From Syria to Ukraine: Supporting communities in crises

Mercy Corps CEO, Tjada D'Oyen McKenna, appears on the “Masters of Scale” podcast

Adults with children speaking with aid workers about receiving emergency supplies.
In Northwest Syria, Mohammad (whose name has been changed) and his family were rescued from beneath rubble and now stay in a tent.
April 04, 2023

Mercy Corps CEO Tjada D'Oyen McKenna appeared on “Masters of Scale” podcast to discuss Mercy Corps’ emergency response in Syria and Ukraine, the escalating crises in regions with weak infrastructure, and supporting team members in areas affected by natural disasters and conflict. Tjada reflects on the role of humanitarian organizations like Mercy Corps during times of crises and how to deliver aid that supports long-term recovery. “Our goal is really to build resilience in those populations, and we know that things will go up and down, but we are committed to those communities,” said Tjada.

From delivering critical aid in the wake of the earthquake in Syria to the ongoing support of communities affected by conflict a year following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Mercy Corps’ emergency response prioritizes urgent needs while also supporting more sustainable solutions. In both Syria and Ukraine, this winter’s brutal weather compounded the demand for humanitarian assistance. “These people are in the same situations, and we need to treat these situations equally,” said Tjada, speaking with Bob Safian, from the “Masters of Scale.” “They’re all humans who are looking to survive and contribute in some way.” Listen to the episode of “Masters of Scale” here.

Transcript of “Masters of Scale: Compassion in the face of crisis”

Tjada D'Oyen McKenna: This was a once-in-a-200-year earthquake. I immediately knew that because of Syrian infrastructure and the fact that this was a country that had already been battered by a decade of civil war, any earthquake of any size would be catastrophic.

All of our staffers survived, but several, at least six, lost wives or children. And I had one staff member who lost 13 members of his extended family. So it was devastating. But when we went to the team and said, “Who can show up the next day?”, more than half of our team said they were ready to come to work and help.

I really encourage businesses to think about the places that are receiving less attention or may have less support.

There’s an incredible loyalty that people have to companies that they know were with them at the worst times.

Bob Safian: That’s Tjada McKenna, CEO of Mercy Corps, the global humanitarian organization. Tjada initially appeared on this show a year ago, in the first weeks after Russia’s assault on Ukraine, describing on-the-ground efforts to help the flood of refugees.

I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux Group, and host of “Masters of Scale: Rapid Response.” I wanted to talk to Tjada again because Mercy Corps is now on the front lines of earthquake response in Syria, while also continuing to serve Ukrainians, as well as Somalis, Afghanis, and the most vulnerable populations in some 40 countries.

Mercy Corps is built for crisis, Tjada says, but every crisis is also different, requiring constant learning. She demonstrates the discipline required for any leader dealing with complex and shifting environments, and how to combine that with compassion.  

Tjada contends that businesses have more capacity to impact those in need than many organizations embrace, and that those efforts can accrue tangible business gains alongside societal improvement.

Working in a field where bad news is always a part of the landscape, Tjada looks at Ukraine, Syria, and other hotspots as opportunities to build better ecosystems and a better future.

[Theme music]

Bob: I’m Bob Safian. I’m here with Tjada McKenna, the CEO of Mercy Corps. Tjada, thanks for joining us.

Tjada: Thank you for having me.

Bob: So you were on this show about a year ago, not long after Russia invaded Ukraine to talk about the humanitarian efforts underway to support refugees. We’re now a year into that conflict, and I’m curious to learn the new lessons as the war persists and evolves, but there are also new crises that Mercy Corps is responding to, particularly the recent earthquake in Syria and Turkey that’s claimed so many lives. How did you first hear about the earthquake?

Tjada: I remember sitting in bed, and the New York Times alert came in, and then I remember about an hour of back and forth with my team. Getting in touch with our team on the ground in Syria, our Middle East regional directors in Beirut, and then also our team in the U.S. on communications and figuring out what the team would need.

