Today we are running a guest blog from a graduate of the Humanitarianism & Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) at the University of Manchester, Christopher McAleer. Enjoy his amusing and informative account of his time working as an intern for a non-governmental organisation in Paris.  



Here is a little recount of my time I spent in Paris working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the CRASH team. I hope it’s somehow interesting/amusing to read.When thinking about my time in Paris, I figured the best thing to do would be to take you, the reader, on a journey of the lessons I learned while I was there. Therefore:


Do not move to a foreign country where you cannot speak the language by yourself.

Seems pretty simple right? WRONG. If your brain works like mine and has some stupid sense of being able to do anything, this is a point you need to remid yourself of if this situation presents itself. That first month in Paris was the most miserable of my life. Moving somewhere completely new is lonely anyway, but add on top of that not being able to communicate properly with those around you and it’s not a fun cocktail! Things got better the more I learnt French but that first month was really lonely and hard work. But saying that I would go back and do it again in an instant, so don’t take this one as a rule.


Do not be ashamed at using Google Translate.


If you cannot speak a language properly, use any way you can to communicate.  I learnt the true meaning of this when at 9 in the evening a French woman began knocking loudly at my door. She then asked me to follow her and showed me that my shower had been leaking into the floor below. Now in the UK in English, I would have found this a problem to deal with, but in a new country and a language I was not adept at, this event caused me a minor personal crisis. With some help from my work colleagues I managed to get a plumber to get to see to the shower. When he arrived I used Google translate on my laptop and we conversed using this. (It transpired to be a problem with the tiling actually so he couldn’t do anything, however I felt my French came in handy when to confirm the problem I pointed at the tiles and said ‘merde’ to which he nodded). Also it turned out that MSF had an in office shower which Rony had insisted on having installed when the building was constructed, so I was saved!


Don’t think Paris is like in the films.


This is a short one. Mainly because if you stray near the tourist sites in the city they will be predominantly infested with couples eating each other’s faces. If you know where to go it can be a really nice place to be, but if your main aim is to dry hump in the Tuileries, as an ex-Parisian please desist. In addition to this if you do stray off the usual tourist track, BEWARE. There is no etiquette concerning where dogs leave their little presents in Paris. So it is essential to have one eye on the pavement, so as not to….well you get the jist.


Do remember why you are doing what you are doing.


Let me first say that working at MSF was the most interesting and enjoyable work I have ever done. But at the same time let me also say it was also very emotionally draining. Some of the issues I worked on included mapping casualty spikes during the conflict in Syria, human rights abuses in northern Mali, fabrication of evidence to justify intervention in Libya and also how humanitarian actors should deal with cases of male rape. Sounds fun doesn’t it? It’s hard not to get a little down when dealing with these issues only on the negative side, and also not seeing the humans affected. So my moment for remembering why I was there came during the recent conflict in Gaza. This exact clip actually: ‘What did my son do to die like this?’


It reminded me that the reason I want to work with people like MSF is to try and stop this happening/lessen the suffering of those caught in the line of fire. I think sometimes you need moments like that to keep reminding you of why you’re there when often, like I was, you are removed from the human face of what you are working on.


Do try and become as involved as possible.


Being an intern, as with everything, has times when you might be really busy and time when you will be really bored. But you can always try and make yourself more involved by asking to go to meetings, (especially if they are in English!). One of the most interesting time
s I did this was for a meeting to plan the MSF France mission in Yemen for the next year. It was amazing to have the inside scoop on such a complex and constantly changing operation, also one of the most insecure. I should add on to this point that, just because you an intern, do not expect people to think less of you because of it. I went in with the mind-set that I had the same hierarchical status as a toilet brush. During the meeting on Yemen, I plucked up enough courage to make a few points, with reference to similar scenarios that MSF had experienced, which the planning team had not anticipated. One of the members of the meeting came and found me in my office afterwards and asked me if I could help them with some research they wanted too. So just because you are an intern, do not expect that because of this people will think you are a retard.


Don’t be afraid.


Of anything, ever!  I mean this in the context of being an intern in a foreign country. Firstly don’t be afraid to ask questions. As the guy I shared my office with Michael would tell you, I ask a lot of questions. These ranged from how to say something in French or how to go about trying to work in the field. Just remember that people who work in humanitarian aid are generally quite helpful, this isn’t some cut throat business. It is a sector where people have the intention of helping other human beings. I ended up speaking with the head of the emergency department to ask him questions on my research, (I thought he would say no and tell me not to waste his time but he was actually very helpful!).


Do have fun.


It’s not all death and doom and gloom! Some of the best times I had were when we found something ridiculous to laugh at, such as Radiaid (YouTube it). I would spend my weekends essentially being a tourist, visiting fun places like the catacombs and the Arc de Triomphe. I also went to see Skyfall while I was there and learnt that Sean Connery sounds exactly the same as Sean Bullshit in French, (connerie is the word for bullshit). Finally if you are in a foreign country, do try and have some cultural exchange. When I returned back after my graduation I brought back some toffee, the CRASH team always found it funny to drop them on their desks to see them bounce and illustrate how hard they were, while I waited with bated breath whether one of them would end up making a trip to the dentist. On my last day at MSF, at the end of the day me and the team spent it drinking Breton whisky and champagne I’d bought to thank them, discussing stuff like why I didn’t like Charles De Gaulle and playing BandAid on YouTube to annoy people. I did manage to give them one cultural treat from the UK though; I introduced them to Ali G at the UN. My favourite question that I was asked in my entire time with MSF was what a ‘bellend’ meant.


So yeah that was my time at MSF, it was really good. Very lonely at times but you can’t have everything rosy can you! If you have any questions feel free to comment at the bottom. Also here is a blog post I did on male rape:


A UNHCR document on sexual violence against men in forced displacement


Here is one from Rony Brauman that I did some of the research for on Northern Mali:


Two weights, two measures


You can use Google translate or if you use Google Chrome as your browser there is a button at the top of the page which offers to translate it.


By Christopher McAleer

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