Helping a woman who’d walked 50km before giving birth on the side of a dirt track was just one of the highlights of Woonona’s Ben Collard’s recent humanitarian mission to Africa.
The 39-year-old spent five months in South Sudan as a member of Australia’s Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), a medical aid organisation also known as Doctors without Borders.
Neither a doctor nor nurse, the former soldier was in charge of improving security and communications – but often found himself helping medical staff with patients affected by disease or trauma.
‘’I was a technical project co-ordinator in the capital, Juba, but travelled around to different projects to make sure the radio communications were working,’’ Mr Collard said.
‘’This included visiting outreach teams which were helping communities in the middle of remote areas or conflict zones.
‘’Out in the field you’d come across people – such as the woman who’d given birth on the side of the track, or victims of gun-shot wounds or those suffering from things like malnutrition or malaria.
‘’You’d help get them back to the medical staff, who just do such an amazing job.’’
After finishing schooling at Bulli High, Mr Collard had a stint in the Australian Army and was deployed to East Timor, which is where he first saw MSF teams in action.
After returning home he completed a trade certificate in electrotechnology communications as well as a bachelor degree in international relations.
‘’I then worked a variety of jobs, including contract work for the Australian Federal Police and for Broadcast Australia, but I always wanted to get into MSF,’’ he said.
‘’And I’ve got to say I’ve never felt more in the right place than with the MSF team – it allowed me to use everything I’d learnt in the army, I could utilise my trade skills and negotiation and mediation training.
‘’I realised I’d found that sense of purpose I’d been looking for, and I’ve applied for other missions.’’
Mr Collard also encouraged others to explore roles with MSF Australia.
‘’Conditions are going to be tough, relationships are going to be intense as you’re working with small teams in very harsh environments,’’ he said. ‘’But you’re going to have one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.’’
As well as gaining motivation from those he worked alongside, Mr Collard was also inspired by the local villagers – for whom conflict was a part of life.
‘’I was in awe of their resilience, their positivity, the way they look at life, how they celebrate life and family. I would think ‘if these people can find reason to sing then I can keep my chin up and do all I can to help’.’’