CATHY CHAI, 31, had reminded herself to face “predicaments in the future” before embarking on her maiden frontline assignment with Medecins Sans Frontieres in 2013. Little did she know her self-motivational exercise would turn prophetic as she found herself at the Doro refugee camp in South Sudan, a young African nation that gained independence just two years before, but soon plunged into chaos and war. Her six-month stint at Dora would leave an indelible mark on Chai as would her other challenging assignments, including terror-hit Somalia and earthquake-battered Nepal. Chai gives a ringside view of her work and unfolding historical events from international datelines to NECTAR GAN How did you come up with the idea to work for Medecins Sans Frontieres? What was your life like before joining it? I was living and working in Beijing. Back then, work was the centre of my life. I had spent nearly seven years working on financial statements for a United Nations agency in China, during which I also studied part time and acquired a postgraduate degree in finance. All that I ever wanted then was to excel at my work. However, after a few years, I was feeling stagnated. Time had come for me to look for a change. I had long known about Medecins Sans Frontieres. I was fascinated by their work because they are in tune with my sensibilities – brave but pragmatic idealist. Hence, it was natural for me to apply for a frontline project. What were you doing when the civil war broke out in South Sudan? What was the first thing that came to your mind when you learned about the news? After the civil war broke out in December 2013, the capital’s airport [in Juba] was shut down and our teammates, who were away on a vacation, could not return to the camp. Immediately, I needed to take charge of two departments – finance and personnel management – amid an onset of panic among my colleagues. I simply don’t have the time to feel scared I kept my cool and did the work to the best of my ability. Routinely, I’m confronted with the question of whether I am afraid at a frontline project. My stock response: I simply don’t have the time to feel scared. Besides, I need to keep my colleagues’ emotions under control to keep the project running. I’m the sort who revels in challenges and high adrenalin rush. For instance, the moment I learned about the outbreak of a war, I would be flush with excitement as I would have a ringside view of a historical event and yet have to deliver amid such tense moments. The ability to deliver under such crunch situations and with limited resources at our disposal makes my job truly fulfilling. Can you recall the most unforgettable moment or experience in the Doro refugee camp during the war? Our camp in Doro was across the road from the UN refugee camp. After the war broke out, every day there were scores of locals fleeing along with their children and livestock. One evening, when I looked out through a crack in the gate, as I often did, I saw a family sitting on the roadside under the street light. I did not know if they were residents of nearby villages or refugees in a camp. They looked uneasy, huddled together and trembling slightly. The father kept on looking around as he kept vigil. It seemed like they would spend the whole night there. Suddenly, the little boy who sat closest to me turned around and our eyes met. I can never forget the fear that I saw in his eyes. During the few seconds of our eye contact, I could hear my heart pounding in trepidation as teared welled up my eyes. I sobbed inconsolably for long in the hut that night. Soon, I became curious to know how to restore peace in Doro. Were there any moments when you felt frightened or stressed out so that you wanted to quit? If yes, what made you stay on? The pressure and workload at the frontline is massive. The stress is beyond description. Sometimes the thought that ‘I’m really too tired and I just want to go home’ would cross my mind. Every time it happens, my secret way to relieve pressure is to visit the children in the ward and play with them. As long as I can see them smiling, I want to carry on. How has the experience of working in a refugee camp in a war-torn country changed you and your life? I have found a like-minded life partner, became an idealist, simpler and happier, and [finally acquired] a sense of security. In the past, even a stable job, a decent income and an apartment in Beijing had failed to give me that elated feeling. Now, I don’t have a steady job, my income fluctuates sharply and I most often work in places that are torn by war, natural disasters or epidemic, but I’m incredibly at peace amid the chaos.