“Is there anywhere you wouldn’t go?”

There are a few standard questions you get asked in the humanitarian world.  One of them is “Is there anywhere you wouldn’t go?”  I’ve never known how to answer this question.  I’d like to answer that I am fine to go anywhere.  But as a woman there are some rather unpleasant realities you have to face around personal safety that sadly places some destinations and some situations on the no-go list.  This week I met with two different friends who have both just returned from the field; one a seasoned humanitarian, the other just starting out.  One in their mid thirties and the other not even 25.  Aside from both being annoyingly intelligent, funny and lovely, they have two things in common that I know of, one is me and the other is Sudan.

I’ve never been to Sudan and in truth I’m not sure I want to go. I studied it and the Dafur genocide as part of a research assignment about the world’s obligations to prevent atrocities.  In 2011 we reported on South Sudan’s declaration of independence and subsequent signing of the Geneva Convention.  Last week I listened on two different nights to two very different but equally frightful accounts of life in Sudan.  Both nights my mind wandered as I listened to my friends talk about their experiences.

In 2008, after three years living, working and travelling overseas I returned to Australia with very little idea of what I was going to do with my life.  Since I had been teaching English as a second language I thought I might as well continue, at least until I worked some things out.  I started teaching at a local TAFE college.  All of my students were refugees.  I’d gone from teaching adorable cheeky South Korean kindergarten students to sing, dance, read, write and speak English to teaching grown women, mothers and daughters basic life skills in Australia.  My new students were a mix of Afghani, Iraqi and Sudanese.

In addition to the classroom teaching I also took on some extra volunteer work with one particular Sudanese family.  The mother had never held a pen before and was illiterate in her native language.  She didn’t understand money, time, or doctors.  The father had a scar that ran down the right hand side of his face, a damaged eye and a pronounced limp.  The eldest daughter kept running away from school, frighten every time she was asked to stand in a line.  The youngest children were shy and it took weeks before they would come out of their room when I was visiting.

Of all the academic research I have done and all the accounts I have heard from colleagues the story I remember most about Sudan is the one the father told me while standing in a supermarket car park. I was leaving the supermarket with my weekly shopping and he had a job collecting the trolleys.  We smiled at each other and I stopped to say hello.  He was always smiling and laughing.  As we were chatting in an awkward imperfect English he asked me why Australian’s don’t smile all the time.  He said, ‘Look at me.  I am smiling all the time.’  I laughed and asked him why he smiles all the time.   He pointed at the supermarket.  He said, ‘I smile all the time because everyone here gets to eat.’

I didn’t have strong opinions on refugees before that moment.  I didn’t know about humanitarian law, responsibility to protect ideologies, or Australia’s stance on foreign aid.  But his constant smile made me curious to learn more.  I am asked a lot by friends and family why I do what I do.  Why earn a third of what I could?  Why am I prepared to put my self and colleagues in potentially threatening situations all for what seems an overwhelming problem?

If you are or have ever wondered the same please watch this Ted Talks video.  I’ll let Bono answer for me.

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