Accidental Super Heroes: When the Work of Humanitarians Means the Difference Between Life and Death

Written by Dr Unni Krishnan is Director Emergency Health Unit (EHU), Save the Children 

Humanitarians are ordinary people. Sometimes people become humanitarians by accident when they find themselves in the midst of a disaster.

What makes them true heroes is the selfless and extraordinary work they do in some of the most difficult places in the world.

In wars and disaster zones, the work of humanitarians serves one key purpose – a catalyst to advance the idea of humanity and life, with dignity. This is something one can’t learn through an academic crash-course alone.

World Humanitarian Day, observed on 19 August every year, is a day to remember our accidental superheroes like Khadiza Rimjhim, who I met in Cox’s Bazar in early 2018.

Rim Jim Nurse working in the Emergency Health Unit in Cox’s Bazar; Photo credit: Unni Krishnan/Save The Children

Rimjhim was a young Bangladeshi nurse working in a health center run by Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit. She was busy providing healthcare for dozens of Rohingya refugee children. It was a challenging task and she was doing her best to find a balance between taking care of sick children and addressing the anxieties of parents who had a hundred questions.

Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh is home to nearly a million Rohingya refugees who arrived from Myanmar in mid-2017, fleeing violence and a terror campaign launched by the Burmese armed forces, which UN officials said was orchestrated with “genocidal intent”.

Humanitarians become so not always by design. An unexpected turn of events in life and witnessing the suffering of refugee children was the turning point for Rimjhim. “I never imagined working in a refugee camp,” Rimjhim told me. She graduated as a nurse in early 2018 and the work at the health center was her first job. “I have seen enough suffering here. My work here means a lot to the children here and to me.” The work of humanitarians such as Rimjhim often makes the difference between life and death for children in refugee camps. 

Photo credit: Sacha Myers/Save the Children
Kambale Kivasigha , Emergency Health Unit, Save the Children; Photo Credit Sacha Myers/Save The Children

What is the humanitarian spirit?

In mid-2018, when the worst flood in a hundred years hit the South Indian state of Kerala, I met several fishermen who acted instantly – they rolled up their sleeves, loaded their fishing boats into trucks and rushed to the flood-affected areas. Armed with nothing more than unflinching courage and grit, they rescued thousands of people long before helicopters reached the scene.

These fishermen were not humanitarians in the official sense. But they showed humanity and selflessness. They saved lives and embodied the humanitarian spirit.

Another person who became an accidental humanitarian is my colleague Kambale Kivasigha.

In 2002, several hundred people fleeing violence took refuge in the nursing college where Kambale was working as the principal.  They were sick and terrified. Amongst them were several children. Kambale didn’t know anything about humanitarian work at the time, but that didn’t stop him. He gave up teaching and started providing emergency healthcare for children and their families.

Ever since, Kambale has been on the frontlines of conflicts, disasters and disease outbreaks, providing life-saving humanitarian help.

He is now a nurse with Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit and for the past year, has been working in Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Ebola-affected areas.

“Fighting the Ebola virus is only one of the challenges,” Kambale told me. Health workers and aid workers in DRC are fighting the battle against Ebola on several fronts. Firstly, they are fighting a deadly virus. Secondly, various armed groups have been attacking health workers and health centers and disrupting health services. Thirdly, misinformation and fake news have triggered mistrust amongst communities resulting in attacks on health and humanitarian workers.

Local volunteers such as the health workers in the Ebola affected areas of DRC or Kerala’s fishermen are often the first responders, and sometimes the only responders, in many disasters.

What makes a good humanitarian?

In early August this year, I was asked this question by a group of young students, many of them millennials, during a conference in Kuala Lumpur organized by MERCY Malaysia, a humanitarian organization.

The students wanted to know what humanitarian agencies look for when they recruit staff. Not an easy question and there is no perfect formula!

Firstly, humanitarian workers are compassionate and courageous. Secondly, they have clarity of purpose and believe in the magic that it is always possible to make a difference. Finally, they are collaborative, optimistic and bring energy. These are just some starting points.

Humanitarian work is not just a profession, but often a state of mind.

If you are a nurse, teacher, doctor, engineer, shelter or communications expert, it is an added advantage but not a replacement for the universal humanitarian values and principles that inspire humanitarian workers.

Foundations for a better, safe and just world are; an unflinching commitment (to a higher cause); unfailing optimism; a compassionate approach (to people who have lost almost everything); and professionalism.

These building blocks make ordinary people like Rimjhim, Kambale and fishermen of Kerala into extraordinary humanitarians – into superheros.

 

*Dr Unni Krishnan is Director Emergency Health Unit (EHU). EHU is Save The Children’s global capability to provide life saving medical assistance and health care in humanitarian settings.

