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Jacqui Tong Memorial Page
It is with heartfelt sadness that we must mark the passing of our dear friend Jacqui Tong, who passed away at her home in Geneva. A memorial service in London for Jacqui will be held in the Pavillion of the Horniman Museum at 11am on Saturday 22 September. We will likely then picnic and stay around in the Horniman Gardens, so everyone is welcome to stay and families to join later if they don’t want to attend the memorial.
Those of us who were lucky enough to know Jacqui remember a larger than life character. Jacqui's wild hair, impossible kiwi accent, intelligence, quick wit and immense generosity will be much missed by the many friends she made in the MSF community.
In 1994, after training as a nurse in her native New Zealand, Jacqui began her long career with MSF. Her first placement as a field nurse took her to the Goma refugee camp in Zaire caring for those who had escaped the Rwandan genocide and its repercussions.
From there, Jacqui’s career with MSF defies any attempt at summary. She was completely dedicated to MSF, undertaking a vast number of field assignments over the course of 25 years. Jacqui’s courage and skill carried her through some of the darkest places on Earth, but she never lost her spirit or resolve, or her belief in MSF’s purpose.
In her first five years with MSF, Jacqui travelled to Somalia, Sierra Leone, Iran, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Sudan, India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Albania and Liberia. Her sharp wits and intelligence saw her taking on roles that ranged from project coordinator in Kosovo, only weeks after the conflict there had ended, to medical coordinator and then deputised head of mission in the Philippines.
“How do you feel about Rwanda?’ was the first thing MSF said to me in my interview. It was the time of the genocide and I had never for a moment imagined I would go there. I was sent to what was at the time the world's largest refugee camp. I remember looking around and… I saw some terrible things. I think it was my innocence that saved me. A lot of the experienced people were crashing in these circumstances. If something is very chaotic I like to go through and I know we're going to clean this up.”
Jacqui’s work with MSF evolved to encompass a wide range of senior field positions, as well as contributing to communication, reflection and evaluation projects, including work with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative.
She was President of MSF UK in 2010 and a committed member of both the MSF UK Board of Trustees and the MSF International Council.
In more ways than any of us could count, she gave and gave to MSF. We all owe her so much.
But she was not just our colleague, she was our friend. She was loud, raucous, full of energy.
“My highlights are all those ‘small miracles’ of patients’ survival, those that bring you back to your sense of purpose."
At my wedding she overtook the proceedings at a certain point with a loud rendition of a well-known Maori dance to the assembled guests.
After regaling them with her own special version of the haka, she promptly fell over, an amusing part of the performance but one that later she didn’t really like to be reminded of!
We are all very sad about this loss, but we should also remember that Jacqui would want us to celebrate her many adventures and contributions to the movement.
This page is dedicated to our memories and stories of Jacqui and I invite anyone who knew her to share their stories here.
If you would like to contribute something, please email Jon Mazliah at email@example.com.
But first, this video of Jacqui was recorded in May 2018 as part of our celebration of MSF UK’s 25th birthday. She’s passionate and forthright and painfully honest. Everything that makes MSF what it is today.
Executive Director, MSF UK
Here is a piece that Jacqui wrote for MSF UK in 2001:
Afghanistan 2001 - A letter from Jacqui
My name is Jacqui Tong and I am writing to you from Badakhshan, in northern Afghanistan, where I work as medical coordinator for MSF. This is my seventh assignment with MSF.
When I came here on a six-week assignment in August, my friends joked about it being my summer holiday. Well, I’m still here and now the joke is that something went wrong with my holiday plans.
MSF’s work here includes full support to four clinics, community health networks, the only functioning hospital in Badakhshan and an emergency project with displaced people in Tahkar province near the front line. We place a strong emphasis in our work here on improving mother and child health.
The infant mortality rate is staggering – one in four children die before the age of five. Their mothers are also at risk. We don’t have exact figures, but it’s common for women to die during and after childbirth. Many never make it to the clinics or the hospital. Most of these deaths are preventable, and our biggest challenge is to make healthcare truly available to all those who need it.
So, one of my biggest priorities has been to set up a functioning network of health workers who can make sure that people suffering from disease, illness or accident are promptly referred to the nearest health post.
In most cases this is one of our health centres, but serious medical cases have to be sent to the hospital in Faizabad. We have brought the hospital up to a decent standard; it’s basic but clean and has all essential facilities, including x-ray and ultrasound.
MSF provides all the drugs and medical materials for the hospital, trains and supports the medical staff, and has even donated generators to ensure that frequent power cuts don’t stop their work.
September started badly here in the Northern Alliance (NA) area. The assassination of the leader of the NA, Massoud, on 9 September left us in shock, with real concerns that the front line would move rapidly towards us.
Two days later we were hit with news on the radio of the World Trade Centre attack. All other aid agencies, apart from our colleagues in the ICRC, quickly evacuated. It was a surreal time for us all, as we felt in the centre of events, according to the media, but yet outwardly, life went on the same.
