Over the past few years, Sophie Forrest has travelled all over South-East Asia with the Australian Army. As a medic, she’s always loved the sense of accomplishment that comes with being able to help someone in immediate need, whether that’s fixing a broken bone or treating a burn.
But it wasn’t until she was posted to the Philippines in 2018 that Sophie realised the satisfaction in providing ongoing care. “We were embedded with groups of nurses, providing first-aid training, and I really loved working with them,” she says. “When you’re starting out, you want to do all the quick fixes, but there I saw the benefit of providing longer-term training and support.”
For Sophie, this experience was one of the key factors in her decision to donate to the Leading Women Fund. “I liked the idea of providing ongoing support to a refugee family,” she says. Each donation to the Fund supports a Syrian refugee woman who is the head of her household, often because her husband has been killed or injured during the decade-long civil war. A donation of $3,000 a year (or $230 every four weeks) provides support for a refugee woman for a year; for example, helping to keep a roof over her head and her children in school.
For the last month, Sophie has been texting and sharing images — through UNHCR’s ground-breaking Connecting Worlds app — with a refugee woman in Jordan who’s receiving cash assistance. “She’s a mother of eight and I think every day is a bit of a battle for her,” Sophie says. “She’s very honest and open about the hardship she’s faced. I hope I’ve been able to help her a little with emotional support. It’s great to be able to provide that, as well as financial help.”
Having grown up on a farm in central Victoria with her three sisters, Sophie joined the army in 2013, when she was 19.
“I’d been travelling for a couple of years, visiting my sister in South America, and I wanted to find more purpose in my life,” she says. After 18 months’ training, Sophie’s first post was on the hospital ship USNS Mercy. “There are 17 operating theatres and all the staff are really highly trained, so while groups of medical experts from the ship travel to villages, more complex procedures take place onboard.”
In Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor), Sophie volunteered to work onshore, and was assigned to a group that was heading into the hills with a dermatologist to perform surgeries there. The memory of one patient in particular has always stayed with her.
“One day, a young girl came to the clinic with burns on her arm, which had healed in a way that made it difficult to fully extend,” Sophie says. “She looked about 12 or 13 years old, but she’d come by herself, without any family. It would have taken a lot of courage to approach a team of US Navy healthcare workers. After we’d asked her to bring back an adult to consent to the procedure, I helped hold her skin for the doctor, but also comforted her. She was really brave.”
Although Sophie has always been passionate about supporting refugees, experiences like these have strengthened her resolve to work directly in humanitarian aid. Since leaving the army in December last year, she has been working as a FIFO (Fly In Fly Out) emergency services officer at a mine in East Pilbara. She confesses that the rostered alternate weeks of work are a respite from the demands of the army. “Often I was given about three weeks’ notice and we could be away for nine months at a time,” she laughs. “At least now, I’m home around half the time.”
Eventually, though, she hopes to work with an organisation such as the UN.
“Syria is a country I find fascinating — I’ll read anything I can get my hands on about it,” she says. “It’s an area of such beauty and history, but so complex. I considered studying international politics, but I felt the medical side of humanitarian aid was an area I could really dedicate my life to.”
Like many donors, Sophie has enjoyed tuning in to Leading Women Fund webinars, particularly as they’ve given her the opportunity to hear from women like Irene Omondi, Head of Office at Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, who are working in the area she one day hopes to join.
“She was so impressive — how cool is it to be in a webinar with these women who are doing the work you’ve always admired?” says Sophie. “There have been some seriously inspiring women. It’s a privilege to listen to them speak and learn from them.”
The majority of funds raised by Australia for UNHCR are directed to UNHCR’s emergency operations, providing the ready funds and resources to respond quickly and effectively in situations of crisis and disaster.