25 years of Australian and New Zealand humanitarianism

13 Sep 2019

Australian and New Zealand field workers have made an amazing contribution over the 25 years since Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Australia was established.  

Our field workers have been, and continue to be, leaders in MSF’s response to humanitarian crises around the world – and their stories honour the voices of those we serve: our patients. 


Dr Nicole Gilroy, the first field worker recruited by MSF Australia, on assignment in a refugee camp in Burundi, 1994. © MSF

In 1994, MSF remained in Kigali, Rwanda, throughout the genocide of more than 800,000 people, and made the unprecedented decision to call for international military intervention. MSF teams – including our first Australian-recruited field worker, Dr Nicole Gilroy – also worked in Burundi, extending assistance to Burundians repatriated from Rwanda. 

"Rwanda was a nightmare no one who lived through will ever fully wake up from."

Dr Peter Hakewill
MSF Australia's first Executive Director

“We were there to build a residential tuberculosis clinic, a straightforward enough job on paper but a logistical nightmare in reality. Organising a building project in an environment with no infrastructure (no water, no electricity, limited supplies and a low skill base) is a challenge at the best of times, but to discover the site was on a former battlefield complicated things beyond our wildest expectations. Clearing a site of landmines and UXO (unexploded ordnance), unearthing an anti-tank mine and a rocket, were simply things that hadn’t been part of our initial game plan.” Logistician Grant Somers, from Sydney, remembers the challenges of his first field assignment in Ghazni, Afghanistan, 2001. © Grant Somers / MSF

“I was first sent to Malawi with MSF in 1997. The year was spent working with children who were affected by HIV/AIDS. We barely had enough medication to treat their symptoms, never mind the source. As I watched the children die one by one, I became increasingly frustrated and angry… when I heard that a new pilot program for treatment of HIV was being trialled in Chiradzulu, Malawi (in 2002), I chose to return. 

“The MSF program was set up in the local district hospital… we offer the drugs free of charge (at a cost to MSF of $30 per patient per month). HIV patients are treated with antiretroviral drugs and HIV-infected pregnant women are offered a short course treatment when they commence labour. Their babies are given Nevirapine syrup within 72 hours of birth to reduce the transmission of HIV from mother to unborn child.  

“Though critics of our program have told us that patients would not be able to follow the strict drug regime or return for clinical follow-up ("they don’t even own a clock, how will they know what time to take their pills?"), we have found, without exception, that patients not only adhere to the strict regimes but also walk for up to three hours to keep their clinic appointments.” 

Helle Poulsen-Dobbyns, from Sydney, on witnessing the impact of antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS patients on assignment as field coordinator in Malawi, 2002.  

Helle Poulsen-Dobbyns

 An MSF staff member attends to a child in the nutrition centre of the HIV/AIDS program in Chiradzulu, Malawi, 2002. © Isabelle Merny / MSF


“After the tsunami in Aceh, MSF conducted an assessment of basic material needs and we were subsequently able to distribute necessary items such as blankets, cooking utensils and clothing. We also facilitated and restored community activities such as soccer games, playgroups for children and public meetings where people can share their experiences and ways of coping.

“In Aceh, I held weekly meetings over three months with a Muslim women’s group. Discussions included grounding techniques (for coping with dissociation related to flashbacks), dealing with children’s nightmares, grief issues and shared problem solving.”

- Malcolm Hugo, a psychologist from Adelaide, reflects on responding to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Australians donated more than $1 million within 36 hours to the cause – exceeding the estimated cost of an operational response to the tsunami, and leading MSF Australia to make the unprecedented decision to close its fundraising appeal to help focus donations back to other crises. © MSF


A mother feeds her child with ‘Plumpy’Nut’, a therapeutic food, in a camp for internally displaced people in Darfur, Sudan, 2008. © Anne Yzebe / MSF

"Since I arrived, I have seen dozens more reasons for both elation and dismay. If vulnerability is the defining feature of displaced persons, then their response to this surely shows the depths of the human capacity to survive. So, while my hospital round each day is full of people who have tipped over the edge of vulnerability, it is also full of those who survive against the odds."  

 – Dr Hamish Graham, from Melbourne, writes from a field placement in Darfur, Sudan, in 2008. MSF began working in Darfur in 2004 to provide nutrition, water and sanitation and medical care for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence. 

Hamish Graham

“When I see a desperately sick kid come into the hospital, on the verge of death, and see the worried face of the mother as she hovers helplessly around the bed while the doctors and nurses treat her child, I know that we will all do our best, just for that mother and child. 

“The result isn't always happy, but when, three weeks, a month, or six months later, that mother and her child walk out of the hospital, I know that everyone – from the doctors and nurses who looked after them, to the logisticians who made sure the oxygen was working, to the cleaner who swept the floor, and all the way back to the office staff in Sydney who sent us to the field and the generous donors who make our work possible – contributed to the health of that child. 

“And while we may not be able to save the world, we saved the life of that one child, and for that mother, we saved her flesh and blood, her world. And that is a joy that is impossible to replicate. This is the most rewarding job I can imagine.” 

– Damien Moloney, from Melbourne, on working as a logistician during 12 field placements with MSF. © MSF


"Over the last four weeks, we have admitted over a hundred people to the hospital for dehydration, infection or severe malnutrition. We’ve had women getting off buses already in labour, people with malaria, lots of people who need hospital-level 24-hour care to simply secure their survival. 

