When my friend Loren – a nurse of over twelve years – told me she was moving to Afghanistan to do a humanitarian posting, at first my honest reaction was skewed to the definitely not, it’s too dangerous, you can’t end of the continuum. It took a cumbersome amount of convincing, but she defiantly assured her family and friends that this was the right move for her. She moved to Kandahar in January this year and was based there through September, working in an NGO supported hospital. In February she’s off to do her second posting in South Sudan.
This year has been a big one all over the globe. It’s a year that’s left many of us questioning humanity and the reasons we seem to be taking steps backward instead of forward. It’s one that our children and our children’s children will study in history class. In times like this, it’s people like Loren who restore confidence – she’s out there doing her bit to actually leave a positive imprint on the world, and for this I have a deep amount of respect and admiration for this brave friend of mine. I hope you enjoy her story.
Had you always wanted to do an international posting?
I first knew I wanted to work in humanitarian sector after seeing the effects of the Boxing Day tsunami in Asia. As soon as I started seeing the media coverage I wanted to use my nursing skills to help in the disaster relief. Unfortunately, at the time I had just started out nursing and I wasn’t in a position – emotionally, financially or career-wise – where I was ready to start on that journey. But years later, after a lot of research and watching the state of the world around me, I knew I didn’t just want to help with disaster relief but it was countries affected by conflict where I wanted to be involved. Afghanistan was not my idea, it just happened to be where they needed someone with my skill-set, so I accepted the role.
What were you nervous about before you left?
Honestly, when I first read the email with the offering of Afghanistan, I cried. Not because I didn’t want to go but because I was finally taking a step into a largely unknown territory and with that came a huge fear of the unknown. But I didn’t have much time to think about it as there was only a month between the time I found out about the posting and the time I left the country. In actual fact, I frequently found myself placating the fears of my friends and family and in being strong for them I found it made me even surer of my decision.
We have only ever heard bad things about Afghanistan in the media and I was nervous about what I had heard and about what I would see but it also motivated me to experience this place for myself and form my own opinions.
Working in a hospital over there must have been confronting at times?
Most of the patients are admitted with weapon induced injuries including mine injuries, shelling and gunshot wounds – so yes, that side of things was a very different experience for me. Many of them are also admitted due to environmental consequences and indirect consequences of conflict including motor vehicle accidents, burns, malnutrition, vomiting, diarrhea and broken bones.
Tell us about your work over there?
My first job was educating local nurses by developing education programs that could be applied over there. I worked with two local nurses, improving their teaching skills helping them to implement the programs with the aim to help improve patient care and nursing knowledge.
I also focused on an initiative to relieve overcrowding at the hospital. The organisation I worked for transformed an old educational institution into a new pediatric facility on the hospital grounds to help to relieve the overcrowding of the current wards which at any one time can see over a 250% bed capacity –this is insane and makes hygiene, treating individual patients and preventing the spread of disease very difficult.
What have you found the biggest cultural differences to be?
There’s many obvious differences that you would expect, but there’s also some more subtle ones that took me by surprise.
Things happen at a very slow pace here. This (for someone who is action orientated and constantly on the go) has been incredibly frustrating. At times I had to force myself to slow down and to re-wire my own expectations and what is achievable.
I also realised I’m a very touchy feely person…literally! It is culturally inappropriate for a female and male to touch in public in Afghanistan and many times I went to shake someone’s hand or touch them on the arm when we’ve made a joke and I had to pull myself back.
Any advice for people interested in doing a posting of any kind within the humanitarian field?
Basically, just go and do it. Stop thinking and get out there. Go to information nights, start volunteering with local or international organisations to get a taste of what you can expect or make the call in order to have a real conversation with someone who can guide you in the right direction. Research all the opportunities out there – with so many organisations around you’re sure to find the right fit.
It sounds cliche, but taking the first step really is the hardest part. Even if you’ve never experienced anything like this, it’s ok because you learn along the way and there are so many people that are here to help you. That’s not to say it won’t be one of the hardest thing you’ll ever do; the work is challenging and at times thankless. You can say goodbye to creature comforts, you’ll feel emotions you didn’t know existed within you, but you’ll walk away with an immense feeling of pride in yourself and the organisation that you’ve genuinely helped people who needed it.
What do you love about travel?
I have always loved travel and surrounding myself with different people, places and cultures. For me, working in other countries has opened my eyes to the ways other societies operate and I’ve been able to see how different they are from my own – not better or worse, just different.
Travel has made me incredibly grateful for what I have back home. The experiences I have had often make me ask myself how I got so lucky to be born in a place where health, education, freedom of choice and above all personal safety are the norm. I know first-hand that other people are not this fortunate.
How do you relate to the word adrift?
So many people can get stuck in one place, doing one thing or feeling one way – they become complacent and end up regretting the chances they didn’t take. Being adrift is not about covering great distances on earth but within yourself; to challenge yourself by pushing the comfort limits, to not be afraid to go after what it is you want, or be open with what you want to achieve on a project, in a day, a month or in a year.