I heard a stat that this was a once-in-a-200-year earthquake or something like that. So I immediately knew that whatever early numbers were coming out just were absolutely wrong and were under-counted. And I also knew that because of Syrian infrastructure and the fact that this was a country that had already been battered by a decade of civil war, that any earthquake of any size would be catastrophic there. We’ve been in Syria for 15 years, and we were already there providing humanitarian support to people, things like food and clean water. So then my mind went to: do we have enough critical mass that we can get up and running to serve this?

Bob: Because you have 40, or at that point, 40 or so staffers in Syria, right?

Tjada: Yes, and then we work with 12 different partner organizations, both Syrian and international. So we reach about 300,000 people a year there. So it was our staff of 45, but then also our partner organizations.

Bob: So at the same time that you are trying to assess what the damage and what the help you can provide is, you also have to be thinking about your own team and figuring out if they’re safe. I mean, an earthquake does not discriminate about who you are, where you are, right?

Tjada: No. And we were really worried about communication systems being down and not being able to get through. Ultimately, all of our staffers survived, but several, at least six … And the next day I was writing letters to all of them, lost wives or children. And I had one staff member who lost 13 members of his extended family. So it was devastating. But when we went to the team and said, “Who can show up the next day?”, more than half of our team said they were ready to come to work and help.

Bob: You mentioned that you’re writing notes, those must be very hard notes to write.

Tjada: They were really hard notes, and then obviously they were translated into Arabic. So I got some lovely responses back, which I was not expecting people to respond. Obviously they need to deal with their grief, but they were pleased that someone was thinking about them and that they knew they had an organization behind them that was going to help their community. And then I also sent a note to the whole Syria team because with this kind of devastation everywhere, everyone’s suffering. We also since then have had a number of staff who have slept in our building because it was unaffected by the earthquake.

Bob: Oh, because their homes weren’t safe.

Tjada: Yes.

Bob: You’d been working in Syria, as you say, for 15 years, but you weren’t particularly prepared for an earthquake or certainly not an earthquake of this magnitude. You have some infrastructure there, but you may not have the infrastructure for the need that’s suddenly presented itself.

Tjada: So where we are in northwest Syria is at the end of a very complicated supply chain that goes directly through Turkey. So you have goods and supplies coming over, passing the worst of Turkey, trying to get into northwest Syria. Luckily we had a bunch of things already pre-positioned just in case anything happened, right? You’re in a conflict zone, anything can happen. So we were able to use those supplies, but it was about four full days before any major rubble mover or major equipment even got to Syria.

We work in over 100 displacement centers in Syria. And remember this is also the height of winter, and it had been snowing. So right away we were using dirt and other things to fill up roads that had flooded in displacement centers, so people could get through. We also were out there right away giving out emergency supply kits, so food, tarps, sweaters, blankets, you name it, because you had a lot of people who were homeless.

Bob: I remember when we talked about Ukraine in the beginning, you were focused on the most effective thing was to deliver cash. In this situation, it seems like it’s a different playbook.

Tjada: Yeah, exactly. And that has been one of the things that we’ve paid most attention to and encouraged the UN is just to keep up the trade routes. We really were urging Turkey to keep the borders open. And we were urging suppliers, some of whom obviously are located in Turkey and other places to keep their commitments to Syria. But yes, we’re not moving to cash. The markets are just too fragile.

Bob: My impression, at least in the news here in the U.S., was a lot of attention going out to Turkey, and Syria sort of more overlooked. You’re nodding. Why is that?

Tjada: Yeah, it’s really sad. There are a couple of reasons for it. I think simply it’s easier to get in and out of Turkey. The epicenter of the quake was in Turkey. But the epicenter of pain and tragedy is squarely in Syria. You have to remember, it’s a group of people that are even more devastated, especially where we work in northwest Syria. It already is a community of people who have fled other parts of Syria because they were scared of the regime. Who were on the move in territories that had already been bombed.

Most big companies have employees in Turkey and buildings. And so a lot of the immediate corporate social response or individual giving was going to Turkey. And that’s the money that you get before you’ll get government funds or anything else. So that’s been devastating to not have that go to Syria. And I think, also, just people aren’t certain about the political situation there. Syria has long been forgotten, and it’s been really sad because the people of Syria are feeling left behind once again.

Bob: And so businesses react faster than governments because they’re reaching out to those that they are already in contact and in business with?

