Security is only skin deep?

As is my wont, I disappeared for a while. Sorry about that. A rather long and margarita filled holiday might have had something to do with it. But now that I’m back, I’m going to write something that might possibly be a bit controversial, and about a subject that provokes a lot of strong opinions.

I’m currently working in what humanitarians lovingly call an ‘insecure’ environment, which basically means, ‘place where people are trying to blow each other up and shoot each other on a day to day basis.’ Security incidents are rigorously monitored, which results in delightful half-hourly skype ‘pings’ as news of events unfold. Some field locations are ‘safer’ than others; I put safer in quotation marks since the location considered safest, and the location of the head office, is the one which receives the majority of security incidents, but hey, I’m not a security professional so maybe there’s some secret equation that I don’t know about. Some locations are more remote and closer to front lines between armed groups. I work in one such of these field offices, and there is one other such field office in the North.

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Maybe we should just stick more signs on people and things to make them safer? [credit: ACT Alliance]

This week two of our team have been asked to change their locations to the Northern field office. Sad to see them go, I asked if they had been told why they needed to move; was it lack of staff? Was it particular programming that required their specific skills? No, it was because they are both African. When I asked why that was the deciding factor, both told me, seemingly unfazed, that the Northern field office is not considered safe enough for European (white) international staff to stay overnight. I’m not sure whether this is the right way to say this, but I felt offended on their behalf. I asked them if it bothered them that the organisation felt it needed to protect white staff more? Neither seemed to see it that way, with one almost seeing it as a badge of honour to be asked to work in a more ‘dangerous’ field environment.

I tried to figure out why this decision had been made. Both my colleagues explained to me that white international staff in the Northern regions are more of a target because a) they stand out more in a country where the population is predominantly black and b) because they’re assumed to be Americans and no one is a particular fan of the tangoed-scrotum that is Donald Trump (to be fair, most places around the world were not big USA fans even before Mr Cheeto graced the Oval Office). For the first reason, of course, yes, you stand out more if you are markedly different from the crowd around you. In some countries you can blend in more by adapting your behaviour or by adopting certain pieces of local clothing – I for one enjoyed rocking an abaya and hijab in Yemen, no one could see I was wearing gym shorts and a sports bra underneath, or that I hadn’t washed my hair in 4 days – but changing your skin colour is not something you can readily do. Unless you’re Michael Jackson. However, apparently other non-white and non-black international staff are ok stay in this same location. Wait, a light skinned Pakistani member of staff is better able to blend in effortlessly? I’m not convinced. Coupled with the fact that local people here can recognise if you come from their town or not, and even if you are from their state or not with a cursory glance, or at least the second you open your mouth, your skin colour is not necessarily going to help you blend in. Like a Scouser wandering in Manchester, people will know you are not part of their crew pretty quickly. As for the second reason, we hit a stumbling block with one of my colleagues who is black and American. Apparently she is also not allowed to work in that location despite meeting the ‘blending-in-skin-colour wise’ requirement, because when she speaks it will make it obvious she is an outsider. If that’s the case, the same is also true for all international African staff  (update to NGO security personnel: last time I checked there was no singular, pan-continental language called ‘African’….)

The second debunking of white staff being more at risk came when I did a bit of research to find that there have been no attacks specifically targeted at white international staff in this area. Nor have there been specific targeted attacks on NGOs for that matter. What there has been is plenty of opportunities for ‘wrong place wrong time.’ I’m almost certain that those types of incidents are not correlated to skin colour, except perhaps when you pack a place with staff of a particular skin colour and then the shit hits the fan…. When I raised this I was told, ‘ah, but there are more radicals there, people who would just stab you for no reason.’ Ok, well that makes me feel much happier that my friends are going to work there….?! The strange thing is that white international staff travel to this location on a regular basis – they just don’t stay overnight – so if random stabbings really were a big concern, maybe we shouldn’t send anyone at all?

