It's World Humanitarian Day!
I recently read a diary of an aid worker by an Filipino Oxfam staffer working in South Sudan that started out with "don't tell my mother but..." and that is exactly what runs through my head every time I'm deployed to the field following an emergency.
So this is my confession as a humanitarian aid worker (this is incredibly ill-advised. Sorry, Mom! The only thing I can say is... I'm 26! I'm legal age! I pay taxes! I like my work!). By the way, if you're expecting mine to be as dangerous as a diary of an aid worker living in South Sudan... you are sorely mistaken. It's not that bad.
Don't tell my mother but in the course of my short humanitarian career...
... There are some elements of danger. In a country, where there are so many instances of flooding, we tend to use boats (called bangkas) a lot. I used to have the tendency to give up lifejackets to other people when riding rickety bangkas on swollen rivers to our field sites. My rationale was that 1) we didn't have enough lifejackets so might as well give up to someone else who couldn't swim because 2) I can swim. Never mind that the swollen rivers would have crazy undertows, gross fecal matter (and other stuff) and would probably give me a disease. No amount of varsity swim captainship would save me. Now we have enough lifejackets to go around so go Oxfam! Go safety!
... there are things totally beyond your control and beyond your scope of imagining. I was in a plane "crash." Okay, my mother knows this but I haven't exactly told her that I still suffer some slight PTSD when I'm in a plane and we're taking off or landing. I seriously get heebie-jeebies and panic attacks. And seriously, when that plane landed badly, the first thing I resignedly thought was "Fuck. A plane crash has a 1 in 100,000 chance of happening.... And did I have to be that 1 in 100,000 chance???"
... I've oftentimes felt stranded and totally helpless during an emergency response. Take one time, during my first ever emergency in the first NGO I worked in, I went with my boss while they did a rescue mission. And this was the 27th of September (the day after Ondoy just poured), just as those incredible torrential rains ended and everyone was stranded. And I went to a place accessible only by hardy SUVs and giant trucks and waited for hours and would never have been able to go home on my own because the only transportation to get anywhere at that time was to leg it. This was my first emergency up close and I just felt so helpless. Like crap. This is what I signed up for? I wanted to crawl into my bed and hide under the covers. For the first time, I felt the impact of what a disaster would be like up close and personal and I didn't know if I could handle it. Then the search and rescue rubber boat came powering through the flooded street like that street was a river... and they had picked up a pregnant woman who had been stranded on top of a roof. And that made me feel like a million bucks even if I wasn't on that rescue mission.
... Sometimes, you will be a huge idiot and comedic moments will ensue. Our monsoon response in Pampanga had the farthest bangka rides (30-45 minutes) to the hardest hit areas. And in some areas, the riverbanks we'd dock in would be so muddy, you'd just sink. And I made the mistake of washing my muddy foot in the river, which was mega-disgusting. In my defense, I did not realize that it was full of fecal matter until we were heading back to the mainland and I saw their "Frigidaires"... basically latrines with open holes to drop down fecal matter... straight into the river. Yummy. Thank God I did not pick up a disease!
... You are stretched out of your comfort zone... and you will figure out how to be resourceful. During a solo assessment after the earthquake in Negros Oriental, the only transportation I could get to the farthest and most hard-hit areas was by motorbike, up some crazy cracked and wave-like roads (complete with aftershocks). No vehicle was willing to go there or even be able to access that. I had to go by blind faith that once I got to the farthest point that there was road access, I could hire some random guy on a motorbike to take me farther. And so I did. And then after doing an assessment and heading back to my vehicle, mini-disaster. About an hour away from the van I rented, our motorbike broke down. It was 4pm in an area where electricity was out and I would have been stuck in an area with barely any houses. Thank God for random makeshift sari-sari stores that sold parts. Talk about luck and providence.
... Sometimes, you will have all the wrong skillsets but you just have to make do. Unfortunately, I have an accent when I speak in Filipino because my first language is English. And though I am fluent (unless you drop down some crazy deep Filipino words rarely used in our current vernacular. Whut), I do sound different. So I was excited to do a solo assessment in Negros Oriental because I come from Negros Occidental and can speak Ilonggo as my dialect. And then I get there... and their dialect, especially in the farther places, is Bisaya. WTF!!! My advantage!!! Gone!!! The unfairness of the world!!!!
... You will meet the best of people and the worst of people. The people I end up working with are truly everyday unsung heroes. They work tirelessly, do incredible amazing amounts of work and just keep on truckin'. They make me feel small in comparison but inspire me to do more and more and more (all the way more up to pneumonia!). And sometimes, you meet the worst of people. For example, I've been to an assessment when we walked into the mayor's office and he was holding court with a bunch of other government agencies and the table was laden with a feast. And when we asked what his municipality needed immediately, with a straight face, his answer was "Food!" It disgusted me that while he was holding court with people fawning all over him and eating all that food and wasting all that food, there were people living in tents with NOTHING. No food. No water. Nothing. And this guy WAS THE CULPRIT OF ALL THAT ILLEGAL LOGGING. In my head, all I could think of while staring at all that food was "you're the reason this disaster is so big in your area. I will not f*cking eat one bite of your food."
