After a few months off from the world of emergencies, I'm back in it as a Programme Manager for Oxfam's Ebola Response in Sierra Leone! I'm thrilled to be working in this programme, not just because it's a chance to be directly involved in an emergency I've been following since it started in early 2014, but also because it's a huge opportunity to grow more in this field. As much as the Philippines has been an excellent training ground with the numerous typhoons, floods, monsoon rains and other assorted natural disasters we're affected by yearly, working in Africa introduces a whole different world for living and working.
When I think about what got me started in my career as a humanitarian worker, it’s the moment of clarity standing in front of the haunting photos of prisoners in Tuol Sleng on my birthday. The prickles in the back of my neck as the blank stares of the dead look though me, mixed with a strangely misplaced sense of frustration almost three decades after the fact. How could the world have just stood by as millions of Cambodians were massacred by the Khmer Rouge?
That sense of injustice disillusioned me straight through my first year of law school. Facing a long stretch of corporate work or slow moving human rights law, I took the deep breath I wanted and returned to Phnom Penh a year later to become a legal intern in the Center for Social Development and a researcher for the Orphans Class in the Khmer Rouge Tribunals. I came back to the Philippines that summer with more awareness of the atrocities of the world, a sense of responsibility that I felt owed to people in countries I’ve never had a connection to, and the certainty that I wasn’t in the path I wanted to take. Five years ago, with no real sense of what I wanted to do, I accidentally started my career as a humanitarian worker.
Oxfam @ 25 Ebook: "Celebrate Change" (and my own article in it "What's on your mind: Forays into Social Media"
Oxfam celebrated 25 years of change in the Philippines last year and we came up with an ebook documenting stories of all those years. Check it out here!
(I also wrote an article on page 243 on social media!)
"What's on your mind?: Forays into Social Media"
My entry to Oxfam in 2009 was my first venture in the humanitarian field. Working in disasters was a huge wake-up call, and I needed to learn an entire language, culture and movement to be able to understand and respond to disasters. Eventually, I could connect the dots from different pieces of disasters to changes in the history of disaster management and disaster risk reduction. Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) in 2009, for example, became the impetus to pass the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Law, which stagnated in Congress for the last two decades. As a new humanitarian practitioner, what amazed me the most was that every disaster, whether inside or outside the country, made little but smarter changes as to how we understand disasters. Responding to an emergency has gone beyond the provision of search-and-rescue assistance and food aid, to a complex set of interventions that respond to water, sanitation and hygiene needs; emergency food security and livelihoods; nutrition; humanitarian protection; advocacy; and shelter, on top of gender and many other considerations. A deeper understanding of disasters, on the other hand, strengthens the relationship between disaster risk management and development work as the focus zooms into forming resilient communities, rather than simply just responding to an emergency.
Our day starts at 7AM and our team is split into 2 to cover as much ground as possible. We’ve deliberately chosen affected areas that we feel have not gotten much coverage and between our teams, we hope to cover at least 4 municipalities: San Isidro and Sagbayan (mountainous municipalities) and Clarin and Calape (coastal municipalities). With the advice of our drivers, we take alternate routes to get to our areas. This adds about 30-45 minutes to our drive, but an hour on the road is still much better than the 6-8 hours we spent crossing Davao Oriental, Compostela Valley and Tagum City for Typhoon Pablo. The drive is surprisingly smooth, and I only occasionally see collapsed buildings and rubble. This is a direct contrast to reports that these areas are inaccessible. What we find striking are the number of concrete houses that have collapsed while the wooden houses were still left intact and standing, having absorbed the shock of the earthquake better.
Even from the vantage point of a descending plane, I can see the gaps in the landscape of Tagbilaran City. Where there used to be buildings or structures in place, interspersed now between standing buildings are collapsed roofs, crumbling buildings or cordoned off rubble blocking off streets. Around it, Boholanos are going about their business but I know that every once in a while, people pour out to the streets to wait out an aftershock. Just yesterday, they were as intense as a 5 or 6, strong enough to be an actual earthquake, but actually just echoes of the 7.2 earthquake hitting just off-center of Bohol last October 15.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.