 

Save the Children in Nepal

The First Letter

11-year-old Sabrin lives in the Mahottari district of Nepal, which serves as the district capital. Save the Children introduced its Sponsorship programs to the south-east of Nepal in 2018 in theMahottari and Sarlahi districts to address children’s poor access to education and basic health facilities. Sabrin is the first child in her area to receive letter from her sponsor. Here is an excerpt from our conversation with her at her home that she shares with her extended family, including her lovely eight cousins.

 

Save the Children in Nepal
Sabrin and Sushmita pose for a photograph while in school

Madam Sushmita (field staff) had come to our school many times before but that day she had come to meet me. She had a big smile on her face when she handed me an envelope. She told me that it was a letter for me from my friend who lives in another country. This was the first time she brought a letter; other times she would talk to us and take our photos. I had never received a letter before, neither had anyone in my community. Confused yet excited, I read the letter aloud while she listened intently. My friend lives in America and works at Save the Children. Madam Sushmita told me that Save the Children works for children like us so we can have good education in schools.

All of my friends were curious too. They asked Sushmita madam if she had letters for them as well. My new friend’s name is Sue. She likes to cook and play games…so do I! I was very excited to read her letter but I was sad to know that she broke her leg and needs some time to recover in the hospital. She already knew that I want to become a doctor when I grow up. When I heard about her broken leg, I imagined that if she had been here and I were already a doctor, I would have treated her with care.

Just like me, Sue enjoys reading. I wrote her that Nepali is my favorite subject. I like to read stories and there are many stories in my Nepali book. I wish I had more information about my friend in her letter…what her favorite foods are and the foods people eat in her country. I wanted to know about her family too and what kinds of clothes she wears. I also want to know if she is feeling better now.

Save the Children in Nepal
Sabrin showing us her neighborhood while her school is off for monsoon vacation

Everything I could remember, I told Sue in my letter. Eid is the festival I enjoy the most- I told her that too. I also prayed for her speedy recovery. I wanted to tell her so many things but I did not have enough space. I could not write more even though I wanted to! I will write more once she feels better and writes me back.  

 

Photo credit: LJ Pasion/Save the Children

Expanding Education in the Philippines

“My mom lets me go to school only if there is extra money,” says Cristina, age 9. “I was able to attend before, but not anymore. Now I wash dishes for a small canteen where my mother works.”

Eight-year-old Ashly (pictured above) tells a similar story: “I used to go to school. I’m supposed to be in Grade 3. But I have to help Mama and Papa sell vegetables. I sell them in the street every day from noon until late at night. I have many cousins who also don’t go to school.”

There are 1.3 million children like Cristina and Ashly in the Philippines today who are not enrolled in school. But this is far fewer than the 2.9 million children who were out of school 20 years ago. In 1999, 1 child in 6 was out of school. Today, that figure has dropped to 1 in 16. After almost two decades of no progress, the Philippines cut the share of children out of school by about 60% in just the last 10 years.

Girls in particular have benefited from this progress. The out-of-school rate for school-aged girls has fallen by 69% since 1999, compared to 55% for boys. This means, however, that boys are now much more likely to be out of school than girls, especially older boys.

Progress in the Philippines is reducing inequalities. The poorest children have made by far the greatest gains at every level of education.

Photo credit: LJ Pasion/Save the Children
Aldrin, 7, poses for a portrait at the spot where reading camp sessions are held in their community in Barangay 176, Caloocan City. In this small space, he and at least a dozen more children take part in activities such as reading, writing, and drawing facilitated by Save the Children partners. (Photo by LJ Pasion/Save the Children)

The Philippines Department of Education (DepEd) has implemented an intense and continuous campaign to reduce the number of children quitting school. It has incentivized school attendance with feeding programs and cash transfers based on school attendance.1  DepEd has also piloted a wide range of alternative schooling models to offer flexibility for students’ differing circumstances and address the specific needs of learners.2 

For children who still are not in school, Save the Children has adapted its successful Literacy Boost approach to provide learning opportunities outside the classroom. Christina and Ashly both participate in Reading Camps where they engage in fun, play-based activities to develop their literacy skills and habits.

“I learned how to read, write and draw,” said Ashly. “They teach me and tell stories and then we all read together.”

Since it was launched in the Philippines in 2012, the Literacy Boost program has been implemented in seven cities and provinces throughout the country. In 2018 alone, it reached 31,560 girls and 33,080 boys.

To learn more about the work Save the Children has done to support child literacy and help set children up for success, visit our website.

1. and 2. Changing Lives in our Lifetime: Global Childhood Report 2019