“Within this culture, it’s not always easy for women to make decisions in these circumstances. Some evenings, I’ve talked to women about bringing their sick child to the hospital and they say they have to wait until their husband arrives. In those cases, we do what we can to provide immediate health care on the spot until someone can make that decision to bring the child to hospital.

“We’re meeting this community for the first time, so we have to be patient and try to understand their needs. What we might see as a priority is not necessarily the same for the family; that’s part of this new relationship we’re trying to develop."

- Vanessa Cramond, a nurse from Auckland, writes from the 2012 refugee crisis in South Sudan, where she worked as medical coordinator with people who had crossed into Maban County after fleeing fighting in Sudan’s Blue Nile state. © Corinne Baker / MSF


“Here were people who had lost everything, but they still offered us food and what was left of their homes.” 

– Gandhi Pant, a nurse from Bathurst, NSW, worked as part of the MSF emergency team that provided healthcare to people in remote mountainous areas of Nepal after the 2015 earthquake.  © MSF


“It is an incredible yet tragic situation to witness… thousands of desperate people risking their lives – at times, their entire family – to escape from intolerable conditions. On one day in the Mediterranean our small medical team of six rescued 1,000 people who were on three separate leaking vessels (two inflatable dinghies and one wooden fishing boat) from perishing at sea. 

“It is very sad to realise that many of us living comfortable, safe lives have a sense of fear and suspicion toward these people, and that many governments play on these fears to avoid responding in a humanitarian way.” 

– Carol Nagy, from Hobart, reflects on assisting people making the dangerous journey from Africa to Europe, while placed with the MSF joint search, rescue and medical operation in the Central Mediterranean, 2015.  © Gabriele François Casini / MSF


A young boy recovers in the MSF clinic in Kutupalong camp, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 2017. © Antonio Faccilongo / MSF

“We have a baby on our ward who is dehydrated and so severely malnourished that we’re not quite sure how old she is. She was brought to us by a woman who found her left behind at one of the border crossing points. This child has no family that we know of. And yes, she’s getting medical treatment, and thankfully improving every day, but where is she meant to go from here?    

“I can only imagine how incredibly terrible it must have been in their home village, if this is what they chose. If this is the better option, the other must have been a living hell.”   

– Kate White, a nurse from Brisbane, writes home from Cox’s Bazar in 2017, as MSF teams provided urgent medical care to a massive influx of Rohingya refugees fleeing targeted violence in Rakhine state, Myanmar.  

Kate White

“Yesterday was tough. Sadly, we lost a very kind young man despite the incredibly compassionate care our team provided.

“But, thankfully, some wonderful news today with one of our patients being cured – cause for celebration indeed! The first patient who was discharged as cured from our unit was Mwamini. The literal translation of her name is ‘faith’. When she heard the news, Mwamini broke into song and dance. Our hardworking team and two fellow patients joined in to celebrate this most joyous moment.

“Mwamini is an incredible inspiration to our whole team and has continued my faith in humanity. This has touched my heart forever.”

– Dr Saschveen Singh, from Perth, shares a story of hope from the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. © John Wessels / MSF


A young patient, injured by a mortar explosion, speaks with relatives in a MSF field trauma clinic in Iraq, 2017. Ó Alice Martins / MSF

“A call came through that a suicide vest had been detonated at a checkpoint and ‘a few ambulances were on the way.’

“I’ve never wanted to forget something so desperately as the first time I saw you. As I finished treating the sixth patient in an hour, I watched as you were wheeled into the only empty space in a rapidly shrinking emergency room. Yours was one of two tiny bodies laid out on a steel bed meant for broken adults, bodies destroyed as tokens of war. Your baby brother was next to you.

“I choked back tears and the acrid taste of vomit as my world hurtled from one where babies cried when they were immunised, hungry only in the minutes it took to prepare a bottle, hurt only in learning to walk – to one where children are brought to hospitals bloodied and seemingly lifeless.

“Two weeks later, I was the fortunate one. Tracking you down to a hospital two hours away, I walked with quiet apprehension into your room to find you sprawled in childish sleep – one hand instinctively flung over your younger sibling, your ally. And then on waking, seeing you vital, playing, cuddling for hours is the most precious memory I could take from an experience that overwhelmed every sense.”

– Dr Georgie Woolveridge, from Hobart, recalls a child patient she treated in 2018 in Tal Maraq, Iraq

Dr Georgie Woolveridge

The MSF mental health team attends to a patient on Nauru in 2018. © MSF 

“I witnessed a system that shatters people’s resilience, identity and hope . . . It is extremely concerning that our patients remain on Nauru, with no access to independent mental health services. As a doctor, I believe I have a professional duty to advocate for my patients; to address the cause of their mental health decline rather than continuing to simply provide individual treatment.” 

– Psychiatrist Dr Beth O’Connor, from Christchurch, treated asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru for 11 months, until the forced exit of MSF from the island in October 2018. 

Dr Beth O’Connor

MSF field staff worldwide provide lifesaving medical and technical assistance to people who would otherwise be denied access to basics such as healthcare, clean water, and shelter. Find out more about becoming a field worker here