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.

 

Compassion and Collaboration – Ideas to Advance Humanity

Written by Dr. Unni Krishnan, Director, Emergency Health Unit

Everyone has dreams. Some dreams are fabulous, some ambitious. When I met Tom last November, his dreams seemed almost impossible.

Tom was trying to build a health clinic in three days in the middle of nowhere. To be precise, Tom was in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh; home to the largest and perhaps the most overcrowded refugee camp in the world. He was working with Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit, deployed to Bangladesh to provide life-saving support for Rohingya refugees who had fled Myanmar.

Families were arriving at the camp sick, malnourished, dehydrated and often traumatized. Disease outbreaks threatened further human suffering. This was the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.

Humanitarian workers like Tom were working against the clock.

“Are you serious,” I challenged Tom. “How do you build a health clinic in three days?”

Tom is not a structural engineer and not a soldier in a military platoon with unlimited resources. He is, as he calls himself, “an ordinary water and sanitation engineer.”

But as a humanitarian worker he is equipped with three things – a clear mission, infectious optimism and deep compassion. These are powerful ingredients to make things happen on the frontlines of sheer devastation.

Tom, wash manager for Save the Children, removes ice blocks from a freezer in Kinshasa.

Why Be a Humanitarian Worker?
Humanitarian work is about extending the spirit of humanity to people. If you look at the suffering in the world, is there an option not to be a humanitarian worker?

Today we are witnessing the highest levels of human displacement on record. More than 68 million people have been uprooted from their homes. Twenty-five million are refugees who have fled their countries to escape conflict and persecution – in actual numbers, this is more than the population of Australia.

In 2016, more than 560 million people’s lives were critically impacted by natural disasters. And approximately 815 million people will go hungry tonight. If you put all the hungry people in the world in one country, it would be the third most populous nation in the world after China and India.

It’s in these settings – in oceans of human suffering – that the efforts of Tom and his fellow humanitarian workers make the difference between life and death.

Besides the need for food, water, health care, emotional assistance and shelter in these circumstances, there is also a need to contend with fear. The fear of houses and hospitals being bombed, schools being burnt, children being orphaned, storms, floods, disease – it’s a long list, but frighteningly real in an increasing number of places.

Despite the odds, Tom and his team from the Emergency Health Unit went on to build the clinic, as well as eight other clinics and a primary health center that works around the clock in Cox’s Bazar. The big idea behind their work is to ensure that no child is left behind in the process of delivering life-saving health care and medical assistance within the turmoil of an emergency.

World Humanitarian Day
On August 19, 2003, the then Special Representative of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General to Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, and 21 of his colleagues were killed in the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad.

World Humanitarian Day is marked each year on 19 August. It’s a day we pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in humanitarian service, and to celebrate the selfless service of humanitarian workers.

Humanitarian workers are agents of compassion when the world turns upside down. Most of the real humanitarian heroes are often invisible; ordinary local volunteers who do extraordinary work to pull people from bombed war zones or from earthquake rubble long before international aid arrives on the scene.

They can’t stop the storms, the wars or the outbreaks of diseases. But they can provide healing. They can’t stop the next disaster. But they can reduce the severity of human suffering.

Their work reminds us of a simple truth – compassion is an index of humanity. Imagine the state of the world without it.

Collaboration – A Catalyst
What we do today depends a lot on what we do with others. Challenging a storm’s fury or the ruthless perpetrators of a genocide is not something humanitarian workers can do alone. It requires the combined efforts of various players – governments, media, civil society and UN systems.

World Humanitarian Day reminds us that collaboration and compassion are two powerful forces that can make the world less brutal and a more beautiful place where we all can live and where children can thrive.

 

To learn more about the work Save the Children has done to deliver lifesaving emergency response, visit our website.