Last night, after our compulsory return to the capital so we can leave the country and renew our visa, myself and a colleague sit outside at an upscale cafe, browsing a menu full of salad with prices that would be fairly low in our home cities but are high enough that I forgot to bring enough cash with me, so used to having less than a dollar’s worth of small notes in my back pocket being enough for anything I would need to buy around and about the camp. The contrast is so cavernous it’s surreal. I feel like I am in a dystopian novel, walked through the gateway into the gilded protected world that we had only heard about before. But our minds and hearts are still far away. We end up discussing the rain, speculate how the camp is coping, how our colleagues are doing with the ongoing challenges and crises. The heat and the mud feel like the real world. Sitting there, sipping an iced beverage everything feels wrong; the tables are too far apart, the waiter speaks English with a perfect accent, the food is full of vegetables and the lighting is ambient. We are strangers in a strange land again.
This feelings is exacerbated by the hard come-down after the emotional goodbye I received from my team. The evening before my departure they all gathered for a “ceremony.” This was more serious and formal than my ironical millennial English nature is used to. It is very humbling to hear several collages you respect stand up and make speeches in turn about you. It is difficult to know where to look and what to do with oneself. I have to control my emotions as it is hard to listen to without overblown reaction after hearing such flattering things said about the work I have poured all my efforts into during the past 3 months. So I make my speech brief. I throw in some jokes, try to make it not about me and it goes better than any public speaking I have done before (but that is, admittedly, a low bar). I know some gifts are coming; the full Arabic outfit I was half-expecting, but still look strange in the flowing white dress complete with the matching white scarf around my head. The perfume and trainers were a strange gift but I appreciate the effort of my team as the local market is not overflowing with top -quality presents (I know as I tried to find some for my team; I ended up sending them some textbooks from the capital.).
The surreal experienced continued as every one of the forty or so staff members attempted to take a selfie with me at the same time. I suspected this the closest I will be to celebrity in my life. A game of football follows, and to continue my run of uncharacteristic actions I managed to score (being inept at football this isn’t easy at the best of times let alone in a big white dress which slightly restricts movement). The following morning one last emotional goodbye to my team and we are gone. Bumping down a half constructed dirt road, with no plans to return. The emotions of leaving won’t fade for some time.
So, I sit here at an airport. With every day the lives of the refugee seem further away and the problems of changing money, finding a dentist and organising visas takes over. But the lingering feeling of being between worlds still ebbs around me. What am I here? I am not a saviour of these people. One reason I was happy to leave was both the Tigrian and Sudanese community have fantastic doctors and nurses to treat them, and MSF are enabling them to do this work. So, as we get news of further, more severe, destructive rains hitting the camp, I feel stuck between these two worlds. The fake opulence of international travel contrasting with the raw reality of those most desperate leaving me in limbo between the two, knowing the immersion of the next mission will be the thing that will draw me out of this emotional purgatory into a new unreal reality once again.