A hollowed heart

I sat across from a 15 year old Syrian refugee who said to me, ‘I know we are young in age, but in reality we are women in our forties”.  And through the lens of my forty year old eyes I knew she was right.  She has experienced a level of violence I hope never to understand, felt the acute loss of family members, breathed the worry and fear for missing family members.   Each day when she wakes she knows the struggle of finding work in the hope of having enough food to support what is left of her family.  In her reality she is a mature responsible adult whose sole purpose is to ensure the survival of her family.

So what am I?

Several years ago when I aspired to this role and started this blog I was passionate, dedicated and full of optimism of what being an emergency humanitarian communicator would be. I barely recognise the younger woman who wrote these words:

It is about that one child whose story and image can make a desensitised world take notice.  It is about that one mother who survives with hope for her children’s future that makes another mother in another country want to act.  It’s about letting those who are suffering know that people around the world do care and that they will help in any way they can”.  How to become an emergency communicator, June 2012

Now, after countless interviews with so many children living in conflict I feel like I am letting those living in constant suffering down.  In the current world, with so many political and social challenges that too frequently turn to hateful and belittling discourse how do I keep telling the stories that will make people want to love and care for their neighbours and bring hope to the lives of children?

Working in humanitarian communications often makes me feel like I am a conduit or translator without influence.  I am just the person who sits and talks with children affected by conflict, asking them to articulate their challenges and needs, encouraging them to provide feedback on what current humanitarian interventions are working and what needs to be improved.  I then spend hours starting at my laptop and painstakingly turn their raw emotions, their pain and their profound sadness at a society that, at best they feel has abandoned them and at worst, betrayed them, into something some stranger will read.  Something that will evoke a stirring in the heart or at least provide a rational argument to the brain of a decision maker who has it within their power to do something.  I often feel as though my attempts to convince governments, donors and publics to take some form of action is the coldest thing I do.

I remain passionate and dedicated to these children, but I have lost the battle to remain optimistic. I am pragmatic; realistic.  I know what my words can and can not achieve. I am a heart that has hollowed with each conversion of a child’s tears into clinically worded bullet-points aimed at faceless targets.

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They call them humanitarian workers

I have a term I use to describe some people that I meet.  I call them “heart friends”.  Those kind of people that within seconds of talking with them you just know from the warmth of their heart, the compassion of their spirit and the hope they can always inspire no matter what the circumstances will make them a friend for life.

My “heart” friend and valued colleague Yara Raad is one such person.  Yara is currently working in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and shared with me a very personal reflection on why she does what she does.  She has graciously allowed me to share this with you on this World Humanitarian Day.


They call them humanitarian workers

“When every morning, your first thought, prayer and wish are for them and, about them. When seeing them smiling, even once, everyday,   makes your day.

When every sunshine is a new chance to make their life better and their beautiful tomorrow a reachable dream. When you’re always wanting to help them all. All of them, wherever they are.

When you feel that you are not doing much to them, to their lost childhood and you try harder and harder and, harder again.

When you never get tired, never get bored and never want to stop doing what you do.

When this feeling of being satisfied is always linked to how satisfied they are. When your heart aches for their stories that take you back to your deepest depths thinking, what else can be done?

What else must be done?

When they smile at you and your heart smiles. When you see their tears and your soul cries. When water, food, education, money and health are not words anymore; when those become a prayer, your daily prayer.

When all your friends are looking for their children names, and you looking where to go next and which children to help.

When the best gift ever is a new donor, a new project and more funds.

When the nights you don’t sleep, wanting to draw brighter days to those who have no place to sleep.

When your first and last wishes are to bring smiles and to save lives. When you are never ever effortless because their pictures, their voices and their stories become your caffeine.

When you go look for them and you find them looking for you. When you see the future sparkling in their eyes. When with all what their pain they still smile, give, laugh and love.

When they tell you that when counting their blessings, they do count you as one.

When Arka, Rinia, Ali, Maryam and Ghadi become your beautiful story and you become their words, and their voice.

When in every part of the world you have left a part of your heart, an echo of a laughter and a drop of a tear. When your country becomes your “first” home, but never again your only one.

When Calixte, Karen, Mahmoud, Dwayne, Sawsan and Kevin are not only colleagues at work but your new big family; with them you grow and you learn. Together, you endure and you achieve.

When no religion, nor color, nor language ever, counts nor means,  anymore.

