Tag Archives: communicator

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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A short wooden sword

When I was living in South Korea my Hapkido master decided to start teaching us sword fighting.  Amazing right?  Yeah I thought so too until he handed me a rather short wooden sword.  In response to my frown he gently pointed out that I was too tall to have a normal sized sword because I would keep hitting the roof.  As much as I could appreciate the practicality of that, I could not help but feel slightly insignificant and childish as I glanced down the row of would-be sword fighters with their full-length weapons.  Mentally I could not reconcile my black belt status with my short sword.  Three months into my new job that same feeling of conflicting status is creeping in.  I may like to think of myself as a black belt in communications but as a humanitarian I am still very much holding a short wooden sword.

Humanitarians love to tell war stories.  On the whole they are great and really make you want to light a fire, toast marshmellows, listen and learn.  Sometimes however these stories can take on a life of their own and, in some circumstances, be used as a way to determine whose sword is bigger.  There is a sensitive balance between technical and context experiences.  Technical expertise gives you the theories, best practices, and transferable skills but context experiences give you the nuances and credibility.  Unfortunately the only way to get context experience is, well to be in the context.  Somehow when I am sitting in a room listening to my colleagues talk about Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon in support for the Syria Response, or their experiences in Rwanda, Pakistan and Sudan, my usual stories of the lengthy international negotiations over the great brussel-sprout shortage of 2004, running 16 events in one week, having articles published, or achieving market leadership of a canned meat product just don’t seem as impressive.  I am once again the black-belt with the short wooden sword.

So how do you deal with a short wooden sword?

I need to be honest with you here.  I stopped writing just after I finished that question because I didn’t have an answer.  I get the whole learning, developing, experience and knowledge takes time but I am not naturally a patient person.  I am not good at not being good at things.  And, well part of me feels as though I have done the training and the learning.  I have attended internal training, I’ve been part of simulations, I’m nearly finished my Masters in International Conflict Management, I’ve read books by former humanitarian workers, I read their blogs, I’ve even read the Sphere Standards and I do have some limited field exposure.  And that all paid off cos I am now in my dream job.  But I still have so much to learn and experience.

It is now a day later.  And after a night of red wine, delicious food and wonderful conversations with my new colleagues I just decided to get over myself.

As my Hapkido Master said when he was toasting our achievement of our black-belts after a year and a half of training twice a day, five days a week, ‘Now the real work begins.’

And just as my Hapkido Master was always there for me as I fumbled my way through learning new wrist locks and Jackie Chan like moves, I do feel rather confident that my new colleagues will be there for me too.

 

 

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Farewells, Credit and The Mintie Strategy

Before I even start writing this post I know it is going to be all over the place, it’s been that kind of week.  So when I don’t know where to start I always go to the end.  I like the big picture.  There is a certain level of comfort there.  Knowledge of the end game makes retrofitting strategies easier, it also makes contingency planning so much more fun.

The week ended in a farewell.  It was fun, great company, amazing food and my favourite brand of apple cider was sold at the bar.  But it was odd.  It was an end and a beginning in collision.  There is something humbling about seeing someone else’s farewell when you really don’t know them or their history.  There are jokes, looks, comments and, in this person’s case some rather interesting photos that you don’t know the details of but at the same time, being free from those details means you have the privilege of seeing the big picture.

This big picture was fascinating.  It was hope, regret, frustration, appreciation, bitterness, kindness and genuine friendship expressed through the chink of beer filled glasses.  It made me slightly sad at times.  Like seeing a great end of a movie but not finding out what the title was and realising you’ll never know the story behind the final scene.  At other times it made me happy because there was a sense of family, real family, warts and all we’ll be there for you family.

