After a happy but hectic day, Raissa Chainey settled her 11-month-old son Anton down to sleep and picked up her computer to open her emails. One in particular grabbed her attention... A newsletter from an international aid agency was highlighting the devastation being wrought by the Ebola virus in West Africa.
Horrified, Raissa (43) learnt that babies were literally crying themselves to death because their sick mothers couldn’t cuddle them in case they contracted the highly- infectious deadly disease.
Despite spending 15 years carrying out aid work in some of the world’s most troubled areas – and seeing some harrowing sights – the words really knocked Raissa for six.
“You become a mum and you suddenly see things very differently,” she explains. “When you have your own child, everything is on another level. As a new mum, I thought it was terrible. If I was sick, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than not being able to cuddle Anton and just leaving him to cry. It would have broken my heart.”
As the Ebola crisis in West Africa worsened, Raissa, who had worked in Uganda during an outbreak in 2007, also knew aid workers with her experience were rare at Oxfam – and they urgently needed volunteers.
Just two weeks after first seeing the newsletter, in October last year, Raissa was on her way to Liberia with an emergency team. Her job was to work with local communities improving public hygiene, training volunteers and delivering vital messages along with soap and buckets to help stem the spread of the virus.
“There was an urgent need for help and I had the skills and training. I knew I wasn’t being reckless. I just had to go,” adds Raissa who, up to that point, had never left Anton for more than a few hours.
Chatting it over with husband Ewan (51) first, they agreed she should go and planned that Ewan and Anton should spend the three weeks she’d be away in Scotland with family – including his Ewan's mum Maureen (77), a retired nurse and mum of three herself.
“Ewan wasn’t surprised by my decision. I didn’t need to convince him it was the right thing as he’s an international aid worker too. He knew I had the skills and was confident I wouldn’t take any risks,” she said. Indeed, Raissa had met Ewan in Ethiopia, where they were both working in July 2011.
Maureen admits she was initially more worried. “When I first heard the news, it was very worrying, but I knew I was going to have to overcome my fears. In the end I accepted I just had to trust my daughter-in-law who, as well as being a very loving mum, is an experienced aid worker and knows what she’s doing,” she says.
Once in Liberia, Raissa’s role did not put her into direct contact with Ebola sufferers as she was working in communities preventing the spread – not in medical centres.
She knew there was a very slight chance she could have come into contact with Ebola, but says, “I’d been well trained and constantly watched for the tell-tale signs – anybody looking sick or with a fever. I knew the specific procedure to follow and I made sure I didn’t go anywhere too overcrowded. I washed my hands frequently and must have had my temperature checked at least 20 times a day.”
‘I’d been well trained and constantly watched for the tell-tale signs – anybody looking sick or with a fever’
Most days she was able to telephone her husband and on several occasions managed to successfully Skype to see Anton.“It was hard, but I knew he was always happy and well looked-after and I’d soon be home,” she adds. “As well as going on lots of walks with Grandma in the beautiful countryside near Inverness, he was happily tucking into her fish pie, playing with his cousins and his auntie’s dog Mickey.”
One of the hardest days for Raissa was Anton’s first birthday when she couldn’t manage to get a successful Skype connection. “I knew his Grandma would organise a little family party for him and I knew he wouldn’t really remember much of it. If he’d been older it might have been more difficult. It was hard for me but some of my colleagues were mothers and they were really supportive. “
When finally reunited at the airport, it was as if they’d never been away from each other.
“He was a bit bigger and had a bit more hair, but otherwise nothing had changed. Luckily, I hadn’t missed his first unaided steps! He had a big smile on his face as soon as he saw me and I just grabbed him into my arms. It was amazing just to be able to hold him again.”
Brought up in a caring family home in France, Raissa credits her parents with giving her a passion to help others.
“My mother and father are both kind, good people who always like to help others. I learnt a lot from them and also saw how happy it made them,” adds Raissa who first knew she wanted to become an international aid worker as a child. Now safely back behind a desk in Oxfam offices near her Oxford home, if she ever needs any convincing of her career choice, she only has to think of her recent experience.
“I’m glad I went. One day I will explain to Anton what I did and how it makes me happy to help. Hopefully he’ll understand.”
- Oxfam’s Strength to Survive appeal spans the full range of humanitarian work – from preparing for disasters, to surviving when crisis hits, to long-term recovery and rebuilding. If you’d like to find out more or make a donation visit www.oxfam.org.uk/appeal
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Pic © Patrick Boyd Photography