When you feel that nothing in this life is better than this “job” you do. When this “job” is no more a job but a faith, a joy. A life.

When you are being God’s tool in their journey. When you feel that He is always next to you and whatever happens, He will always hold your hand to help you serve the most vulnerable..

When you pray, you know He is there listening, whispering promises of always being by your side, to help you do more, much more. When your heart is full of joy by just waking up and knowing that you are serving those in need for another day.

When you know that the humanity will never be lost because “you” will never stop being its first advocate. When all your heart, mind and soul are set to be wiping tears, drawing smiles and spreading love.

When you look up high and you see the skies smiling at you, thanking you for being who you are; for trying your best to make this world a better place.

When all these “whens” make you want to live forever to keep doing what you do. When your days and your nights are worth living…

Only then, you know that life in its fullness exists and is worth to be lived and shared; only then you know that yes, humanity depends on you; on the human in you.

Only then you know that you were born to live to be the one you are today – a servant of the lost humanity – one of God’s angels in these people’s lives.

These angels have names. They call them humanitarian workers.

Yara Raad has worked World Vision’s humanitarian emergencies in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Africa. 

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Humanitarian Information – more than just numbers

It has been a long time since I have sat at my desk and cried over a story from one of the many humanitarian responses I am involved with. Today, it wasn’t words that constricted my throat and made my eyes burn. It was numbers.

I have both a communications and information management function in my role. In my quest to consolidate more and more useful information sets so we can make better decisions, be more assertive in addressing emerging needs and ultimately respond faster I started a review of countless industry reports, websites and data sets so I could paint a global picture of current humanitarian responses. As I saw the numbers add up from my clumsy excel formulas I found those numbers turn into the faces of children that I have seen. The numbers went from thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and finally, heartbreakingly into the millions.

I love numbers. I love data. I love how they inform decisions, make sense of chaos, provide a guide for the future. And if I am honest enough, they are a safe way of understanding a situation without emotional attachment. But these numbers, they just bought up past memories I’ve spent a year burying.

A conservative number I came up with was that 60 million people are, right now, facing a humanitarian crisis. An even more conservative number is that within these crises 36 million children are estimated to be affected. And when I say conservative I mean conservative, I know that there are more emergencies out there that I couldn’t find data for and I didn’t even look at fragile states or those children so vulnerable that at any moment their situation could turn into a crisis.

But with numbers, even ones as overwhelming at this, there is always hope that something more can be done. For each data set of those affected I also looked at data sets for how many have been assisted, how much money the international communities, either through their governments, private business or directly from their wallets have given to help these numbers on a page.

Right now if we look at the eight million affected by the devastating earthquake in Nepal we also see numbers humanitarian agencies on the ground, each aiming to assist hundreds of thousands of people, cargo planes desperately trying to land with tonnes of essential relief items and we see an outpouring of support from the international community.

As a humanitarian, especially one who believes information is critical, I am always going to look at the numerical gap between those in need and those assisted. I’m also going to want to shove that number under every nose I can find to try to get them to take notice. But today, I’m going to give myself a break. I’m going to indulge in the personal memory of one child’s face and allow myself to a small moment of celebration as I add his number into the assisted column and take solace in the knowledge that more than 1,000 of my colleagues are working around the clock to ensure that number in my spreadsheet grows each day.

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The boy with the gun

There are words we are trained not to use as humanitarian communicators.  Traumatised is one of them.  It’s a word with a very specific meaning applied in specific circumstances. But as I looked at this little boy standing with a plastic gun aimed at my head I could think of no other word.

He is ten years old living with his family in an informal tented settlement in Lebanon. His family fled Syria two years ago.  During their journey across the border his father was shot five times.  This little boy watched me and my camera intently as my colleagues spoke with his sister and little brother.  His stance was causally alert, his shoulders relaxed as he leaned against the wooden frame, but his grip on his toy gun was firm.  His eyes were too aware of every movement made.   He was acting as their guard, their protector.

When he was unhappy with words spoken or the aim of the camera he kicked, pushed and yelled.  I didn’t react as he tried to push me.  Nor did I flinch when he raised his toy gun to my head.  When he turned the toy gun on himself I knelt down to meet him eye to eye.

