Sunday, December 24, 2017

To My Fellow Humanitarian Workers

Over fifteen years ago, I joined the humanitarian workforce to be part of the Red Cross response to an unfortunate earthquake in Bhuj, Gujarat. After that I had the honor of serving in super cyclone recovery efforts in Odisha, and a school fire response in Kumbhakonam, Tamil Nadu where 94 children were burned to death among other small disaster responses in India. As a young mother at the time, this work had a huge impact on my life. It changed my ambitions, my world view and the direction of my trajectory. I was so inspired by my mentors and those who had left their families to assist people who were suffering as a result of these tragic events. Wiping tears became a much more alluring act than worshipping God or in other words helping others became an act of worship for me.

Early 2005, I was asked to get my passport so that I could be sent to serve those who had survived the South Asian 2004 Tsunami in Maldives and Sri Lanka. Since then I have been able to meet and learn from people in about 30 countries around the world. Some memories are more powerful than others. I would never forget meeting this beautiful woman and her husband, both in their 90s if I remember correctly, in Ukraine in 2015. I met them in Kharkiv, they were displaced as a result of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. The lady asked me if God had forgotten her, she had already lived through World War II and had experienced her father's and brother's deaths. She recalled how she had seen her brother's body scatter into pieces in an explosive right in front of her eyes. Why, she asked, she had to go through pain one more time, leaving behind everything that she and her husband had built. I had no good answer for her, except to cry with her and reassure that God had not forgotten her. Trying to help others can many times leave you feeling helpless!

During this time I met thousands of humanitarian workers, each one of them was inspiring. I learned so much from them, fell in love with all and got married to one, Joseph Prewitt Diaz! Some can share a similar story like mine but most have a much more powerful account about how they joined and continue in this line of work. The smiles of my colleagues from Haiti continue to amaze as they struggle to make a difference in a place that is probably one of the most complex humanitarian context created by various factors such as internal politics, corruption, natural disasters and the role of the international community. Even though, as a humanitarian worker you feel disappointed on how slow the progress is or how hard it is to bring a change in the thinking of the community members, they taught me to never lose hope in the midst of hopelessness!

However, what inspired me to write this post was not the beauty and learning of from this work but the ugly side of it all. When we, the humanitarian workers, forget the mission and bring our own agendas in the mix, it becomes a bigger tragedy than the tragedy we are responding to! The personalities clash, the blame game begins, and strategizing for control takes over the efforts of healing wounds. We forget even little children sold lemonades to collect this money to give us to serve others. We just cannot afford to break their trust in us and our ability to alleviate suffering. Most recently I have been involved in the three hurricane responses (Harvey, Irma and Maria). The humanitarian in me is gasping because of the politics involved in the efforts! There were times when I had to deprioritize strategy and support for the hurricane survivors to deal with those who were confused between serving others and self service! It is not worth our time! There's nothing more disappointing to see hardworking focused humanitarian workers in the front lines feeling defeated because of the politics and lack of sensitivity of their bosses! People must chose their priority, those who want to do to politics should go into politics, those who want to primarily make money should join for profit work.The day humanitarian work is purely focused on helping others to respond to, recover from and prepare for adverse events, it will become much more cost efficient and effective.

When we come back in the new year, let's come to serve others not our egos! Big thanks to my exemplary colleagues who continue to serve without any personal or political agendas no matter what and showing us that it is possible to serve others selflessly! I urge us, my fellow humanitarian workers, to take a step back this holiday season to introspect and renew the commitment. Of course, we all have different ways of introspecting and mine begins with a conversation with God that I would like to share with you all -
Lord, give me grace,
Please help me,
To truly think of others,
And not make it about me!

Lord, you know,
I want to serve selflessly,
But often I forget,
And make it all about me!

Lord, help me to let go,
To serve freely,
When others stumble,
It's not about me!

Lord, let me look at you,
And rise above the triviality,
Focus on the greater good,
And serve the needy in reality!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your feelings. This is truly a gift of Christmas for me and our family. You describe your perceptions about the world, and put into words cognitions and feelings.

    Humanitarian work is unique. Field work is like learning and succeeding to surf on a rough sea where one is hit by a plethora of undertows. The ultimate satisfaction of that effort is the smile on a child’s face, a meal served, a kind word shared, and the conviction that your little actions will make a difference somewhere. In most humanitarian organizations the team that empowers the worker to do good in the field, is the other humanitarian workers in your team, going all the way to HQ support.

    Another type of humanitarian work has to do with advocacy, where workers are attempting to raise consciousness in the society of its needs toward the less advantaged in their mist. The primary role of these humanitarian workers is to identify or generate crisis, so that others in the organization may identify solutions. These workers are not in the sea, although they may feel that way. The target is not alleviating fear on the child that was impacted by the fury of a hurricane, but rather the people watching from the shore, making comments, postulating hypothesis, and wanting to find solutions related to better vs. lesser.

    They find themselves sitting on the shore of a pond. At times spending time throwing pebbles into the ponds and watching how the undulations disperse from the center (crisis point) to the shore (rhetorical point). The undulations caused by a pebble as it hits the water in a pond, awakens the thoughts and comments of diverse opinion groups. The action is to levy a new barrage of based on their world view. Each undulation caused by the pebble in the pond, generates a human crisis on the person in its path. The issue is no more the smile of a mother and her children, but whether a canned program is better than listening to a person and address the stated needs of that family or her community.

    At times, as humanitarian workers we navigate the ocean and the pond. It is important to maintain the focus: the role of “humanitarian workers is “to alleviate suffering”, no matter where we find ourselves.


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