Tag Archives: emergencies

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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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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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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Making the list

I’m on a list.  Not just any list.  The list.  After two years of training courses, uni study and extra workload I’ve finally made it onto the list.  I’m on the emergency communications roster.  And I am petrified.

I think I am prepared.  I have my travel bag ready to go.  I have the right amount of white singlets, cargo pants and branded t-shirts.  I even have a media interview worthy travel make-up kit.  And of course I have just downloaded season two of Phineas and Ferb, the best cartoon ever.

Being prepared, one never knows when you'll need a white singlet

Being prepared, one never knows when you’ll need a white singlet

But no matter how prepared I think I might be there is the usual self-doubt that comes with going into an unknown situation. I’m nervous that I am on the verge of entering into the field I have wanted to work in since I was a kid.  I feel a tad guilty that wanting to work in emergencies in some way means I’m tempting fate.  And after studying terrorism and writing a research paper on the targeting of aid workers in the field I’m also scared that my security training may not be enough.  In my darker moments, usually around 3am, I worry about what I will be like in twenty years.

I have a lot of friends and family members that are ex military, police, emergency services and of course humanitarian aid workers.  After a few drinks you hear some stories, usually told with bravado and laughter.  After a few more drinks you feel their silences and sit uncomfortably with them hoping that what you imagine is far worse than reality.  After even more drinks you put your arms around them while they cry.  Sometimes in the middle of an everyday conversation they just start recounting a gut wrenching experience and you just listen because what else can you do.

I listen to a lot stories.  All my life people, including strangers, just seem to tell me their stories.  Usually the ones they won’t tell anyone else.  There is something rather magical about listening to or telling a story.  I’ve often thought that if there is such as thing as a calling or God given gifts mine is to listen and tell stories.  As petrified as I sometimes get around my current and future work I know it is worth it.

So armed with cartoons, my reSILLYence tactics, and the ongoing therapy that is writing a blog I will spend this Christmas and New Years on call, ready and willing to listen and tell stories.

Sometimes you have to step up the reSILLYense

Sometimes you have to step up the reSILLYense

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Car accidents, bombs and Christmas cards

Uh oh!  That was my single thought as the dark coloured Toyota drove straight into the side of my car and pushed me onto the other side of the road.  My thoughts rapidly advanced when my eyes focused on the two lanes of on coming traffic and I somehow managed to steer my half caved in car to the edge of the road.  I think I even managed a head check.

Only a few days earlier I had played a dying car crash victim for a training course and the whole life imitating art really scared the crap out of me.  Noticing the car just before it hit, hearing the screech of his tyres and the smash of metal and feeling the loss of control do not count among my favourite life moments.  Though I am very grateful for the kindness of my family and friends (special shout out to DA, MS, JC, SS, BP, RH, BW, & SC) and for the comfort chocolate I justifiably consumed afterwards.

The accident happened on a Friday.  Fridays are my day to pulled together our internal Global Emergency Monitor, which is a summary of all the current and breaking emergencies around the world.  Between the ongoing nightmare in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the food crises in West and East Africa, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in Haiti and Syria I selfishly didn’t feel like doing this report.  I sat at my desk and took a moment to look at the picture of one of my sponsor children.  She is eight years old and she lives in Gaza.  A Google search told me her village is situated right in the middle of the bombing.

I don’t know enough to talk about the politics of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  I am not smart enough to really understand my car insurance policy let alone the history of this troubled area.  I am not even sure if I should be happy or concerned that Palestine has just been acknowledged as a state by the U.N.

I do know that the eyes of a young girl stare out at me from a photo that has travelled half way across the world to my letterbox.  And they make me care more than I thought possible.  Her hand written ‘I love you’ with a smiley face in bright pink texta makes me pay more attention to the news and to our government policies on aid, development, and foreign affairs.

I’ve had a lot of stupid thoughts over my life.  When I was a kid I thought I could re-jig the toilet flush to sound like a car engine so it wouldn’t scare me as much at night.    As a teenager I thought stuffing my bra with tissues, money and my house key was a practical solution to increasing their size and not having to carry a hang bag.  As a sometimes-mature adult I continue to have stupid thoughts.  I often think the packaging on the Lindt chocolate wrapper would make an awesome wedding dress.  As I am writing this though my thoughts are only of a little girl in Gaza.  Will she receive the Christmas card and stickers I just sent?  Will she ever know that a stranger on the other side of the world has spent the past two weeks searching the Internet to try to understand why she is living under the threat of bombs?

 

Writing Christmas cards to my sponsor children

Writing Christmas cards to my sponsor children

 

 

 

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