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by Cam MacDonald
posted 29/09/2020

Profile: Trudy Rosenwald Médecins Sans Frontières

Trudy Rosenwald is a psychologist from Mount Helena, Western Australia who has worked with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Ethiopia, Libya and Greece.

Above: Trudy Rosenwald with a man and his baby son, both Médecins Sans Frontières patients, in Ethiopia. Ó MSF

What led you to apply for a role with MSF?

I’ve wanted to work with MSF since it started – we’re talking early 70s. But I wasn’t a doctor; I was a busy mum and businesswoman, so the opportunity didn’t arise until I was in my 50s, when I got my psychology degree and PhD. I started working in WA with Indigenous people and refugees in trauma counselling, then worked with an organisation on Manus and Nauru with refugees and asylum seekers. I applied to MSF in 2016 and was accepted – by then I was in my 60s, and to know that age was no barrier was really great. To be selected for an assignment was a fulfilment of a dream, something I’d been working toward for a long, long time.

Your first MSF experience was working with refugees in Greece what stood out to you during this field placement?

In Australia you hear very little about what is happening in northern Greece, so when I arrived I was really surprised. I was located in a beautiful setting, with lovely people and great colleagues, but very sad circumstances. It was just after Europe had closed its borders, and it was a real shock for me to realise that Europe had taken on Australia’s strategies of stopping people from getting to a safe place. One of the hardest things to deal with was the stories of people being split up, and the incredible loss and grief people had experienced; to be in the field with people while it was happening was very confronting. It made me realise what an important role MSF is playing in mental health.

What activities did you take on as Mental Health Activity Manager?

I managed the mental health programs: individual counselling, group therapy, and psycho-social/educational programs in the detention centres. I did a lot of training with the staff to pass on my knowledge and skills, to empower them to put it all into practice – I continue to be impressed with how passionate and dedicated the local staff are, it’s really a pleasure to work with them. We also undertook community health training, to normalise mental health intervention and reduce the stigma, which is a particularly important part of our work.

What key lessons have you learnt from your three assignments?

The resilience of people. When you hear those horrible stories, you wonder how people can continue to push ahead. The insight I gained was that what drives people is a very strong sense of loyalty and responsibility to their families. The vast majority of these people are fleeing to make a path for the families they have left behind in very deprived and persecuted situations. They are the ones making the path to safety, and they take that incredibly seriously.

Could you share a memorable experience from one of your assignments?

For me, one of the most touching experiences was in one of the Libyan detention centres. As a mental health intervention we gave out notebooks and pens – an essential intervention, because it allowed people to express things. When it was Christmas, they wrote messages and made drawings and thank you notes for MSF and put them on the inside doors of their cells; it was incredibly touching.

What advice would you give to someone considering a role with Médecins Sans Frontières?

Read as much as possible about the country and get as much up-to-date information about the project as you can. Talk to others who have been there, and prepare yourself to look, listen, learn and lead. Probably my most positive experience is working with the local staff. I’ve had experiences that I certainly don’t think I would have been able to get if I hadn’t ended up working for MSF.

Visit https://msf.org.au/join-our-team/work-overseas for more information about working with MSF overseas.