Expats without Borders

How two workers from Doctors without Borders are battling Ebola – from Prague

Enrique Castro (VEN) and Reena Sattar (CA) are two expats doing an extraordinary thing; both work for the Czech branch of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Their office is currently involved with raising awareness about and funds for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.  

Tell us about the organization in general – who are you and what do you do?

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Enrique: Médecins Sans Frontières is an independent, international humanitarian organization that provides medical care to people based on need, irrespective of race, religion, gender or political affiliation. Since 1971, MSF offers assistance in more than 70 countries to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters and exclusion from healthcare, running mobile clinics in remote areas, carrying out vaccination campaigns and bringing testimony about the situation in the terrain.

How long has MSF been active in the Czech Republic?

E: MSF started operations in the Czech Republic in 2006. Initially, it was focused on recruiting new staff members; later, also on active fundraising. We also organize public events where we meet our supporters and fans. 

How is it that you came to Prague?

Reena: I did some courses on Eastern European history and Soviet politics while I was in university and was interested to see a post-communist country so I came here after I graduated in 1994 and have lived here on and off ever since.

E: I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela and I came in 2008 to study a Master’s degree in International Business at the University of Economics in Prague, thanks to the recommendation of a Venezuelan friend who lives in Moravia.

Enrique in the MSF Czech Republic offices.
Enrique in the MSF Czech Republic offices.

When did you start working with Doctors without Borders (MSF) and in what capacity?

R: In October 2012 as HR manager for the mission in South Sudan.

E: In November 2010 I entered the pool of MSF volunteers and was sent to Haiti to work as Financial Coordinator.

What is your current position and what does it require?

R: I work now as a Field Administrator, meaning that I am responsible for everything related to HR, finance and general administration for a given project in the field.

E: I am the Financial Director of MSF in Czech Republic. I am responsible for the budget, treasury management and the general management of MSF finances in Czech Republic.

Do you spend any time in the field?

R: In the two years since I’ve started, I’ve spent 1.5 years in the field and a total of 5 months in Prague between missions.

E: I spend my time in Prague, but I am ready to depart to the field if necessary. We are currently understaffed at the missions due to the complexity of operations and emergencies all over the world.

Reena in Nia Nia (DRC), 2014.
Reena in Nia Nia (DRC), 2014.

Any interesting stories to tell about these postings?

R: I’ve worked in Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo for my last three missions. There are too many stories to tell….the highlight is always the people you work with, both local and expats.

E: In the winter of 2010-2011, I went to the North of Haiti to work as the financial coordinator of a MSF mission focused on the fight against Cholera. This was a devastating outbreak. People were literally dying on the streets. By the time I left, the outbreak had stabilized and the mortality rate dropped to almost 0%, thanks in big part to the quick action of MSF and other NGOs. When I came back to Prague…I understood that anybody can make a positive difference in the lives of others.

How active is MSF in the Czech Republic?

E: One of the main tasks of the Czech office of MSF is recruiting new staff members for missions, while another task is fundraising. Last but not least, we provide testimony (“témoignage”) about the situation in the countries where we intervene through media, such as interview with our staff members, like this one.

How is the Czech team working against the Ebola outbreak?

E: Two of our Czech volunteers were involved in the work against Ebola, one of them in Guinea working in an administrative position and the other one in Liberia working in logistics. They have just recently returned from the field and we are currently screening other possible candidates who might fill required positions in one of the countries most affected by the epidemics.

© Sylvain Cherkaoui/COSMOS: In the treatment area.
© Sylvain Cherkaoui/COSMOS: In the treatment area.

A lot of people who live in the Czech Republic go on holiday to African countries – are travel fears justified?

E: Africa is a really big continent with a lot of countries and a contrasting geography. The outbreak is concentrated in West Africa, specifically in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and parts of Mali, and the situation there is really serious at the moment. We do not feel entitled to forbid someone to travel to this area, but the ebola virus can be so contagious that it is certainly better to avoid the risk of being infected. However, if your trip does not involve going through any of those places, you should not worry about ebola and you should be able to travel to your favorite destination without problems.

How is the Czech Republic handling those who have been exposed to Ebola?

E: There have been no confirmed contagions to Czech nationals yet. Regarding our own measures, MSF has more than 30 years of experience with hemorrhagic fevers and…have managed to build a well-functioning system of measures to reduce the risk of infection to almost zero. Every person who departs for a mission to an ebola project knows these measures and respects them.

Name some of the challenges and rewards of your job.

R: I love being able to share information with my Czech friends on everyday life in the places I’ve worked on mission, on the health situation in these countries, and now to calm people’s fears about Ebola. As for the challenges…You’re not just doing your regular job in a new exotic location – you are dealing with all sorts of constraints and unexpected problems that you would rarely come across back home.

E: I love my job because it allows me to help others; to make a difference, and it gives me a sense of purpose and meaning that I had not found anywhere else; but the fact that I am a foreigner working in a Czech office is a challenge in itself. Even though my colleagues have no problem to communicat[ing] with me…it is difficult to follow informal conversations.

© Martin Zinggl/MSF: An MSF doctor takes a child whose mother died from Ebola in the CMC, 2014.
© Martin Zinggl/MSF: An MSF doctor takes a child whose mother died from Ebola in the CMC, 2014.

Does MSF Czech Republic do work here in this country with distressed populations?

E: Developed health systems, such as the one in the Czech Republic, should be able to deal with the consequences of floods or other disasters. Distressed populations in developed countries usually need material support (such as blankets, tents, etc.) which MSF does not provide. This means that our help in developed countries is not needed; with important exceptions, such as, for example, in Greece and Italy where we provide free health care to refugees.

Do you speak Czech? What other languages are needed for your job?

R: I do speak Czech at a good level, and I’ve even had the chance to use it on mission when I’ve had Czech colleagues. French is a big advantage for working with MSF, if not almost a pre-requisite. 

E: I would not say that I speak Czech, but I understand it quite well. For our missions, English is absolutely essential, but also French is important, in big part because many of our missions take place in countries where French is widely used.

What do you like to do in your down time?

R: I make up for ‘lost time’ on mission by eating at all my favourite restaurants, going to concerts and exhibits, and doing holiday stuff like carving pumpkins and – soon! – Christmas caroling on Charles Bridge.

E: Prague is such a beautiful city to walk, my wife and I have discovered genuine architectural and historical gems hiding in plain sight in some streets of the city. We also try to attend to as many exhibitions and shows as possible, and we particularly love the performances of the Czech Philharmonic.

Doctors without Borders in the Czech Republic is currently seeking donations, medical doctors, nurses and midwives to volunteer, as well as professionals in finance, HR and logistics. To learn more visit www.lekari-bez-hranic.cz.

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