More than 300 aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in 2011, compared to 90 in 2001, an increase highlighting a disturbing trend towards targeted attacks against foreign aid workers in some of the world’s most hostile regions.

In June this year, one aid worker was killed and another four kidnapped in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, and just last week a United Nations police officer was shot dead in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Médecins Sans Frontières nurse Erin Calabrese recalls when two of her colleagues were shot and killed in Somalia in late 2011 and how it affected the aid community. “It is a really big shame to the humanitarian world and Médecins Sans Frontières as a family when there are incidents,” she said.

So what makes a person give up the safety and security of Australia for a life of discomfort and conflict?

I recently travelled to South Sudan where I met two remarkable Australians, Calabrese and Melinda Young, who are trying to make a difference to the lives of more than 43 million displaced people worldwide. Aid work isn’t for everyone says 27-year-old Calabrese, but for people willing to live with danger and discomfort, it can be a very rewarding job.

“There’s definitely an element of excitement and adventure to aid work,” she said. “If you do have a sense of adventure and risk … it does suit the aid work life.”

South Sudan was Calabrese’s fourth posting with Médecins Sans Frontières, having previously worked with the organisation in Kyrgyzstan, Ethiopia, and Libya. “To be a health professional and to be able to contribute in humanitarian work is the most satisfying and fulfilling sense of achieving I’ve found,” she said.

Director of program development for Save the Children in South Sudan, Young agrees, and says she got into aid work due to an adolescent idealism and adventurous spirit. Young started out as an intern with the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva before realising she wanted to get more hands-on. When she found out her friend was working with refugees in Albania and had a spare room, she got on the first plane to the capital Tirana.

“I went there, went looking for volunteer opportunities and the afternoon I arrived, very jetlagged from Australia, I managed to get an education volunteer role,” she said. “Other people didn’t particularity want to go there because it wasn’t very nice, it wasn’t very safe, but for me it was like ‘Hey, I’ll go’ — I was quite ignorant and naive.”

More than a decade later and Young has worked in almost every major conflict zone, from Albania to Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Sudan, South Sudan and Indonesia (for the Boxing Day tsunami), she has travelled the globe in the pursuit of helping others.

“Conflict is the worst situation people can find themselves in,” she said. “The way people are affected by conflict right from Albania, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, to here [South Sudan], it’s almost indescribably horrible … and for me, that’s where I wanted to focus.”

With all the conflict and suffering, I was curious to know how Calabrese and Young coped. For Calabrese, an iPod acts as a refuge from the chaos: “I really love music, for me five or 10 minutes, my music and my headphones, I can really zone out and be in another place.”

For Young, black humor puts things into perspective. There is an abundance of black humor among refugees and aid workers she says, because it helps people cope, even if it does sometimes get her into trouble.

“I found after a few years of doing this work, going back to Australia and making jokes about death is such a taboo.”

Like soldiers returning from the battlefield, for both women the divide between refugee camps and metropolitan Australia can be hard to reconcile.

For Calabrese, the lack of purpose and urgency she finds so stimulating in refugee camps is hard to replicate at home in Perth.

“In the field it’s very clear what my purpose is, and it’s very difficult to be distracted by anything else,” she said. “For me the struggle is I should be able to accept it because this is the way I have always lived, [but] it can be very frustrating at times.”

For Young, readjusting means breaking some well-established cultural habits that may seem a bit odd on Bondi: “I would go down to the beach in long pants and boots,” she said. “It took a little while to readjust after Afghanistan.”

When asked if she had considered leaving aid work and return to Australia, a quizzical look crosses Young’s face and she says she doesn’t know what she would be qualified for in Australia. “It sounds self-righteous but it’s hard when there’s so much conflict to go back and do something that is more sedate and more regular,” she said.

And really that sums up the people who risk their lives in pursuit of helping others.

Aid workers are, in essence an, abstract group of misfits who have found their purpose, not in the cubicle maze of an office tower or the corridors of power or indeed the Western world, but instead in the most remote, isolated and desolate places on Earth, where life is cheaper than a packet of cigarettes and just as easily disposed of, and for that we should be ever thankful to them, for they represent all that is good in humanity and a beacon of hope for so many.

*Ronald Mizen is a 23-year-old Australian freelance journalist, photographer and political adviser