Médecins Sans Frontières – A closer look with Emily Copple

I had the pleasure of picking Emily Copple’s brain some time ago. She was heading up the Nursing Activity team in Ethiopia for Medecins Sans Frontieres when we spoke, but she’s currently gearing up for her next project in Bangladesh. I wanted to talk to her to get a deeper insight into what MSF really does and help people understand the incredible importance of non-profits, and the impact that MSF has on improving third world communities.

APRIL: What motivated you to become a transnational activist?

EMILY: From a young age, the idea of being involved in the global health arena interested me. I remember being 12 years old and asking to shadow/follow a German midwife who was living in Hanoi, Vietnam at the time. I went with her to several households, visiting pregnant clients. Despite being from different cultures and speaking mostly different languages, I saw the way she interacted with her Vietnamese patients and delivered vital antenatal and postnatal care. The way she respected them, gave them useful medical knowledge and assured them they would see her again, the impact from these interactions made an impression on me. It was during that time I decided to pursue nursing after school. The idea of blending biological sciences with a profession where you get to interact so closely with people and make a difference in their lives, appealed to me. Growing up in a cross-cultural setting, I was motivated by observing growing health needs being met through access to and delivery of care.

APRIL: What would an average day look like during the mission?

EMILY: The project I was a part of had a mobile health clinic strategy focus to it. Every day, my team of national Somali colleagues and I would drive about 60-80 km away to different remote locations to provide health services through mobile health clinics. These clinics consisted of adult and pediatric consultations, a nutrition program for the malnourished, an immunization program and a midwife to provide antenatal care, so it was quite comprehensive. The populations we served lived in remote areas in the bush and desert and some were nomadic, they did not have access to any other health services, so the medical impact of this project was definitely tangible. We would leave every morning at 7.30 am and return to base around 3.30 pm.

APRIL: What have been some main challenges with being in Ethiopia?

EMILY: Some of the challenges that I experienced in the field, weren’t challenges that couldn’t be overcome, but just aspects that felt difficult to adjust to at first. I think the general cultural acceptance of medical knowledge felt challenging at times. For example, in some of the communities where we worked, people were encouraged to boil their water before consuming it. Some accepted this and changed their behaviors, but others said they didn’t have enough time to do this. Also, this was my first time working in a supervisory role in a predominantly conservative Muslim culture, and being a woman in leadership could feel challenging at times since the ways that women and men relate/interact are so different than what I’m used to. But what felt like challenges at first later became things I realized I could adjust to, with time.

APRIL: What surprised you the most about the locals?

EMILY: I think becoming friends with my national team staff gave me more insight into the Somali culture. I was struck by the depth of their kindness and generosity to outsiders. They seem very devoted to their religion of Islam and almost all of them would pray five times a day. In a world that’s so busy and hectic, it struck me that each staff member would set aside time each day to roll out their mat and have this time to pray. I also was impressed with their commitment to the work of what MSF does, each one seemed very dedicated to the work in the region.

APRIL: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing the Ethiopian people right now?

EMILY: Particularly in the Somali region where I was working, I think the lack of access to clean water is the greatest challenge. The climate change emergency that the world is facing is magnified in these desert regions, because extreme temperatures have risen and the annual rainfall that communities there rely on to survive has lessened substantially. I will never take clean water for granted again. Many of the communities we worked with had to walk several kilometers a day in the heat to water sources. A lack of clean water tends to exacerbate disease proliferation, having access to enough food, providing enough water to their cattle (their main source of livelihood) so it really does impact every single aspect of their life.

APRIL: What technical innovations do you believe would be beneficial to the work you are doing? (i.e electronic patient registration in hospitals, better data collection of disease outbreak etc)

EMILY: Beyond anything too advanced or technical, I feel priority should be placed on water, sanitation and hygiene for the communities we were working with. This could look like providing a method so that every household can have adequate amounts of clean water through sanitation via chlorine sachets or filters. Having access to clean water really makes such a difference in people’s lives. The project is also looking to providing a functional blood bank to provide blood transfusion capabilities, since this does not exist in the region yet. One main focus of the project’s strategy is to gather disease outbreak information through community engagement, and that has been exciting to watch- the premise is to respond before a disease outbreak becomes advanced.

APRIL: Do you feel that western communities are doing enough to address the humanitarian crises in Ethiopia and the welfare of displaced people?

EMILY: I think in this point in history, with continuous access to news from around the world- it’s difficult for communities to stay engaged and concerned with all of the crises that are occuring around the world. I think the saying of “do what you can, when you can” is a good one to try to live by. In this regard, I think it would be helpful for communities who may have backgrounds of privilege, safety and opportunity, for individuals to select one issue in the world and commit to supporting it consistently- whether through financial help, volunteerism or advocacy. There is too much happening in the world to be silent and still. It’s imperative that people do not become disengaged, but rather keep listening, keep viewing the things happening to people in places like the Somali region through the lens of humanity and stay engaged and commit to help. To whom much is given, much is expected. With power (through privilege, safety and opportunity) it is important that we wield that power in ways that help other people.

APRIL: What can be done to bridge the gap in the community outreach component to improve the current response and help more people efficiently?

EMILY: I think MSF puts substantive effort in the component of community outreach. This being my first mission, I was encouraged to see that our project had a specific focus in having local informants who were responsible to keeping track of disease outbreaks in their communities, and MSF would employ local community health workers who worked closely with our medical teams to ensure that everyone in these communities were made aware of our mobile health clinics and could access care. These community health workers worked well to efficiently mobilize people to come and access needed care. The plan is for increased expansion of these mobile clinics in the region. This project made it clear to me that MSF as an organization is committed to providing care to the communities that are hard to reach, and otherwise not being served.

APRIL: How does MSF ensure that people are able to move freely and safely across regions in Ethiopia to access humanitarian aid?

EMILY: MSF responds to movement of people, knowing that migration can often leave people more vulnerable to health problems. MSF mobile clinic project has placed particular emphasis on reaching internally displaced populations, knowing that due to their movement, they are less likely to be able to consistently access health services. MSF makes it a point to respond to these populations and attempts to provide access to services that otherwise would not be available to these people on their movement within this region.

APRIL: What are some of your favorite memories from your time in Ethiopia?

EMILY: My favorite memories from the Somali region in Ethiopia include getting to know my national Somali team very well (after spending hours on the bumpy roads to reach our mobile clinic sites). We became well-bonded after all those hours in the car together and I learned a lot about Somali culture. I also have a lot of good memories of seeing people from the bush and village come in to the clinic and seeing what a tangible impact the clinics have for the communities we were serving in the region. Lastly, living and working with the team of expat MSF colleagues, sharing a meal at night after a long day were among my favorite times with the people there.

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