I got to share my experiences with others."
The mock camp, which tours major cities around the world is set up in urban spaces so that the public can learn directly from MSF fieldworkers how life works in a refugee camp.
Obvious from Olivia’s words is that the very experience of helping people in far-flung corners of the world has given her the most meaningful personal insights.
"Just as my mother taught me, you can never take away spiritual connections. Now I truly understand what she means. I remain in spiritual connect with all of my family and fellow friends and colleagues scattered around the world.
"I am driven by striving for what I am passionate about and knowing that everything happens for a reason, whether we work out what that is or not. Right now, I am living the next chapter of life, a wealth of opportunity."
You can read the online journals of the fieldworkers, including Olivia’s, at msf.org.au