From Iraq to Nicaragua: Humanitarianism changed this expat's life

Expat interviews
  • Margot
Published on 2022-05-27 at 10:00 by Nelly Jacques
Margot has been a nurse and head of humanitarian projects. She has lived abroad for many years in different countries, such as Nicaragua, Iraq, Nigeria, and Colombia, working on humanitarian projects. Today, she provides support and advice to people who want to move abroad.

Can you tell us about your original professions (nurse and manager of humanitarian projects)?

Since I was 13, I knew I wanted to be a nurse and do humanitarian work. After my nursing studies and some practice in an emergency department in Paris, I resumed my studies in Angers. I received training in project management as well as humanitarian and social sectors. These two jobs helped me to fulfill my teenage dream, and I had to go abroad several times with an NGO as a health project manager in different contexts. It was a very enriching experience.

What was your first experience abroad?

My first significant experience abroad was a 6-month internship in Nicaragua during my Master 1. I had an incredible experience and discovered a magnificent country that few people know and a new culture. I was volunteering in a local organization that works in schools in very poor neighborhoods. It was a school support mission, not really my passion, but it helped me discover much more than that. By working with the children, I got the chance to learn Spanish quickly, I had a great time with the other volunteers, but above all, I spent a lot of time with the Nicaraguans. I loved everything about Nicaragua: the warmth, the music, the people, the colors, etc. There is a before/after Nicaragua in my life, and I saw myself living there for a while before getting back to reality. The return was really very difficult, although it was planned because I was returning for the rest of my studies. It took me 8 months to recover from this first experience, and I felt like no one understood me.

And then you moved to Iraq. Can you tell us about your living conditions, your job and your feelings there?

My mission in Iraq, or rather in Iraqi Kurdistan, is unforgettable. It was my first assignment in an NGO, and I was in charge of two health centers in two camps for displaced Iraqis, not far from Mosul. I was managing the health teams, the organization of the centers, and all the health projects that could take place in the camps. I learned a lot and met some amazing people.

The first week, I was still wondering how I even got there, but I eventually got used to it. Safety, social life, the culture, etc., are really very different from that of Europe. We were staying in a house in the village, and I had two offices: one in the village and one in each health center. But overall, the atmosphere was good.

Nigeria was your third destination. Did you enjoy this experience?

Nigeria was a tougher experience than Iraq, despite what you might think. The security conditions were firmer (curfew between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., no right to walk alone in the street, no external events authorized, etc.) due to a more unstable context. The living conditions weren't that great either. Living, eating, working, and sharing every moment of your day with the same 16 people can sometimes be a real challenge. But it is an excellent opportunity to learn a lot about yourself.

The assignment itself was different because it consisted of creating mobile health teams and not managing an existing center. The major difference was that I could interact directly with my teams since they could speak English, unlike in Iraq, where only my assistant did, and the rest of the team spoke Arabic or Kurdish. So we built the project together. These two experiences taught me very different things, both about myself and the humanitarian profession.

Moving to Colombia was a complete change of scenery, a different atmosphere. Can you tell us about this experience?

It was a very different atmosphere and context indeed. I only stayed a month in Colombia for a needs assessment in the border area in Venezuela during the migration crisis. This step consisted of studying the field and the needs before opening a mission. I have therefore helped to develop several health and other projects. I assessed a clinic in the jungle on the border with Venezuela with a view to taking over from an NGO that was about to leave. I loved Colombia, the atmosphere, and the people. It was a very different experience because I didn't have a team, and most of the work was on project design, but it was still very interesting. It reminded me of Nicaragua, and I particularly like the Spanish-speaking context.

Would you say that humanitarianism is a way to have an international experience?

Totally! You get to live and learn through contact with new cultures. This can be a major change compared to common destinations such as Canada, the United States, or Australia. The countries in which we go on mission are really very different both in terms of living conditions and culture. We don't really leave for comfort. It's a good way to understand what's happening in the world, to have a slightly more global view of important topics such as armed conflicts, migration, or simply living in unstable conditions.

That being said, humanitarianism is a professional sector that requires very specific training, an open mind, and a taste for adventure. And it remains an extraordinary international experience.

Where are you based currently? Can you imagine living somewhere else in the future?

I'm currently based in Paris. I moved here after Colombia because I had a new professional project in mind, which I have been working on ever since.

I no longer wanted to go on a mission, and I had a strong need to put down my luggage, breathe, give myself some time, and get closer to my family and friends.

Obviously, I do not rule out the possibility of traveling again one day, who knows where, if my job allows me, but I think it's more likely to be a family project.

What about your change of career?

I think I haven't completely changed my career. Instead, I have combined everything I've been doing for 10 years, namely health and travel, into my new job: providing support to expats, including those who want to return to their country. Even I experienced some difficulties when returning to France after my missions, and this greatly affected my morale, in addition to the other difficulties encountered: housing, re-registration here and there... When I heard about the experiences of other expats, including volunteers, families, employees, solo travelers, students, etc., I realized that the issues were the same for everyone -- administrative procedures, education, social reintegration... This is how I became a consultant.  

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