Tjada: They can deploy their funds, they can just get it out the door quickly, whatever it is. If employees give, they can turn around and cut that check tomorrow. Whereas governments, they have emergency protocols that they put in place, but they have to scope it out, they have to get bids, the major amounts of money will come. They just take a little bit of time to get out the door.

Bob: It’s interesting, because I’m not sure most people think that like, oh, in a sort of natural disaster like this, that the first responders are businesses as opposed to governments.

Tjada: Businesses and individuals…Turkey also is part of NATO and other things that make it more strategic in some ways. We have companies that we work with, on employee giving campaigns. And what we’ve seen is that the response that we’re getting from those employees for Syria is equivalent to what we got from Ukraine. So if offered the choice, employees and people are happy to support Syria. I think they just know Turkey more and feel like more of an obligation to their staff on the ground there.

Bob: And I guess there are sanctions of certain kinds in place in Syria too, which may make it harder for businesses to feel as comfortable, or is that a complication?

Tjada: It shouldn’t be, but I know it is something that’s been used. There have been, kind of, UN-negotiated humanitarian roots throughout Syria for quite a long time. And organizations like Mercy Corps and our peers, we are able to work there and to make sure the money is deployed effectively and not going to bad actors. I think there is a fear of the unknown with Syria because it has been in the news for conflict for a decade.

It’s interesting because a year ago we were talking about Ukraine. When the war in Ukraine started, we saw donors diverting money from places like Syria and Yemen and Myanmar to Ukraine. And so now Syria is once again in desperate need of an infusion, and a lot of those funds are being used elsewhere. And unfortunately kind of given the world we’re in now, the answer is “and and and,” not “or.” So there were some “or” trade-offs that were made a year ago that we’re still feeling the effects of now.

Bob: It doesn’t mean that the folks in Ukraine don’t need and deserve aid, but there are other challenges in other places. And I guess the war in Ukraine has had other repercussions on Syria and that area because they are linked economically and in other ways, right?

Tjada: Yes. A lot of countries in the Middle East, including Syria, were dependent on wheat supplies and other supplies from Ukraine that either stopped or slowed down. That combined with price increases, it’s also made it tougher for Syrians in the wake of the Ukraine war to get by day to day.

So I went to Poland three weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine. And at that point there were a lot of more middle class people coming over the border. And at the time I remember thinking, God, I wish every refugee were being treated as Ukrainians. Every refugee deserves this.

Right after I left Poland, I went to Lebanon. And in Lebanon we do work with Syrian refugees. And so one of the things that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are allowed to legally do is agricultural work. And so I met with some Syrians, and when I spoke to them about what their lives were like in Syria, I just felt like these were the same people. These people were government officials, or they had been in university, they had professional jobs.

And so it really struck me how these Syrians were grateful for work as agricultural laborers. And it just reinforced the oneness of it all, it’s like the bigger us, we’re all the same. These people are in the same situations, and we need to treat these situations equally. Even if there is a ruler of one country that is horrible, even if religions may be different or that country’s not as strategic, they’re all humans who are looking to survive and contribute in some way.

[Ad break]

Bob: Before the break we heard Mercy Corps CEO Tjada McKenna talk about responding to the devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey.

Now she turns to the situation in Ukraine, and the leadership lessons of building an organization that’s primed for crisis, focusing on new challenges while not abandoning old ones.

Plus, she shares how businesses can have greater impact than they realize in crisis zones and the positive benefits that can accrue to brands that engage, over the long term.

So last year, as I said, when we talked about Ukraine, your focus was on providing cash assistance. Is that still where you focus your efforts?

Tjada: So far we have been able to disperse about 12 million dollars through the cash consortiums we have there.

We are working entirely through partner organizations, so supporting Ukrainian, Polish, Moldovan, Romanian organizations that were already on the ground. We also have helped over a million people with information as Russia bombs different places. We’re constantly flooding the zone with information so that people can get to safety.

And then in nearby countries where a lot of refugees are, we continue to support those who are most marginalized. So in Poland we’ve worked with about 9,000 refugees, and there, we’re focused on people with disabilities, organizations serving disadvantaged populations like the Roma people, also LGBTQ people that might need certain medications. So we are really keeping our eyes on the most vulnerable.