I’m sad to say that this deployment has not been the only place I have been to where security rules vary by the colour of your skin or the nature of your passport. I’m not saying that the NGO world should disregard specific threats against individuals or against particular nationalities; all I hope for is a little more equality in the value we place on any of our colleagues’ lives. I don’t like being wrapped in cotton wool because I am white, because I am a woman or for any of the other bullshit reasons that get floated around, not because I long for danger or want to expose myself to risk, but because my non-white colleagues, my male colleagues, my non-international colleagues are being told that these risks are acceptable for them based on stereotypes and I don’t believe that’s fair. You could argue that humanitarian work would be paralysed if these types of decisions were not made, but is it not better to be honest about the risks to all staff and allow individual choice on what risks are and are not acceptable?  Either that or we could just send in Kendal Jenner with a Pepsi first and then we would all be safe.

Sexism on Steroids

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Do you need me to explain the picture further? Wait, let me find a man to help me… (credit: Dilbert)

Like me, one of my sister’s friends is an ardent feminist. She works in a male dominated sector, and frequently posts examples of everyday sexism she encounters in her work on Facebook. Recently, these have included such gems as, ‘someone just offered to help me because “It’s a male thing.”’; ‘Just had an entirely unplanned full-on rant at my boss about sending men to all our industry events… AM I INVISIBLE?’; and my personal favourite, ‘Give an idea. Wait for a 20 minute pointless debate. Hear someone else give the exact same idea to universal approval. Make your own gender assumptions here.’

Many women reading this post will be acutely aware that although women have made great strides towards equality, there is still a long way to go. The subjection of women to a set of outdated, social and cultural norms in western culture is so entrenched in our individual and societal fabric that sometimes we don’t even recognise it. Sometimes women do it to themselves without even realising, as I did last week asking for some ‘big strong men’ to carry a 50kg box for me because of, ‘my weedy girl arms.’ However, what has really struck me in my latest deployment is just how much sexism impacts on my everyday work as a humanitarian aid worker, and how much harder I have to work to achieve outcomes with communities and authorities than my male colleagues.

Over the last few weeks, I have been assessing and setting up programme activities in a new area in West Africa. Part of this work is meeting local government and traditional authorities and community representatives. All of these figures – without exception – have been men. Consider now the dynamic of having to influence, negotiate and coordinate with a group of men who ordinarily never – or at most very rarely – consult with women on decision making, let alone a woman who is a complete stranger to the whole system. I consulted with women about their level of influence in community decision making structures and the response was that sometimes they would raise their opinions with their husbands, but not – it seems – any further than that.

You might now think, ah, well, it’s the ‘stranger’ aspect, nothing to do with what is – or rather what isn’t – between your legs, but when I compare the reception that a male colleague received, there was no denying it was a question of sex, and not of origin. I introduced my male counterpart to one of the traditional leaders. I had visited the leader twice before and our conversations had been cordial, friendly and welcoming. On my third visit, this time with my male colleague, instantly the atmosphere changed; I was barely spoken to, my male colleague was showered with compliments (apparently for just being able to say hello and sit in a chair) and instead, I was told to go to look at the leader’s horses, the inference being, to leave the men to talk.

Having worked with communities for several years, I am very conscious of the role of culture and tradition in gender dynamics, and of trying my utmost to set aside my own preconceptions of respect and gender relations when working in a different context to my own upbringing. What never seems to be taken into account by organisations, though, is just how much harder female aid workers have to work in these contexts to develop mutually respectful working relationships with male authority figures, and to be taken seriously by them. It bothers me, that a male colleague gets points for just showing up whereas I have to work extremely hard to validate my place at the table.

There are times when being a woman in a particular working environment is downright dangerous; when I was working in Northern Syria, representatives from the local government, various armed opposition groups and my male colleague shook hands after a successful meeting to site a new IDP camp. Unthinking, I offered my hand around in the group as someone who had also shared in this decision making and success. The group froze the atmosphere suddenly frosty and the meeting adjourned rapidly. In the car travelling back, my Syrian colleague told me, ‘That was so irresponsible; you never offer your hand to a man in this place. What if someone from ISIS saw you? You’ll get us all killed.’ Part of me would still like to believe he was over-reacting, but this is the world female aid workers operate in, where sharing as an equal in a gesture of success with men can be a fatal mark against your name.

The difficulties of operating in male dominated environments out in the field might be one thing, but then female aid workers also have to deal with this mess at home as well. There are a lot of articles detailing sexist treatment at the hands of male colleagues in the sector, and despite the fact that there are more women working in humanitarianism than men overwhelmingly, the top level positions are held by men. At a conference I attended earlier in the month, the inter-agency group for WASH took their places at a table for Q&As, and there was not a single female amongst them. My current deployment is also exposing me to this ‘in-organisation’ sexism; one of my male colleagues feels the need to copy other men – sometimes individuals who are completely irrelevant to the conversation at hand – into emails to me so that they can more fully explain the content to me.

