Conversations with Volunteers and Development Workers

Áine Lynch left Comhlámh in mid 2019 to take up a role as project coordinator with Médecins Sans Frontières.  This is her second deployment with MSF and we caught up with her over email, to ask her a few questions about her role in Pakistan during Covid-19. 
Áine Lynch in Pakistan with her MSF colleagues.

Áine Lynch, you are currently in Pakistan with MSF.  What on earth are you doing there? 

Fulfilling a lifelong dream of working with a world-renowned humanitarian organisation! I have been in Pakistan since November 2019 working as a Project Coordinator for the Maternal and Child Health Project in East Balochistan. I was matched to the Pakistan mission after a brief stint with MSF in South Sudan. 

How are the practical day-to-day issues of lockdown for you? 

Actually, “lockdown” has been fine. To be honest I don’t really see much of a difference from before Covid-19 restrictions were enforced as already we had to adhere to quite strict security rules with specific areas off bounds and a curfew in place. I think I was mentally prepared for this before the pandemic, so I probably found it easier to adjust than if I had been at home in Ireland.  

Are you with some colleagues and friends, or are you alone? 

Yes, thankfully I live and work with a great team of international colleagues from Rwanda, Kenya, Indonesia, Colombia, Canada and beyond! We occasionally cook together so I have been learning not only to appreciate the delicious cuisine from around Pakistan but dishes from further afield also. I am the newest of the team to MSF and for many here, they have been working for years with the organisation, across various continents and contexts so it’s been great listening to their stories. 

Can you “work from home” and if so, what is it like?  Are you still able to do your job? 

I have been working from home since March, but luckily I had been fully set up for remote management as I am currently managing the project from Islamabad. Unfortunately there is a long, uncertain process to obtaining a permit to visit the Balochistan region and the wait can be anywhere from two to nine months. The national staff on the ground at the project are no strangers to this working arrangement with international staff and we have regular meetings over Skype, discussions over phone and photo updates through WhatsApp. Before the lockdown, I was able to meet the team occasionally when they would visit Islamabad office, and occasionally we could meet “half way” in the MSF office in Quetta, which is the capital of Balochistan, where permits aren’t needed for foreigners to visit. 

Obviously, I’m eager to get to the project and it would make a lot of the tricky day-to-day tasks a lot easier for me and for the team there. However, so far their patience and kindness knows no bounds. 

What are you able to do in your free time or for weekends? 

Islamabad is such a beautiful green city full of leafy avenues, parks, outdoor markets, street vendors and teashops so before the lockdown I was exploring all the places within our security bounds including many secondhand bookshops!  

My most favourite thing to do at the weekends however is explore the beautiful Margalla hills, there are many trails to choose from, winding through vegetation, rock pools, mini waterfalls and exceptional views over the planned city of Islamabad. Recently we have been setting off on hikes at 5 am, which wouldn’t be my ideal wake up time at the weekend, but any later and the trails are too hot to comfortably hike. Last weekend, we sighted a family of monkeys and even a few stray wild pigs which you don’t want to get on the wrong side of as they are known to charge and have huge spikes like quills on their backs.  

What are some of the worries that you have, that you know we don’t have back here in Ireland? 

Generally, the security situation has been calm around Islamabad but terrorist attacks are always at the back of my mind when out in public places. Over the two months, I spent in Quetta in the winter there had been three indiscriminate attacks carried out just a few kilometers away from our compound. Improvised explosive devises were used in these attacks, mainly targeting police and security personnel but many civilian lives were lost at peaceful marches, when out praying in mosques and in the marketplace. 

Are you able to keep in touch with family, friends, your partner and so on, and if so, what platforms are you using and why? 

Yes – fortunately the internet connection is great and I can just pick up the phone and call my sister via WhatsApp and catch up with nieces and nephews and see their bright, smiling faces. It always cheers me up! It’s as if we are just down the road from each other. I always find that people make an extra effort to stay in touch when you are away so I don’t feel like I’m missing out too much, especially not now that the whole of Ireland is on lockdown, friends and family are facing the same distance among each other at home as I am hundreds of miles away. 

My partner has been working in Nepal the past year so eventhough we have been somewhat geographically close- it’s been a logistical nightmare trying to meet. In fact, we did manage to meet in Dubai in early March but he got stranded there and has been unable to get back to Kathmandu ever since. The joys of navigating long distance relationships! 

Do you get afraid and if so, what of? 

Since the borders in and out of Pakistan have been shut, bar a few repatriation flights, my fear is how I will be able to get home if something happens my family. I think this is a worry that many are sharing of late though. Sometimes the overwhelming sense of being trapped weighs heavy on me but then I put it in perspective and think, I am healthy and safe, I have my work to focus on and I’m just be grateful that family and friends at home are well too. 

Do you think you are taking good care of yourself physically, mentally and psycho socially?  And if so, would you have any tips for us back here? 

I am not as physically active as I would be at home unfortunately, which is part due to laziness but also (and I blame this) because as a female I am not allowed to go outside and walk on my own, so I always need to be with someone else when outside. Cycling is also out of bounds and I really miss my bike and the freedom of travelling to and from work like that. 

I try to limit my use of technology after work and I have been getting better at putting time into the process of cooking and occasionally baking. Self-care can come in many forms and I am finding I have to adapt to what works for my situation here and what options I have at my disposal. Although I would love to go for a bike ride, there is no point dwelling on that and rather focus on what I can do – eat well, rest and sleep! 

When are you coming home, and how do you feel about that? 

I am due to be home at the end of August but there is possibility to extend my contract here – I have not made up my mind yet! I have to make a lot of choices in the next while and that is slightly stressful.  

I had planned a bike trip through the Balkans in September but the realities of such freedom and luxuries are possibly out of the question now.  Perhaps I’ll ride out the global pandemic in Pakistan for the remainder of 2020… phrases I thought I’d never be thinking or saying out loud!  

Is there anything else you’d like to say from Pakistan to Comhlámh people here in Ireland? 

This too shall pass!