Tom just came back from Iraq. Alone, after 8 months, and with a huge duffel bag. Enough reason for some serious questioning by customs. Turns out, Tom is actually doing awesome work for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF/ Doctors Without Borders). After Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Iraq, he's soon off to Myanmar for a new mission.
How do you unfuck the world, Tom?
There is a personal level on which I try to make better decisions, but most of the impact I try to make with my work for MSF. I worked on HR and finances in the past locations, soon I will go on my fourth mission to Myanmar where I will be working as Base Responsible.
What sparked your interest to work for an organization like this?
It pretty much started in 2015 when the big floods of refugees started to come in. I was living in The Netherlands and was running my own sports business. When this crisis hit I felt like I wanted to contribute something but I wasn't sure what exactly. With friends I went to Calais in order to see for ourselves what was going on there. We spoke to many refugees, saw under which circumstances they were living and decided to do something for them. So we started the initiative: Doneer Je Deken. At festivals we collected many tents, sleeping bags and blankets, and people donated them from different parts of the country as well. We managed to collect a lot. This way we could do something for the people suffering in the camps. This sparked that I wanted to contribute more. That this was the direction i wanted to go in.
I am just a very small part of a big operation. Which is both exciting and disillusioning. Exciting because I know the organization does great work. Disillusioning because despite of all our efforts, the places where I go might actually be more wrecked when I leave then when i arrived.
What is it that you love most about your work for MSF?
I really believe in the work they do. Now, after working with them for 2 years, I can truly say that I believe that they are an honest organization. It is clear where the money donated is going towards, and it is an organization that takes a stand. They speak out when there is something happening somewhere that is not acceptable. Also, I like that I am part of something bigger. When I was working for Doneer je Deken, we were a very small team and it turned out to be very difficult to maintain the initiative as a side project next to our jobs. It took a lot of time and energy to do the work we wanted to do, and on top of that find ways to finance it. With my work for MSF I know the impact we are having. It is an ongoing project. I am just a very small part of a big operation. Which is both exciting and disillusioning. Exciting because I know the organization does great work. Disillusioning because despite of all our efforts, the places where I go might actually be more wrecked when I leave then when I arrived.
Has your work for the organization changed your view of the world?
It has. Exactly because of what I said about that it can be disillusioning. When being in The Netherlands we might feel that things are changing for the better. More people are becoming aware of the environmental impact we have, more people starting up beautiful initiatives. But then I see very different places in the world too. Places where there are big groups of people without a voice. Being discriminated, hated on, people without a place to go. I believe that overall, we, as humanity, are not moving in the right direction. Although of course this is a sad thing to conclude, it doesn't mean that I stop trying to be part of the change in the right direction. It motivates me even more to do the work I am doing.
Every 3 months you have to leave the mission to take a break. Go on holidays, see the family, your girlfriend. How is that switching between such very different worlds?
That is actually pretty easy. Precisely because they are such different worlds. When I am on a break I have my 'normal' life in which I plan my days myself. In which I see friends and family, do sports, go on holidays. When I am on a mission, my days are planned for me. I am fully there and I never have to question myself why I am there, what I am doing. The conflicts are so obvious, and the work very clear. For me it doesn't feel like switching within one life, it feels like having two paralel lives.
For people interested in working with MSF as well, what would you like to tell them?
You got to have a very strong intrinsic motivation to do this work. With your own social impact initiative or business, you usually get a lot of recognition. With working with an organization like MSF it's nothing like that. You don't get patted on the shoulder that you're doing good work. You, yourself, have to believe in the work you are doing. If so, you will find a lot of satisfaction in the work you will be doing.
We know that no one is perfect. Not even you, Tom. So tell us, what is your guilty pleasure?
Haha well, I get seduced by pretty things. When I am on a mission I live with very little. I don't buy anything, I don't miss anything. But when I am back in a city with shopping streets, I can find myself longing for some new stuff. Especially outdoor gear, that is my sweet spot. I love the outdoors life and I can convince myself that I will definitely need this specific new tool or jacket for camping.