Bob: A year ago, the focus was on refugees who had left Ukraine. You’re still obviously doing that with certain parts of that population, but now there’s also efforts for those inside Ukraine and behind enemy lines even.

Tjada: We were always focused on the people inside Ukraine; it took us a minute to get in there safely, but we have a robust office in Kyiv and a few other parts. And on some of the worst days, the team has sent us pictures of them at their computers in safe spots and parking garages and elsewhere. And that team just continues to motivate us every day.

Bob: When you think about the phase we’re in now, the phase we’re moving into next, what are the biggest challenges?

Tjada: Unfortunately, in Ukraine itself, the humanitarian crisis just continues to escalate as Russia attacks critical infrastructure. The other factor is it has been a really hard winter in Ukraine. So you have a lot of people who are in need of heat, who are hungrier than before, and who are more vulnerable.

In fact, on the one year anniversary of the bombing, we shut our offices in Ukraine for the day, partially so that people could take care of themselves and emotionally process that they were a year in, but also for security reasons because of that fear of what Russia may do on that day. And so I think the psychosocial elements of still feeling so vulnerable, living in a war zone has certainly taken its toll. And we’re still very worried about things that have always been issues. We’re very worried about human trafficking and the safety, especially of women and children as this crisis drags on.

Bob: For you personally, what’s the hardest thing in these moments of crisis?

Tjada: The thing that has gotten me is I hear more directly from our staff who are impacted. So I think about our female staff in Afghanistan. I think that’s one of the things that haunts me the most to this day. When the Taliban took over, they were reaching out, wanting help getting out of the country, desperate. Some of these people were so young, they hadn’t lived under the Taliban before.

Recently in Afghanistan, the Taliban issued an edict that women were no longer allowed to work for NGOs. Now, there have been some exceptions, but I think about those same women who wanted to get out. There’s one employee in particular. I’m thinking about that same woman later after the Taliban took over, we hired her husband so that he could accompany her on visits to her programs and to visit the people that she was serving, and now having to go through this ban, and her having to work from home while we suspended our activities to figure out how to go next.

I think the very real human toll, the impact on our employees and thinking about them and their families is the thing that’s hardest and most haunting. So it’s no longer abstract. It’s people that you’ve worked with and that have been a part of your larger family for a long time.

Bob: And they look to you for answers for help, and sometimes it’s not in your control. I mean, you can’t change the way the Taliban is doing things.

Tjada: And I’m not the U.S. government. I couldn’t get people visas to get out of Afghanistan. I couldn’t necessarily secure them all safe passage. And I still hear it regularly from people who fled to Pakistan or other places and who were enduring hardships there. And I wish I had the resources to support people indefinitely, but we don’t, and that’s the part that’s really hard.

Bob: And I guess your mission is to help the people who are most vulnerable. And so that means you get people to a certain point, and then you pass them off.

Tjada: Our goal is really to build resilience in those populations, and we know that things will go up and down, but we are committed to those communities. And I think that’s what’s hardest is at some point, people want to leave, but we’re committed to those countries. Afghanistan is our longest continuous country presence. We’ve been there since the eighties. We’re committed to the people of Afghanistan, regardless of who’s in power. And so sometimes the intentions rub up against one another.

Bob: Do you have a message for the businesses and business leaders who are listening to this show about what they might do or how they might act or think when it comes to humanitarian crises?

Tjada: Yeah. One, I really encourage businesses to think about the places that are receiving less attention or may have less support. The other thing I would add is that we have to remind ourselves that talent is spread out equally in the world, it just doesn’t always have access. And so there have been a lot of refugees from these countries who’ve done amazing things for these companies. Think of Steve Jobs and Apple when you think of Syria, and just remember these economies evolve. There’s an incredible loyalty that people have to companies that they know were with them at the worst times.

You can build real connections and real lifetime devotion to your product or brand. People rebound, and they also travel and make it to other parts of the world.

Bob: Well, Tjada, this has been great. Thank you for all you do and for coming back to share with us again.

Tjada: My pleasure.

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