Petra Van Beek worked as a human resources manager in Australia and overseas for many years before heading off on her first field assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières in 2016, to Papua New Guinea.
Ever since my university years, back in the early 1980s, I’ve wanted to work with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). A fellow student had just come back from an MSF assignment, her third or fourth, with some amazing stories to tell. I was already interested in humanitarian work and she fuelled my desire and imagination even more, and pointed me in the direction of MSF. I was studying Business Management and Human Resources so an Admin role seemed a good fit, however I had no professional work experience and felt it would be too arrogant of me to assume I had enough knowledge / experience to be of any real use for a while yet. So I put it on my ‘bucket list’ and I went to work in the corporate world to fill the gap.
"People had warned me that PNG was dangerous but I found the Kerema people to be friendly and very open to Australians and Kiwis in particular, being close neighbours"
Fast forward 33 years to March 2016 and there I stood at my local airport, about to fulfil this lifelong dream. I was heading to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for six months with MSF as a Field Administrator, providing the human resources and finance support for a tuberculosis (TB) project in Kerema, a small remote coastal town 300km north-west of Port Moresby. I was super excited – it had been a REALLY long time coming. There is a saying I like: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”, and that is what had happened. I had always planned to apply with MSF after five or so years of work experience but life happened and I got caught up in other things… mortgages, relationships, travel, and career. Happily for me MSF is not an ageist organisation and they welcomed me with open arms.
So off I went to PNG to try out this humanitarian work… would it be what I had imagined? Would I like the work, the people? Would MSF be as good an organisation as my fellow student had described all those years ago? What would PNG be like? I loved it. My role involved a combination of working with people and computers, and varied daily even within a distinct monthly cycle of payroll and finance month closure. Hiring locals, dealing with HR issues, and inducting international staff was mixed in with paying invoices, processing overtime / sick leave forms and managing contracts. Our team consisted of eight international staff from around the world and close to 50 local staff, working six days a week to treat hundreds of people with TB in an 18 bed TB hospital and two outreach medical centres. The project was two years into its forecasted 8-10 year term and already we had cured patients, helping us locate and treat more patients and educate families and villages further and further afield.
People had warned me that PNG was dangerous but I found the Kerema people to be friendly and very open to Australians and Kiwis in particular, being close neighbours. That said, we did need to take strong security precautions. The challenges were many: inaccessible jungle terrain, multiple languages, different customs, slow supply line, hot weather, working alongside a struggling public health system, and the effects of alcohol on the local community, to name a few. But day by day, inch by inch, the project made progress and more people were treated and educated about TB. There were so many good times too: the Sunday morning walks along the beach, playing with the local kids, experiencing a new culture, sharing laughs with the rest of the team, and being part of something that was truly changing lives for the better. The work MSF is doing there is first class and they are leading the way and setting the standards. It was a privilege to be part of it.
My first mission was an experience I will always fondly remember, and it has me lining up to do my next assignment, in South Sudan in February 2017… roll on my new career!