I do remember feelings of raw vulnerability and the eye contact with our national staff; they were as confused and as worried as we were. We use the word "solidarity" when we are in proximity to the people in need. After seven assignments with MSF this has been the strongest experience I have had of this need being expressed by our staff and our patients. The need just for us to be there with them, and not leave.
MSF’s international staff, travelling through the remote and rugged Panshir valley, returned to work in Kabul on 13 November, the day the front line crossed the city.
We went without any military escort and completely independently of any armed group. In the same way, MSF was the first international aid organisation to return to Mazar-I-Sharif and Herat, to emotional reunions with our Afghan staff, and rapidly resuming full-scale operations.
I really have to remark here on the fantastic efforts of MSF’s Afghan staff; keeping medical facilities continuously open and functioning in many locations, despite great personal risk.
Messages from friends and colleagues:
Somewhere in the 90s. Bo, Sierra Leone. The RUF rebels had specialised in the most inhuman atrocities. We saw the heavily wounded and traumatised survivors in Bo hospital, in the clinics, in the camps.
They kept arriving, day after day, week after week. We decided to set up a monitoring and reporting system in Bo to denounce the atrocities. And YOU took the lead. You just had to. I then discovered your incredible sense of justice and humanity. Your never-ending drive and energy. And of course your humour too!
You blew me away Jacqui.
As you did so many others in MSF.
It is with great sadness that we write to tell you that Jacqui passed away at her home in Geneva last week. Jacqui's wild hair, impossible Kiwi accent, intelligence, quick wit as well as her immense generosity will be much missed by her family and the many friends she made across the world.
We are all very shocked and sad about this loss but we should also remember that Jacqui would want us all to celebrate her many adventures and contributions to life, love, family and friendship.
Dear Jacqui, you will be missed.
What sad news. Jacqui was wonderful - one of the most wild, committed, kind-hearted and humanitarian-minded students I had the pleasure of teaching on our Masters at Oxford Brookes. I learnt a lot! All my thoughts to her family at this time.
Dear Jaqui, You were one of the first people I met at MSF UK and immediately you set the tone: devastatingly honest, no BS and a big heart. Thanks for all your work and your commitment to being a humanitarian. We will miss you! xxx
Wherever I was in spirit or body Jacqui gave me a home and encouraged me to take more of life. Jacqui lived life to the full. Thank you for the inspiration. Love you.
Sad to lose you, but we must remember the good times; the countless lives saved by MSF on your watch. You taught me so many things; above all, that there is only one MSF.
Thank you Jacqui for having had the opportunity to know and work with you not only in my MSF days, but also in 2008/9 when you wrote up ICVA’s history so well. R.I.P.
Oh Jacqui, how can you be gone. We shared time in 2010 through that governance reform turbulence. Your wit, energy and enthusiasm was renown and your dedication to MSF apparent in all you took on. I will miss you. RIP Jacqui.
Jacqui, I cannot believe we will not have anymore those regular long chats in Geneva, eating the best calamari in town in our favourite Galician restaurant, reconstructing the world, and MSF and just doing talking therapy so dear to you. I find myself waiting for the next one that will not come. Oh Dear, you will be missed.
Birgitte Riis Andersen
In the spring of 1996, I had the great pleasure of meeting Jacqui in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I was on my first mission as a doctor, while Jacqui was working in Bo. It was in the midst of the civil war and Jacqui had come to collect temoignage from the civil population. She was spending time gathering people's testimonies from the civil war, so that MSF could bear witness about the massive scale of atrocities taking place. She was exposed to harrowing stories of torture and killing. Even though Jacqui was strong, the stories affected her.
I was immediately impressed by Jacqui. She was a powerhouse of energy, initiative and determination. A very, very intelligent and really experienced humanitarian. I really liked her and admired her.
In the evenings, we often went out to local restaurants. Sometimes to get drunk and de-stress. One evening, we were some 4 or 5 people in the Landcruiser, on our way home with a sober driver. The car was tall and being driven at nearly full speed, which luckily was not fast on the road full of potholes. Jacqui was leaning against the door on the back seat, when it suddenly opened and she fell out. We all thought that was the end of her, but miracously she survived with
just a few bumps and scratches. She was naturally upset and swore a lot in her lovely kiwi accent.
I subsequently had the privilege to enjoy her friendship, seeing her occasionally in London, when she worked at the MSF-UK office in London, and she introduced me to James Kliffen for which I am very grateful.
The last time I saw Jacqui was at a New Year celebration at my house in Copenhagen a few years ago. My son, then 14, was writing an assignment about music, and Jacqui, true to her style, introduced him to some crazy hard rock music. It really impressed his music teacher and was, like anything with Jacqui, a new experience. True to her generosity, she also brought us a big raclette machine complete with Swiss cheese.
She was a really generous person, beautiful and fun and clever. And with a real interest in other people.
She made the world a better place. It is hard that she is gone. I hope that she is in Jacqui heaven. A place where it is lovely, warm, surprising and complicated. With lots of dark chocolate, raclette and yoga.