A couple of weeks ago the guy who is leaving made a comment to me.  It was one of those comments that sends your mind spiralling out of control and things that seemed impossible just unravel in seconds and are suddenly so unbelievably simple.  And no I am not going to tell you what he said cos that is not the point.  The point was it made me realise some very obvious, embarrassingly rookie mistakes that I have been making.  I was caring about credit.  In my enthusiasm for my new role and the excitement of being able to achieve a degree of forward thinking strategic communications that I was never quite able to achieve in my previous role I forgot the most basic of basic communications rule.  Never, ever care about getting credit for your work.  Most writers get this, as we are used to being edited, re-worded, writing for others and unnamed in publication but every now again, when you are really passionate about something, your heart gets a tad too attached and suddenly any sign of red pen makes you want to clench your fists, stamp your feet and throw a childish tantrum.

Enter the Minties.  Now for non-Aussies, Minties are a chewy mint flavoured lolly/candy/sweet.  They also happen to have one of the best packaging graphics of recent times.  Their slogan is “It’s moments like these you need a Mintie” with an array of amusing graphics that capture those little moments in life where you just know you have to laugh cos otherwise you’ll cry.

I’ve been a Mintie Strategist for about three years.  I stumbled across the Mintie strategy accidently.  A few years back I was invited to attend a conference.  When I arrived I was placed, with some other colleagues on a row of tables at the very back.  On the table was a note saying that the back table were not allowed to speak, make comments on the proceedings and nor participate in the activities. We were there purely as observers.  Also placed on the table was a bowl of Minties.  Honestly, I was rather put out.  Asking a communicator to forgo all forms of communications is really just asking for trouble and I am sorry but the moment you tell me I can’t do something it is all I think about.  Two things made the situation worse.   One, the people allowed to participate, well I don’t want to say my colleagues and I were smarter than them but if you wish to draw that conclusion on your own I understand.  Two, I was under strict instructions from my boss to behave; he had started to threaten me with Botox if I did not learn to control my facial expressions.

I had not had a Mintie in years.  I don’t normally eat lollies but in an effort to occupy my mouth I started chain chewing these little treats.  Every time the desire to speak up made my lips part I found my teeth stuck together with minty deliciousness.  The Minties achieved in one afternoon what my parents, teachers, past bosses, friends and ex-boyfriends had all failed to do.  They shut me up.  Suddenly I found myself listening.  And I mean really listening.  Not to their words and ideas, but to the sentiments behind them; their fears and hopes; their concerns and excitement.   In some cases their underlying motivations for power and control.  I started to really read the room.

When you communicate you have to think about your audience.  You have to consider not only the message you want to share with them but you have to think about how are they going to receive this message, when are they going to receive it, what else is going on in their world that will affect how they hear your message.  Most importantly is what they are telling you they want to hear truthful or are they just saying that to look good.

All of us, unknowingly or otherwise, share and receive information with bias.  We listen for things that affect us and put conditions and personal meanings into words, tones and actions.  As a communicator you have to be aware of that.  As a humanitarian communicator you really have to know that.  You have to be so very human in your choice of words and message.  Sometimes though, as I said before when you are overwhelmed by the task at hand, when you are tired, passionate, excited, frustrated and eager to just blurt out your message it is so easy to forget that.  These are the moments when I stop and have a Mintie.  The Mintie slows me down, stops me from blurting out something inappropriate and gives me a few seconds to pause and re-read the room.

It creates the calm and stillness of mind that reminds me everything that I am trying to do and achieve is not about me at all.  I will and do achieve more when I don’t care about the credit.  It brings me back to the end, the big picture.

minties

Minties. Keeping me out of trouble.

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When listening hurts

Think of the hardest, most difficult, worst time in your life.  Then think of the one thing that someone could have said or done to have made things seem better.  Got it?  Please tell me.  I have a strong feeling I am going to need those words.

I often describe myself as a storyteller.  A more apt description is a story listener.  I listen to stories, funny stories, horrible gut wrenching stories and everything in between.  I listen to stories even when they are not spoken but being told by the tilt of head, an awkward laugh, the clench of hand or the shift of the eyes. 

