Maya Terenina, Doctors Without Borders: “In some countries, people are more likely to go to a shaman than to a doctor”

The coordinator of the humanitarian organization about the difficulties of work and the fight against coronavirus — read in the interview with Realnoe Vremya

Maya Terenina, Doctors Without Borders: “In some countries, people are more likely to go to a shaman than to a doctor”
Photo: Rinat Nazmetdinov

On February 20, Maya Terenina, the financial coordinator of the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, visited countries such as the Congo, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Pakistan, South Sudan, India, and so on. She gave a presentation on the organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 and spoke about how one can join Doctors Without Borders projects around the world. In the interview with Realnoe Vremya, Maya Terenina told about what doctors face in the African states and Eastern countries, and how money is raised for humanitarian missions.

“The first mission is like first love”

You have visited many less developed countries. Could you tell us about working in them, where it was most difficult?

For me, the Middle East context is probably the most difficult. For some cultural and everyday problems, it is the most difficult for me. But the African context is more interesting to me, and the Haitian one, it's not like everything else, it's such a mix, and it's also quite interesting. I've also been to India, which is a completely different story, but I would say it's not really mine.

That first country of mine was Sierra Leone. And Sierra Leone, one of the most impoverished countries, is still my first love

Would you highlight any country?

As they say in our organization, the first mission is like first love. I started working a long time ago as a local employee, and since 2009 I have already gone as an international employee of the organization Doctors Without Borders. That first country of mine was Sierra Leone. And Sierra Leone, one of the most impoverished countries, is still my first love.

How are Doctors Without Borders received in principle? After all, such organizations are not welcomed everywhere. Sometimes it happens that some people have never seen a doctor at all.

Yes, they receive them in different ways. Well, I immediately attracted by Sierra Leone than the fact that when they saw a bag of Doctors Without Borders in my hands, the first thing I heard: “Doctors Without Borders, welcome!” Because Sierra Leone is a small country and Doctors Without Borders are very well known. Almost every second or third woman, I don't remember statistics, gave birth in our hospital. Therefore, Doctors Without Borders is very much loved and respected there, which is nice.

Depending on the cultural context, Doctors Without Borders faces different challenges. To do this, we have special departments that explain what we do and thus facilitate the work.

Have you faced any attacks?

Of course, there have been such cases, and cases of armed not that an attack but an invasion of our offices. It was in the Congo, I don't remember a year, my friends were there at that time, it was an armed attack by local bandits, but there is an area where different groups, paramilitary, divide something between each other. In particular, they attacked our compound (a complex of residential buildings — editor's note), and one of the expats (slang name for foreign specialists — editor's note) was wounded.

Recently, in Yemen, the attack has been not on our hospital, but on a nearby warehouse with military ammunition, the fire moved to our offices, and there, of course, documents were burned, everything was burned, and something was lost. But it was a drone attack, not people. I personally have not been in such stories. Once in India, when we were in the state of Chhattisgarh, we were stopped by armed men, checked our documents and released. Nothing terrible happened, but it could have happened.

We have expats not only Europeans, but also Africans and Asians, and you never know what the team will be. It's like a group of you flying into space without preparation, you come and already start building relationships and connections

“In some countries, they are more likely to go to a shaman than to a doctor”

How does the population feel about the work of Doctors Without Borders?

The population treats them differently, mostly positively, usually, doctors are treated well, although in a number of countries traditional medicine is not accepted, they are more likely to go to a shaman than to a doctor. But for this purpose, there are promoters, health workers from the local staff, who explain to people in their own language and dialects in a theatrical manner that children need vaccinations, that they need to be treated. And when people understand this, of course, they go to the doctors.

What problems arise? It is clear, attacks, checks, and what else? How do the authorities treat your work?

Doctors Without Borders must work with the ministries of healthcare because, of course, it is impossible to treat people without the sanctions of the official authorities, as well as to carry out vaccination, various programmes, especially programmes with children. This is always [carried out] in conjunction with government agencies. But in African countries, there are usually few problems. And very often the work of Doctors Without Borders and other international NGOs is part of the social and even medical budget. That's why we are part of the economic process of these countries, and they need us, and we need them.

There are countries where it is harder to work — India, China, Russia, in general, are quite large, strong countries with which it is harder to work, but it is also possible. We find some other principles, other constructions. And such large developing countries also need some kind of help, not even that help but rather an emphasis on some problems that these countries turn a blind eye to. It is more difficult to work there, but we try to work through the local staff.

There is another difficulty, personal, that I go as a foreigner to another country, I work with the same foreigners from many countries. We have expats not only Europeans, but also Africans and Asians, and you never know what the team will be. This is like you fly into space in a group without training, you come and already start building relationships and connections, and, of course, people for whom it is psychologically difficult, and psychologically difficult for everyone in the first mission, do not stay at this job.

I became proud of the country that used to be called the Soviet Union while on the Doctors Without Borders's mission in Africa. Because Mozambique, as a Portuguese-speaking country, was once under the influence of the Soviet Union, and it once transferred its health and education systems, and they still have a Soviet health system

“It is a cultural moment to do charity work in Europe”

How difficult is it to get funding for missions?

The organization has recently switched to 90-95% private funding in order to be more independent, as we work in complex political contexts. For this purpose, there are special sections, there are operational sections, and there are partner sections in countries such as Norway, Japan, and the United States that are engaged in fundraising. In European countries, this is like their cultural moment, they have long started doing charity work — they send 1-5 euros a month, that we now collect by text messages — they have been doing this for a long time, and they do it automatically. It's not that money is easy, but it is also done by professionals, so most often there is money for large projects. Sometimes we suffer too, but with everyone else, when there are economic crises or something else. And then we have to cut programmes and close or transmit something, but we still try to transmit. For example, a project in Yemen moves from the French section to the Belgian section, or Sierra Leone from the Belgian section to the Dutch section. In general, major projects are developing, and there is money for them.

At the moment, a new type of coronavirus is raging in the world. Have you ever worked in countries where this disease has been recorded?

Not yet, mainly with Ebola, another terrible disease, however, it is localized in African countries. But Doctors Without Borders, of course, is part of a large programme that deals with the problem. For example, Belgium has developed scientific viral medicine, and we work with the international community and with Russian and American doctors. Our contribution — as far as I know, we are sending medicines to China. Usually, when there are large natural disasters, it is easier to enter even a country that is quite closed.

By Daria Pinegina. Photo: Rinat Nazmetdinov