It appears that the discrepancies between male and female aid workers extend to their relationships outside of work as well. In late night discussions with two male colleagues, we discussed our ‘extra-curricular activities’ over the past year. For them, telling a woman about their job seemed to make them irresistible; a magic bullet capable of making any woman see their sensitive caring side. For me, there have been five – yes, five – separate occasions where an interested man had cut all contact after he found out what I did for a living, and this is only in the past year. For women, perhaps male humanitarians conjure up images of strong men saving babies akin to an Athena poster from their youth; for men, maybe female humanitarians conjure up images of independent and career driven women who won’t be around to make your dinner in the evening. I don’t think there was ever an Athena poster for that.

In my own world of cripplingly low self esteem, it has been all too easy to dismiss the sexism I’ve experienced around my job as my own fault – I was doing it wrong; I wasn’t professional enough; people didn’t take me seriously; I just wasn’t good enough at my job to get the results that seemed to come so easily to my male colleagues – but such occurrences have become too frequent for me to continue blaming myself for overwhelming inequality. Since humanitarian organisations pride themselves on factoring gender equality and gender dynamics into their programmes, let them not forget that the needs and efforts of female staff too are different to that of their male colleagues. Organisations need to recognise it, and celebrate that female humanitarians persevere despite the odds.

Did the Humanitarian Summit change anything?

I was planning to write a blog post about the Humanitarian Summit – held on 23-24th May in Istanbul – in the lead up to the actual event, but like so many half-hearted bloggers… I forgot. Now this probably doesn’t bode well for the Summit that I forgot to write about it, but I was thinking and talking about it a lot in the weeks leading up to it taking place. A few things happened in those weeks that made me think about the Summit and whether it was the pivotal moment of humanitarianism that it was hyped up to be.

Firstly, there was the dramatic withdrawal of MSF less than 20 days before the Summit. Now, most humanitarians are aware that MSF aren’t always the most collaborative of NGOs. In fact, during a conversation about the possibility of electronically tagging all aid workers for the sake of easier coordination, a friend and I likened MSF to the one rogue

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MSF – the rogue angry badger in the crowd of other badgers (credit: freyafaulkner)

specimen who would – upon release into the wilds – immediately find a stick and prise off the tag, like an obstinate badger or a cat that refuses to wear its glittery collar. However, there is no denying the force of MSF’s voice; as a humanitarian agency they are fearless, they are at the front line and they hold firm to their principle of bearing witness to natural and man-made atrocities as well as responding to them. When they released their statement explaining they would not attend the summit whilst hospitals were being bombed and refugees turned away, there was a collective gasp across the humanitarian world. Their reasons? They did not believe the Summit would address fundamental weaknesses in the humanitarian system, and they did not believe the Summit would hold attending state leaders to their responsibilities to protect their own citizens.

Secondly, there were a series of reports and articles issued in the run up to the Summit with titles such as ‘remake the humanitarian system’ or ‘is the humanitarian system broken?’ calling for major changes to the system. Helpfully, the articles and papers took diametrically opposite views: One paper, ‘Time to Let Go’, released by ODI, sees the ‘formal system’ – the UN, INGOs, ICRC and IFRC – as self-interested and unwilling to diversify, echoing many of the sentiments rising in the lead up to the Summit that the humanitarian system is ‘broken’. Others, including ALNAP and Marc DuBois, claimed that ‘broken’ is an unhelpful label, claiming that placing responsibility for changing what is essentially the political way of the world and who holds the cash, should not have to be something that INGOs have sole responsibility for changing, and noting that the purpose of humanitarian action is ‘to fix the human being, not the system’.

