Relief for Relief Worker?

Published January 13, 2011

By Ayeshah Ali

“They ask, ‘So what do you do for a living?’ a drink in hand. I usually get two kinds of responses from two kinds of people when I tell them I am an aid worker. Those who roll their eyes and those who say, ‘Really’? For the first, I usually do not go any further; either they are not interested or it is something beyond their level of understanding and imagination. For the others, I know I will have a hard time explaining what I do and why” (Blogger working in Albania and Kosovo, The Road to the Horizon 2009).

While many of us have heard and read about relief aid workers deployed to emergency disaster areas, not many of us actually know one personally or ever spoken to them about the experience and life that they lead. In fact, in the event of an emergency crisis situation, so much is discussed and researched about the victims and even the perpetrators of the crime, but hardly much attention is paid to the experiences that the relief workers undergo from working on the same scene. The atrocities, hardships, and struggles that the victims face or that the perpetrators create are the same sights and sounds that relief workers are witnessing and living in as full constituents. Leanne Olson, a nurse and international relief worker who has worked on assignments in Bosnia and Zaire, describes it best in her book, A Cruel Paradise: Journals of an International Relief Worker. She frames the whole experience in her introductory quote: “Nobody ever comes away from a war unchanged, not those who perpetrate it, nor their victims, not those of us there to help.”

Hence, it leads us to wonder on the pun whether there is any form of relief for the relief worker. As a nurse, Olson has engaged herself with Doctors without Borders (DWB) and recounts the normal stresses of the duties of a nurse and then conducting those duties in the arena of a war zone, witnessing human atrocities such as ethnic cleansing or finding mass graves. Just envisioning the possible scenes they witness is difficult to fathom and leads us to wonder how people commit to such a noble and difficult volunteer act and, moreover, whether they have the resources and support needed to cope with the aftermath of images living in their minds when they return home. These needs are sometimes met with the creation of a subculture, smaller groups among relief workers that are able to comfortably share what many people cannot even fathom. Yet still, they find the ability to move on to a level of normalcy in their lives, engaging in daily activities with family members and friends. There are some attempts to convey stories of their relief work, but the rest is kept unmentioned except with those living in the same realm as them. Relief workers are witness to events that cannot be fully realized or comprehended by the outside world, yet their contributions to the causes they pursue are enormous and a ray of hope to millions of people that otherwise have very little to expect in life.

Much attention and support are provided to the obvious and larger populations of people exposed to these events, such as soldiers. However, a beneficial level of training and support oftentimes are not offered to relief workers, and often the support provided is built on what the relief agency expects the workers will need and not on the basis of needs from the perception of the relief workers. Hence, support is required and is being developed in key areas of a relief workers’ life such as preparation at pre-departure, sufficient and effective management of the organization, self and the relief workers’ own sense of value for the operation. Furthermore, coaching in areas of communication with relief workers, teamwork, and finally re-integration back into the home society are areas that relief workers can value and benefit from in order to ensure their experience is as endurable and valuable as possible. It also ensures their ability and willingness to stay committed as relief workers and to prevent people from declining service due to the expected poor infrastructure provided to them.

“I did not want to leave my fellow Haitian human-beings
in a desperate situation while I had to begin my journey
back to the contrasting luxurious life in the US”

The disposition of a relief worker comprises of a matrix of many different feelings and emotions. They are embedded with feelings of both the good and the bad, the excitement, satisfaction, and moments of sheer gratitude for the change they were able to bring to people, the relief of the blessings they have in their own lives, and the satisfaction of being able to elevate the level of hope of complete strangers in a devastated society. The other part comes with guilt of their inability to do more and complete the needs of the people they are serving, the moments of decreasing self value when they cannot obtain the resources needed to make an effective change for the people in distress, followed by extreme sadness and heaviness when they depart from their sites of service. Leaving without a sense of completion, of almost abandoning those that so heavily are relying on them for sustenance and support, and instead going back to a place where it appears a heaven in comparison to what they have just witnessed embodies the opportunity to leave as less than a rewarding choice.

Ilyas Hasan Choudry, the South Central region coordinator and relief worker for Helping Hand for Relief and Development, attributes his past experience in Haiti with the same tumultuous roller coaster ride of emotions. He was born and raised in Pakistan for 24 years before venturing to the West and settling in the United States. It was a matter of 15 years before the tsunami incident in late 2004 awoke him to the cause of working for a relief agency, followed by the incident of Katrina in 2005. “My mindset had almost likened to taking things for granted. However, this has changed in me and I feel most blessed from Allah SWT who has given me the opportunity to serve His creation.” On the other hand, after serving in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, he was preparing to return home with some conflicting thoughts, as he describes it:

“Let’s say for seven days in a row, you wake up to see a dire situation around you. But when you woke up on the eighth day, you are going to take an airplane to a place, almost like paradise on this Earth, as compared to the everyday anguish of the past seven days. But instead of feeling happy to leave the devastated place, you have this extreme lingering sadness inside of you telling you that you should not leave. Instead, you see yourself saying that maybe there is a way to delay your departure and that you can stay for few more weeks or maybe months or even years to see this torturous place come out of its ruins.

This is what I felt on Sunday, March 15th, 2010, when I went through a long queue for more than two hours to board American Airlines Flight 1908 from Port-au-Prince to Miami International Airport. I did not want to leave my fellow Haitian human-beings in a desperate situation while I had to begin my journey back to the contrasting luxurious life in the U.S.”

The life of a relief worker
is an amalgam of good
and yet challenging elements.

They literally exist on two antagonistic ends of destiny with the people they are there to serve
The value of relief and humanitarian aid works is immeasurable and despite the location of the disaster or crisis, even when in an affluent part of the world, their presence and assistance largely determine the success of alleviating the victims’ dire and sudden circumstances. For instance, New Orleans was devastated by hurricane Katrina and despite being in one of the most affluent countries in the world, most of the assistance was provided by NGOs and self-organization of the relief workers deployed to the area. Faith-based communities were contacted and through the formation of a coalition, each of them contributed $125,000 to provide funds for food and living accommodations at a convention center for the Katrina victims. They each brought a minimum of 300 volunteers, the Muslim community bringing in far more than the expected 300 and symbolically on the day 4th anniversary of the September 11 tragedy.

The life of a relief worker is an amalgam of good and yet challenging elements. They literally exist on two antagonistic ends of destiny with the people they are there to serve. Yet they are directly facing each other in the scenery of turmoil and leaving the mind to make logical sense of the gross and vastly uneven distribution of luck that life has left for both individuals. It opens the vulnerability of one individual to another, forcing the victim to relinquish their own independence as a human being and instead look to others to fulfill what are known to be basic and simple requirements of living. On the other hand, it reveals the guilt and sadness of the relief worker to the victim, forcing them to realize the surreal world they exist in, pampering them in ways unknown to millions in other countries and yet still finding room for unhappiness. Maybe it is these antagonistic principles, these opposing universal forces unfavorably forced to face each other that make the reasons for relief workers to take on this task. It is an idea similar to looking in the mirror and seeing their personal weaknesses, hurtful at first but at the same time unleashing a good conscience that in turn pursues them to do better and make right on what is or appears wrong. Our fellow relief worker working in Albania mentions, “But destiny has put them there and me here. Sheer destiny determined those who need help and those that can help. I can help.”

Ayeshah AliAuthor Ayeshah Ali is the assistant editor of The Message magazine.

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