WITH a private education in Bath and a law degree under your belt, you would expect to be flying off to the Caribbean or the Côte d’Azur, rather than South Sudan and Bangladesh.
But the latter is where Ben Pickering has spent the past couple of years. His luggage consists of tents and sanitation equipment as he immerses himself in alarmingly volatile situations.
Mr Pickering, who was brought up in Yatton Keynell, works in a non-medical role for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). It has carried out surgery on more than 2,100 people in the Philippines since the islands were ravaged by the strongest typhoon in recorded history in November.
Mr Pickering, who was in Afghanistan when typhoon Haiyan left its trail of devastation, has devoted the past six years to managing humanitarian programmes during crises, including responding to an earthquake in Pakistan and flooding in East Africa.
The 34-year-old is lucky if he spends four weeks of the year in his home country. The nature of responding to natural disasters means he is called away without warning, making lasting relationships nigh impossible.
“Having meaningful relationships is the most difficult part,” said Mr Pickering, speaking from Kabul.
“When required on a programme it tends to be short notice. It makes it a bit difficult. I do try to get back for Christmas. You get homesick and you miss your family and friends.”
He wouldn’t have it any other way. Providing life-saving assistance to families is well worth the sacrifice, he said. “It is the ultimate reward. The experience when you work overseas is so absorbing.
“When I go somewhere it is always because of an emergency or disaster, never in peace time or as a holiday. The scale of disturbance is so overwhelming. You see populations that have lost so much, and yet the people have always been incredibly warm, even in these most difficult of situations.
“This is the overriding similarity I have found between cultures – the dignity that people have to prevail through very difficult circumstances. That continues to impress me and make me humble.”
After achieving a masters in development studies, Mr Pickering joined Oxfam to manage programmes in East Africa and South Asia.
For eight months this year he worked for Médecins Sans Frontières managing a basic healthcare clinic in Bangladesh.
Last year he was in Juba, South Sudan, where he was responsible for monitoring the humanitarian situation across the country.
He said: “There are chronic needs, poor health infrastructure, lack of health facilities, lack of available water, absence of sanitation. They are still suffering from incidents of conflict as well as flash floods and droughts. Fighting has caused a great number of people to be displaced.”
His parents, who both worked for what is now British Airways, have always been supportive of his international lifestyle. His mum died last year but he was able to get back home to see her beforehand.
Asked how long he expects to continue in his role, he said: “I keep asking myself that question. When I get towards the end of a year I say, this will be the last one, but other opportunities keep cropping up and I say, maybe another one.
“When it starts to become tiring I long for home, but after a few weeks I’ll get itchy feet again, so I never seem to be entirely content.”
Médecins Sans Frontières needs surgeons, doctors, nurses, midwifes, psychologists and anaesthetists. It also recruits skilled workers with experience in accounting, logistics, human resources management, civil engineering, water and sanitation. Languages are useful, particularly French, Arabic and Spanish.
To donate or find more information, see www. msf.org.uk