Last month I spent a couple of weeks in Bangkok meeting my new team members, getting to know them and their experiences and simply just listening to them.  They are amazing, impressive and generally quite amusing.  I laughed a lot and felt welcomed.  But there is a distance present.  They are a tight knit group of people with bonds forged in the harshness of the work they do.  But there is most definitely distance; an underlying remoteness that I guess is the heart and mind’s natural protection.  There were times with these people where the sadness was overwhelming.  I don’t own this sadness.  It is not mine. But as a story listener, as stupid as it might sound to you, sometimes listening hurts.  Really hurts.  I want to be able to say or do that one thing that will make all the difference to that person and their story.  I want to make the sadness go away.  There are moments, rare beautiful moments where just being there makes that difference.  More often than not though, I just feel helpless. 

So how do we cope with helplessness?  Well I have a number of strategies but most of them are not technically the healthiest and most mature of options, and given my parents often read this blog I’ll leave those ones to your imagination. 

So the healthier options?  Um, before I share I should probably give you a geek alert.  Cos, well my latest coping strategy is Gandalf.  Yep, I did really just write Gandalf and yes I do mean the wizard from Lord of the Rings.  I just think of the scene in Two Towers where Gandalf frees Theodred, King of Rohan from the negative influence of Saruman.  When the sadness takes hold of me from listening and feeling these stories I just imagine Gandalf coming to my rescue. 

Oh Gandalf, my hero.

Oh Gandalf, my hero.

Think I’m crazy?  Yeah so do I really.  But hey what ever works, works.  And if that fails I just think of my little niece or nephew currently baking away in my sister’s tummy.  I imagine him/her dancing away with the full protection of my sister and brother-in-law’s love and once again know that worst moments can only be the worst because we have better moments to compare them to.   And when you really think about it, there can only be one worst moment in your life but there can be an infinite number of better moments.

Artistic interpretation of my little niece or nephew as it dances it's way into life.

Artistic interpretation of my little niece or nephew as it dances it’s way into life.

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“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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A first to remember

Everyone has a first time.  No not that first time, I mean the first time you know why you exist.  The first time you realised that what you think, feel and do matters.  Oh yeah, sorry I meant to start with a warning that this blog post may verge a little on the deep and reflective.

It all started with a relapse into my teenage years following my 36th 30th 26th birthday when I thought I’d check out the Dolly Magazine website.  I read a blog by Tiffany Dunk, editor of Dolly, about her recent to trip to India.  And I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I got teary as I read it.  Didn’t help that I was reading it when I should have been paying attention in a meeting but I just couldn’t stop.  You see India was my first time.

It wasn’t my first time traveling and it certainly wasn’t the first time I had witnessed a less than savoury side of life.  But it was the start of knowing for absolute sure what I was going to be when I grew up.  Yep it was when I knew that I was going to be a humanitarian communicator.

Reading Tiffany’s blog was almost like a “This is Your Life” moment.  The chaos and colour, the heat and the food of India filled my mind.  And the memory of that horrible heart-wrenching pause I felt in a father’s response to the hopeful bright eyes of his daughter.  That moment where reality was cruelly allowed to suppress hope.

I don’t much like reality.  I like sci-fi, fantasy and the odd cartoon.  I like happy endings and yes I like rom-coms.  And here I was, one of seven people crammed into a tiny concrete box of a home, sweat running down my face, transfixed by a little girl looking at her HIV infected father in much the same way I use to, and probably still do, look at mine.   Seeing his hesitation and unease at his daughter’s gaze as she dreamed of a future affected me more than the filth of the city slums and the exhaustive poverty.

I would never again be able to say I’m not sure what to do with my life.  In the two and half years since I was in India I’ve worked toward this, and just for you guys, I’ve started documenting my journey to becoming a humanitarian communicator.  In four weeks time I will move into a new role as a communicator within our humanitarian team.  It is going to be a massive learning curve working with some incredible people.  I am excited, scared and sad to leave my current team of amazing communicators.  But it is time to grow up and stop changing the channel when a bit of reality comes through my TV.

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