On this World Humanitarian Day, I'm thinking about what humanitarian aid workers are — and what they are not.
Specifically, right now I'm thinking about a recent video from the Horn of Africa. NBC's Ann Curry was in Mogadishu with a humanitarian aid worker from the World Food Programme. "How do you come out of that, come out of looking at that, without just wanting to cry?" she asked.
"I don't — I don't," the aid worker replied.
That's an often-untold story about this line of work: the personal costs. There are rewards and inspirations to be sure. But for every minute of handing over food, water or other supplies to a family, there are many hours of hard work, tough negotiations, grueling travels and horrific dangers. There is little, if any, time for rest — and even those hours are spent immersed in conflict, poverty, disaster and famine.
Mercy Corps Founder Dan O'Neill — who has traveled to dozens of countries and witnessed some of the most unimaginable human tragedies of the last few decades — has referred to these personal costs as "the redemptive use of suffering and emotional pain for a higher cause." As humanitarian aid workers, we strive to not be consumed by our personal hells, but rather inflamed to do more for people in need.
Because we all carry around what we've seen, heard and experienced. As a humanitarian writer, I feel like I'm heavy with the tales of those I meet at least until I'm able to communicate their stories — and, even then, they still remain with me in some ways. I am haunted by the ghosts of the living.
That emotional turmoil is only one aspect of the cost: there's also the terrifying prospect of real physical harm. A report released earlier this year noted that deaths among humanitarian workers have tripled in the last 10 years — now more than 100 aid workers die each year, while an additional 40 per year are kidnapped. More and more, we're being targeted for violence; one of my longtime friends survived a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. Today, suicide bombers and other assailants threaten to interrupt the delivery of aid to more than three million starving people in Somalia.
And that brings up something else: think about those humanitarian workers who were born in places like Somalia and Sudan — people who've known little more than conflict and tragedy throughout most of their lives — who choose not only to stay in their countries and do good, but often rush headlong into situations most of us would avoid at all costs. Most of them grew up poor. Many of them have narrowly escaped death. Somehow, all of them are working to make sure that future generations can look forward to better, safer lives.
I am always proud to serve alongside such amazing colleagues at Mercy Corps — especially today, on World Humanitarian Day. I've met hundreds of those colleagues, and I can say that they're all brave, committed and hard-working folks. But they're neither superhuman nor invincible. They need your support. They need your prayers, thoughts and kind wishes for safety and strength.