He never looked scared and his guard didn’t drop as I tried to smile at him.  It was instinct to reach out to him.  I lightly placed my hand on his shoulder and rhythmically tapped my finger up and down.  It was something I had learned in a psychological first-aid training course.  Like most of those courses you never really think that the simulations they put you through will become your reality.  I wished in that moment I had paid more attention, read more of the materials they suggested.  The tapping thing was all I could remember.  I have no idea how or why this works but somehow it did.

He allowed me to gently pull the toy gun out of his mouth.  I spoke to him in English.  He spoke back to me in Arabic.  Neither of us could understand each other but somehow the simple touch of my hand on his back formed a connection.  He leant in closer to me and before I knew it his head rested on my shoulder.

He remained by my side for the rest of the day.  He would still at times kick and push the passing people in the camp.  But he would also now smile.  I even managed to teach him how to high five.  Up high, down low…too slow.  He laughed each time we played this.  And as we said good bye at the end of the day he leaned once more into my side.  He stood by the car waving goodbye to me as our car pulled away; the toy gun still in his hand.

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No longer looking at them through a lens

“My children are sick because I can’t afford heating or food.”

I took a sharp intake of breath when I finally realised what he had said.  I lowered my camera, ashamed to admit that my mind had been on the lighting of the room, the framing of the image, and not at all on the words being spoken.  The faces of his four children seemed more fragile now I was no longer looking at them through a lens.

This is my first full deployment.  Based in Jordan I am managing the communications across our Syrian Crisis Response in three different countries.  I’ve taken nearly 3,000 photos since I arrived, interviewed multiple families and just accepted that my heart will be forever broken by these situations.  This day however was different.

It was News Years Day and I commenced this trip with a feeling of pressure.  Pressure to deliver exactly what was expected from colleagues not here on the ground, from colleagues who also have an incredibly challenging and vital role to play in raising awareness and funds for this crisis.  A crisis that has been going for too long with too little interest from the rest of the world.

There is always a tension to get the right image that will make people care, that will really express the reality and harshness of the circumstances these refugees are facing.  It is not always easy and often the true desperation of a situation is not shown in what they are wearing or even how they are living.  It is shown and felt in the way they look at you and talk to you.  The fear that stays with someone who has had to flee for their lives is gut-wrenching.  The suspicion, the caution, the slow deliberate movements that they make and the sudden bursts of anger and frustration have a way of making me feel helpless and guilty that I can’t make it all go away.   This guilt leads to doubt in my ability to get the right image or quote that will make the world care enough to do something.  Late last year I enrolled in an advanced photography course and had a few one on one lessons with some close photography friends.  All of this in the hope that when I was deployed my abilities would do justice to the people I meet.

But it is hard to show just how cold a concrete floor is on the naked feet of a child, how wet the inside of a room is from the leaking roof, or how bone shivering the air in a house with no sealed window is as it snows outside.  It is even harder to look through the back of a camera at a child’s face as it crumbles into tears.

I’m not sure I will ever be able to take that image or tell that story that could move the rest of the world to care about another country’s children.  And I know I will end each day like this crying.  But if just one person, somewhere is moved, compelled to take a degree of action be it a share on Facebook, saying a prayer, making a donation or advocating to their government to do more and if just one child that I meet here can go to bed at night knowing they are not forgotten then the long hours, the fatigue and the heartbreak are more than worth it.

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The things you miss

It was one of those conversations where you are not even sure if the person is talking to you or themselves.  There were moments when he looked straight into my eyes but for the most part he looked at his hands, the wall behind me or the table.  In those moments I watched his face closely and felt my heart start to break for him.  His was not a unique story.  Sure the details were all his but the emotions all too human.  This was a story that I have heard in different lengths and styles from my colleagues as they struggle to balance their family lives and the demands of our work.  More and more these conversations end with the person looking at me and smiling before they say “you are lucky you are single, you don’t have to worry about this.”

They’re right of course.  I am single and I don’t have to worry about a husband or kids but I do still have a family and a life that is not work related.  And despite my absolute love for my job and the work I get to do I am  acutely aware of what I am missing.

I hate talking about this stuff because I don’t want anyone to ever think that I am complaining and certainly don’t want to start feeling sorry for myself because I genuinely believe my life is blessed.  This is one of those times though when I am alone in a hotel room, the distraction of work Skype chats and emails is fading, I’ve done the standard equipment check and recharging of all the necessary technologies and all I have left now is thoughts of the little things I miss.