... Sometimes, you sacrifice a whole bunch of things. Like health, I have had multiple small asthma attacks during the first week of an emergency (most of them actually). I've always been able to manage it with my trusty giant pack of medicines. Plus I gained community-acquired pneumonia (which I thought was just the world's most persistent cold and fever) during Typhoon Bopha Response and didn't realize it until I was knocked off my feet. Never felt that sick in my life!
... Sometimes, there's a whole bunch of special things and time you give up. Spending New Year's in a field site away from your family (Typhoon Bopha Response) is one of the loneliest things in the world. Not even good company and food can change the fact that you miss your loud, loving, crazy family like bananas.
... Sometimes, truly exciting opportunities open up. A recent one is that I am on our office Firefighting Committee. And a part of me is so ready to try out my skills. Although I knock on wood I never really have to!! But I am ready, asthma and all. I can rock that water hose like nobody's business. Full open, baby.
... Sometimes, you are just the worst person for the job. On literally the 2nd to my last day working for the Philippine Red Cross and the first day I got to wear my PRC uniform, I witnessed a bloody motorcycle accident. And all the passersby saw the red cross on my uniform and their heads swivelled towards me, expecting me to do my magic (thank you, PRC uniform, for making women look like nurses). And because I had no First Aid training, all I could do was stride up to the guy and authoritatively pull out Band-aids and Alcohol "San sya nasugatan?". Thanks for outing me, uniform.
... Sometimes, you get crazy paranoid for the most illogical reasons. I am deathly superstitious of our office going on karaoke because I am convinced it causes emergencies to happen (i.e. Typhoon Sendong and Typhoon Bopha). (P.S. Who is singing that's causing these monsoon rains?! Halt, I order you!)
... All the time, the whole experience of an emergency will take a huge chunk out of you emotionally. And lots of times, it will CHANGE you. There are times, talking to affected families and beneficiaries makes me cry. Like hagulgol sob cry because 1) I can't believe the things they went through, 2) their gratitude overwhelms me, and 3) sometimes something as small as PHP 500 makes all the difference and as much as it would only cost me money to pull it out of my pocket and hand it over, I know I can't. Sometimes, you have to stop yourself from helping out in the simplest way possible because it is just the WRONG AND WORST THING TO DO (like giving out money). Sometimes, you just have to shut yourself in a bathroom, cry it out, compose yourself, and go back out, in order to keep doing your job.
... Sometimes, you will fail yourself. And you will fall short of your own standards. Every time I go to the field, I am incredibly frustrated with myself. My first language is English and sometimes, all the effort I put in the world, all the brain-crunching I do to speak to beneficiaries in a way that would make them comfortable, never really happens. No matter how much I practice or how well I understand them, I will always have the tiniest bit of an accent that will make me sound different. This will always be a barrier for me to overcome.
... Sometimes, another possible disaster will occur during an emergency. It actually happens more often than you'd think, having multiple typhoons occur one after the other. During the Typhoon Bopha Response when we were still working out of Davao, a big, rolling earthquake woke us up at 5AM. To be honest, I didn't even feel it because I was so exhausted and only found out when an officemate knocked on our door. I was so groggy and sleep impaired, instead of running out to safety, I took the extra minute to grab all sorts of unnecessary crap before running out to the street. So basically, decency (meaning... putting on a bra) meant more to me than my life.
... Every emergency is different and contexts change. Pre-Oxfam, I thought responding to an emergency meant giving food, clothes. Wrong. That's like simple math vs. freaking algebra. A humanitarian response (this is basically what you call giving aid in an emergency) is a complex solution to complex problem. It isn't throwing money or things at affected families. It involves studying a situation and trying to go to the very root of the problem and from there, coming up with a solution. Oftentimes, it feels like going backwards and running to the very beginning of the problem and finding out the earliest part of where an intervention (basically a particular type of aid) will serve as the biggest impact in restarting recovery. Like when an engine is dead and rewinding to figure out where to shock the system to starting again.
... Working in an emergency is overwhelming. When you get deployed, you don't always have the right information, or any information at all. Communications might be down. Access to areas might be blocked. Power may be off. It might be days before you get the full picture. You could be working from 6AM and finishing up at 10pm, or earlier or later, just working to get the cogs of the emergency response wheel working so people can get access to life-saving interventions as soon as possible. You could be working the jobs of multiple people while searching for the right people in place, people willing to work the 24/7 job because they have the skills and commitment to do it (and that's no easy search). You could be unsure when you're going home and stuck with a bag of 3 days of clothing but there for 2 weeks (suki ng laundry!). You could perfect the instant alert wake up and the exhausted dreamless sleep, the grab food when you can, store instant noodles and bread in your room.
But at the end of the day, you are soul satisfied with the work. You could be asking the right questions to the affected beneficiaries and delivering the right interventions that set them faster on the road to recovery. You could be giving them things they truly need, involving them in the process so they are owning their recovery. You could be empowering them to speak up and feel like they aren't victims.
That's what people I work with live for. That's why we do what we do. Because at the end of the day, the hardship is inconsequential, when compared to what we get back. What I feel is that we may be giving them a whole lot thanks to the donors and the funders and our organization's resources, but what I get back is directly to me and for me. And that kind of soul satisfying is what makes this road so interesting.
I know that continuing to work for emergencies isn't truly going to be my life's work and it won't be for very long. But these are the lessons and stories and experiences that I'll remember when I'm in my twilight years. And the stories of this period of my life will be awesome.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.