Less than one week after his return from Afghanistan, Impact spoke to Henry Gray, an emergency co-ordinator working for the humanitarian medical aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. He recounts for us his experiences of working with one of the most prominent international aid organisations.
After graduating from Aberdeen University with a degree in biology and environmental chemistry, Henry tried his hand at investment banking in the City before training as a water engineer. But Henry’s life hasn’t followed the ‘student-job’ trajectory that most of us hope for in the not-too-distant future. A sudden change of heart brought about by the 2005 tsunami in the Indian Ocean acted as the impetus for Gray to turn his hand to volunteering overseas. An initial setback in his pursuits was followed, around 18 months afterwards, with an offer to work with MSF and six weeks later he found himself on a flight to Congo. His life now involves coordinating large-scale medical relief efforts in disaster-plagued and war-torn countries, the likes of which we as students may find hard to witness on television, let alone involve ourselves in firsthand.
Founded in 1971 in response to the Nigerian civil war, MSF functions internationally to provide medical care and much needed facilities during disasters, epidemics and periods of conflict for those unable to get treatment themselves. As a volunteer and trained water engineer, Henry’s efforts within the organisation are twofold: helping to establish public health facilities in and around hospitals, alongside his more recent role as an ‘emergency coordinator’. Henry’s life involves a delicate balance between missions abroad and stints at home where having “crazy stuff like electricity and water” is enough to excite him. As of late, he has put his life in the UK on hold to concentrate on his work abroad with MSF; he tells us that working as an engineer at home “doesn’t compare with the job satisfaction I get working with MSF”. He adds, “initially, the first few times I came back from a mission I would get quite depressed, certainly down, because I wasn’t doing what I really enjoyed doing — the MSF work.”
When asked what the most shocking thing he’s had to deal with was, Henry struggles to narrow it down to one particular moment, admitting that he’s had “shock after shock” in the past few years. Dealing with the horrific things he has seen “probably does” get easier in time, but he acknowledges that “if I didn’t find it difficult then I would probably stop, because I think that the moment you get to a stage where you no longer feel, you can no longer empathise, and you know bagging bodies should never be the easiest thing to do”. Henry continues on to say that he finds war the most difficult thing to deal with. “It’s a horrible, horrible business. People who were killed, they didn’t have to be killed and somebody has pulled the trigger or used a machete and that is very difficult to deal with. You can deal with death from disease a lot more easily than you can from a violent end.”
However, there is a brighter side to Henry’s work: “Seeing a family that has just been reunited, or watching somebody who’s been at death’s door, at a cholera treatment centre; three or four days later after treatment, they get up and walk out under their own steam. That’s kind of why we do it, rather than as just a response to the terrible stuff, because the terrible stuff is terrible and if we only focused on those things then I think that we’d burn out very quickly. There’s probably more good stuff than the terrible stuff but it’s like in the media; the good news doesn’t sell, people want to know about the bad stuff and it’s very important that people hear about it. We will speak out for populations that can’t be heard.”
In the future, Henry will continue to carry out humanitarian work until he “burns out,” but for now being an aid worker of no fixed abode and effecting change in the world is enough.
Henry reminds us that while a lot of us are quick to write off war-torn places, they do have another side that gets lost amongst the angst. “Afghanistan is a beautiful country. The people I met were absolutely lovely. I would love to visit it again.” He also speaks of his time in Libya, where he helped to set up a maternity clinic and a mental health hospital in Misrata, “Libya’s another beautiful country; it’s a fabulous place. I loved it there.” It seems that the countries Henry has been to and the people he has met have had quite an effect on him. “[The future of Libya] is in the hands of the Libyan people. I can only hope for a nice future for Libya. Even though there are a lot of terrible places where people wouldn’t even think of going, generally the people you meet are really nice and it’s just a shame that that they’re having to go through the crisis they’re going through, whether it be a natural disaster or a political armed conflict. At the end of the day, people are people. Our job is often to try not to be there, to do ourselves out of a job. We will make sure that we train the people if they don’t have the skills, so that we’re not needed. Whilst I would love to go back to some of these places, I’d want to go back as a tourist and preferably not professionally, because if I go back professionally it’s because they need it.”
When asked about the most rewarding aspect of humanitarian work, Henry listed meeting and hearing their incredible stories; “I suppose you’re living through history”. He speaks of being caught up in the civil war in the Ivory Coast and witnessing firsthand the past events in Libya. Knowing that “You live through significant events in history and sometimes get to play a small part in it” makes the job incredibly worthwhile. He cites his experiences with MSF as having a positive influence on his character, positing that a complete transformation in his personality was effected after his first mission, during which he developed from a “super-confident, some might say arrogant, person” to a humble and “more reflective” man.
In the future, Henry will continue to carry out humanitarian work until he “burns out,” but for now being an aid worker of no fixed abode and effecting change in the world is enough, but he knows that at some point he will have to stop, acknowledging that “settling down is a part of growing up”.
Settit Beyene, Ellis Schindler & Claudia Baxter