Some thoughts on World Humanitarian Day

August 19, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Susan Romanski rides in a relief helicopter during emergency relief operations in earthquake-shattered El Salvador, 2001. Photo: Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Alejandro Chicheri/WFP  </span>
    Susan Romanski (foreground, in white t-shirt) hugs a survivor of an earthquake in El Salvador. Photo: Alejandro Chicheri/WFP

Today is World Humanitarian Day – the first internationally-recognized day to honor all those who work to further the humanitarian cause, and to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in the process. The date itself — August 19, 2003 – was selected as a tribute to our humanitarian colleagues who were killed when the UN headquarters in Iraq was bombed six years ago. At Mercy Corps, we take time today to honor the seven staff members who have died in the line of duty during our organization’s 30-year history.

Today is also a good time to reflect on what it means to be a humanitarian, and to think about our aspirations for the coming year — as well as the coming decade.

When I think about what it means to be in this line of work, one memorable moment always comes back to me that captures the essence of what humanitarianism means to me. It occurred after the second of two powerful earthquakes that hit El Salvador in 2001. I was on a helicopter with an emergency response team. We were landing in a remote area that had been blocked in because of damage to the surrounding roads; no one had been able to reach the area since the time the quake hit. As the helicopter began to descend, I saw hundreds of people starting to gather around a football field where we were about to land.

As the helicopter touched the ground and I got off, I noticed that this mass of people were starting to run towards me at full speed. For a second I was scared, and looked around to see where my colleagues were. I realized that my colleagues were quite some distance to the sides of me and that no one was running towards them. They were all running towards me – and yet I had brought nothing with me. I had nothing to give. I just really didn’t understand it.
But the people kept running towards me.

Soon I realized they were all women and their children, and they were coming to share their grief with me. Why just me? Well, I was the only woman and that was apparently enough of a connection for them. One after another they hugged me, cried to me, tried to get my attention to see their destroyed houses, to talk about the family members that they had lost — anything for me to understand their pain.

Of course, all of us knew they could (and would) rebuild the town themselves – this wasn’t a question about me as an outsider having something they didn’t have. It was about sharing their painful tragedy with another woman who would listen. I would do the same thing if my life as I knew it had just been swept away from me.

For the next several hours, I walked through their village, looked at their destroyed homes, and heard their stories. Of course the relief agency I worked for at the time would help out, and did. But more than just bringing in resources to help facilitate the local process of recovery, I believe this work is about empathy in the most pure form of the word. Our work, as humanitarians, is about finding the best ways to harness this empathy to help those in need in the way that they think is most appropriate.

There are some key elements of relief and development work – listening carefully, taking appropriate action to help those who need and want assistance and carrying to the rest of the world the voices of those who are unable to get the word out themselves. My colleagues could list many others. The point is that I find this work incredible rewarding, and that I consider it a privilege to have people share a part of their lives with you when times are especially difficult.

When I think of what I hope for in the coming years, in addition to all the hopes we have for a world that is more just, secure, and productive, I would like to see humanitarians help raise global consciousness. It still surprises me that so much suffering goes in the world that we don’t hear about, that we don’t comprehend, or that we feel powerless to change. In today’s global environment, we have the power to make change, both close to our home and in faraway lands.

Even as humanitarians, we often tend to focus on the place where we are at any given moment because we know that in front of us is our best chance to affect change. I believe it is good to focus, and understand our own limits in order to maintain a healthy outlook. And it is especially important to take the time to keep and lean on a support network – it is what allows many successful humanitarians to continue this work under often trying circumstances. However, we also need to keep thinking of ways to broaden our own perspectives to gain a better understanding of what is going on in the world.

I believe humanitarians need to do more to share stories of the world, both the challenges and successes, with our fellow humans who do not have the opportunity, and the privilege, of meeting people from different corners of the globe. By doing so, we can help to spark the empathy and compassion that exists in all of us so that we are moved to act during times of great difficulty, and so that we feel a greater sense of connection even when there isn’t an obvious tragedy at work.

In particular, we need to better utilize our education systems, the media, and social networking practices to start painting a new picture of the world — a picture of a world that cares.

As we celebrate World Humanitarian Day, I hope that each one of us will take the time to reflect on what it means to us personally. And, as we honor our colleagues who have died in the service of others, I hope that we will find ways to bring our own empathy and compassion forward to better help those around us, and around the world.