I’m not sure if it is my age but when I used to live overseas (several years ago) I missed Tim Tams (the world’s best chocolate biscuit/cookie) and Vegemite.  Now I miss celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, encouraging friends as they start their own businesses and supporting them as they go through chemotherapy.  I miss laughing at inane things until we cry.  I miss the days of lengthy phone conversations and not having to celebrate the birth of my sister’s first child over text.  Or commiserate the death of my uncle in the same way.

But I am lucky.  I have friends all over the world.    On this trip I was able to stay at my friend’s for a few nights. This for me is the greatest luxury as I hate hotels and being alone.  Sure, sleeping on a couch isn’t as much fun as it was in my 20’s but when news of my uncle came through she was there with a hug and a cup of tea.  And when news of the birth of my gorgeous (no I am not biased he really is gorgeous) nephew came we could celebrate with a wine.  When I was sick with a cold, cos UK summer is colder than Australian winter , she turned on the heating and made me eat vegetables.  And best of all, she has introduced me to the amazing cooking skills of her flat mate, or as I like to call him my UK house husband.   I might have moments of feeling lonely and disconnected when I am travelling for work, tired from my incurable state of over commitment, but they are fleeting and I do know that I am never really ever that far away from a friendly hug.

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It’s not ok.

My flatmate is a high school teacher and one of my favourite things is to listen to her recount her days.  She often ends her rather hilarious stories by looking at me, her head tilted to the side and saying “It’s not ok.”  The first time she did this I laughed.  Her delivery is usually a combination of humour, bewilderment and annoyance at some of her student’s behaviours.  As is often the case when you live with someone you start to pick up their habits.  More and more I find myself listening to stories from my colleagues in the field, reading industry reports or seeing things with my own eyes and just shaking my head and saying, “It’s not ok!”

And right now, there are a lot of things that I feel are not ok.

 

 

I’ve been stewing on this blog post for a while now and was really unsure of how and what to write down.  Now having written it I am not sure I really want to post it.  This is not a happy blog.  There are no jokes and I haven’t even been able to spin a hopeful ending which is something I always try to do.  It is not that there isn’t hope because there always is but I guess for me the hope in this blog is that when you read it you too will shake your head and say “this is not ok!”

 

 

In my last trip, I took a few days off and visited with a friend that I had not seen for a very long time.  Her and her husband are living through a rather intricate and volatile social movement in perhaps one of the most fascinating and beautiful cities in the world. I was only in Turkey for a few days and I was overjoyed to be spending time with such wonderful friends but at the same time scared.  Not scared for physical safety but scared of what this unrest could lead to and equally as scared of what would happen if there were not people in that society rising up in protest.  I wasn’t witness to events but talking with friend living through this made it incredibly personal and intimate.  And I felt useless, paralyzed and powerless to do anything but listen.  I keep trying to talk myself out of how I was feeling, just pour myself another drink, shake my head and tell myself I am just being a drama queen.  Clearly my study into fragile and post conflicts states coupled with working for a humanitarian agency is making me a tad bonkers.   Clearly I need to up my chocolate intake and watch more mindless kid’s cartoons.

 

But this was not to be.  After three days with my friends I flew to Hong Kong for a simulation exercise.  Sim ex are a lot of fun and I have done quite a few over the years.  But they are a lot of work, especially if you are a facilitator or observer.  We arrived at the sim ex site early in the morning and left late at night, some of us would then return to our motel rooms and work a few more hours till exhaustion forced us to bed.  On the very last day we went for dinner and as always the conversations were a mix of war stories, inappropriate jokes and a lot of laughter.  One story told at that dinner kept me awake all night.  It was a simple story of children going to school with an armed escort.  The story ended with a quote from the principle who stood at the gate and counted the children entering the school grounds.  “Sometimes not all the children make it.” 

 

 

I just kept thinking this is not ok.  I felt my head move from side to side in disbelief and heard my flatmates voice in ears.  “It’s not ok.” It is not ok for children to need an armed escort to go to school.  It is not ok for a group of people, no matter how wronged they have been in the past to dehumanise another group. It is not ok to use religion as a justification to hit women (or men).  It is not ok for police to spray protesters with acid.  It is not ok for journalists to be arrested because they report on what is happening in their society.  It is not ok that so many people in the world don’t even know or care that this is happening.   It is not ok.

 

 

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