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Meet a Red Crosser: International aid worker Jean-Baptiste Lacombe

Jean-Baptiste Lacombe recently joined the Canadian Red Cross as Rapid Response Manager with the Emergency Response Team (ERT). He answered some questions for us about working as an international aid worker and his new role with the Red Cross.

Where you working before joining the Red Cross? What was your role?

Aid worker Jean-Baptiste Lacombe stands in front of a chalkboard, wearing his Red Cross vestBefore this I worked at Oxfam as the humanitarian program officer for about two and a half years. My main focus there was on the Middle East. I managed the grants for projects and quality control in the area of water and sanitation. Prior to that, I did a short assignment with the Canadian Red Cross for the Ebola response with the Ebola Treatment Centre in Gueckedou in Guinea. For four weeks I worked with water and sanitation, mostly managing the safe and dignified burials team. Before that, I did eight missions with Médecins Sans Frontières in various roles.

When did you decide you want to get into this line of work?

Well that was quite a long time ago! I guess even when I was younger I wanted to do this job. I read a book when I was about 15 about Marc Vachon, who was a logistician for MSF and I was like “okay I can do that too.”

What will your role as “rapid response manager” entail?

I am the surge capacity leader, which means my job is to make sure the Canadian Red Cross is ready to respond internationally when a disaster or emergency strikes. In a disaster or emergency situation, I will be sent as the team leader for the Emergency Response Team, the Field Assessment and Coordination Team or in another leadership role. When the field hospital is sent after a disaster, I’ll be sent with the team and the modules to work with the national society and respond to crises all around the world.

You travel all over the world with this work – how does your family react to you working in sometimes dangerous situations?

I feel that my family and my partner understand that when I’m going in the field, I’m going with responsible organizations that have responsible plans for the safety and well being of aid workers. Facing zero risk doesn’t exist, but my family knows I do my due diligence and the organization does too, so I’m in a safe as possible environment.

What’s one experience from working in the field that sticks with you?

Jean-Baptiste and other Red Cross members help complete a dignified burial of someone who died from EbolaThe Ebola response was one of the most intense missions I’ve ever had. The level of the needs and the level of the fear in the community were very high, and there was the feeling that we weren’t always able to make a difference. Even if we were working really, really hard, the number of cases didn’t necessary reduce drastically. That was emotionally and physically draining. Most of the time in humanitarian missions, you have some kind of recognition in the community, but in this instance there was so much fear from the community around the disease and so little results that you didn’t feel you were able to tackle the crisis.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I really like to go cycling. When you’re in the field, you aren’t as free as you want in terms of movement. When I come back I take my bike and it’s absolute freedom; you can just ride and go anywhere. Usually when I come back from a mission one of my priorities is to spend time with friends and family – I book all my meals with them. I also like to enjoy all the cultural life in Montreal, shows concerts, theatres, festivals.

What do you always bring with you when you work in another country?

I always bring my camera because I like to take pictures and I feel that’s one of the great ways to explain what is happening – to share the feeling, the ambience and the looks of people. I feel there is a lot of misunderstanding about what humanitarian work is, so bringing back pictures, movies, some footage that uniquely shows what is happening can help with that. I always bring a set of tree knifes, have really specific features that are really useful in the field (the plier of the Leatherman, the blade of the opinel and the corkscrew of the Swiss knife). I also bring my kindle because reading is one of the only ways to disconnect during those crises.
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