It’s telling that the word most mentioned by participants – recorded by IRIN – for the Summit was ‘expectation’. What were we expecting? That the Summit would cure humanitarianism’s woes and bring forth a new era in which humanitarian and development actors drink tea under rainbows rather than scowling at each other over separated funding streams? That the Summit would influence the only G7 member in attendance – Angela Merkel – to get on the blower to Dave, Obama and her mate Vlad to say, ‘hey guys, this summit made me realise we’ve got to stop messing other people’s countries up and then not really caring what happens, apart from whether they still want to buy our guns’? Or that the same Angela Merkel would call up the different leaders of the EU to say, ‘hey guys, let’s cut refugees some slack, right? I know we’ve got our own issues, but hey, we’re kinda mixed up in causing theirs… you should have heard the chats I just had with Dave and Vlad!’?  Perhaps we should be expecting a bill for Angela Merkel’s phone calls (It makes me giggle childishly to think that Angela Merkel starts her conversations, ‘hey guys’, and maybe ends them with the high-pitched ‘byeeeeee!’ – the curse of all professional women).

The summary video on the Summit’s website looks a bit like a BBC attempt at mashing together a summary of a G7 Summit meeting, a UN conference and a United Colours of Benetton advert. If  there was a clip of Beyonce singing ‘I was here’, they would have nailed it, but instead they opted for some dubious actor types carrying what appear to be bin bags around a conference room. One interviewee notes that this is the moment to put together a plan to really do things differently; another says it’s their opportunity to speak to people face to face, not as a beneficiary but to be seen as mothers, sisters, brothers. I wonder how much time they had to address their concerns directly to one of the handful of world leaders who attended the conference… One says he hopes this time we would not only commit, but hold ourselves to those commitments.

So what did we commit ourselves to? Apparently over 1,500 different things. I really hope they have a stellar programme manager on board because setting that work plan is going to be a nightmare! But, let’s go back to our expectations, did we achieve anything? Well, we didn’t get much in the way of political commitments to end conflicts because… well, no one with any power to do that really showed up (no, I’m not forgetting Angela. Thanks Angela). We didn’t get a better deal for refugees, but we are ‘going to pursue a new approach’, which is sufficiently vague to hopefully keep people quiet for a bit until they realise it doesn’t mean anything. What about the rainbows and tea? Well, we have now a new way of working that will break down silos between development and humanitarian action, but the problem is, everyone spent too much time at the side events and sneaking out to sightsee in Istanbul and forgot to articulate what that actually is.

I am probably being too flippant; there were gains made in the Humanitarian Summit – commitments for more locally driven responses (including a Grand Bargain to give 25% of aid to local responders rather than INGOs) and a commitment to give more for education in humanitarian crisis – but after months of planning, millions of dollars and an extremely high telephone bill for Merkel, we still have the question, so what’s next?

Why is it such a crime to be an emotional humanitarian?

I’m an emotional person. My star-sign is Cancer, who are apparently notoriously emotional; all crabby and feisty claws on the outside with a soft underbelly, vulnerable to harsh words and fishmonger’s knives. For as long as I remember I’ve been that way; it’s a part of myself that I have found hard to accept as anything but weak for a very long time.

Humanitarians don’t cry. Humanitarians see other people suffering all day long and remain impassive. Humanitarians listen to strangers, their co-workers, their lovers and their friends describe the turmoil and the torment they have suffered at the hands of others, and the hands of Mother Nature, and in people’s stories and remain impassive. They have a job to do, and that job is professional. There’s no room for crying. To cry is to be emotional, and to be emotional is to be unprofessional, and to be unprofessional is to fail.

One evening, a colleague of mine and I stood on a balcony in Madagascar admiring the beautiful views across the rooftops of Antananarivo. After a few moments I noticed tears falling down his face. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me that he was thinking that it wasn’t fair for a country with such beauty and with such inspiring, intelligent people as our Malagasy colleagues to know such poverty; For its people to be denied opportunities that they so richly deserved simply because of the failings of their systems, their climate and their leaders. He was crying because the world was unfair on a colossal level and Madagascar screamed the fact into his face for the first time in his life.

A friend once told me how she had undertaken anthropology work in Vietnam. She recalled days sat with women describing their lives during the war and their lives now, and she wept as they told her their stories. She told me that some of the stories they told her made her feel so desperate to take their pain away, so saddened about the cruelties men can inflict on each other, there was no other way to process the information except through her tears.

I cried when a mother in Syria carrying her child came over to me to ask if I could provide baby milk. I told her that I couldn’t but asked how old her child was so that I could refer her to a service that could support her. She told me her child was three, but her 3-year old was smaller than my one year old nephew. Her baby was skinny, disinterested in interaction and terribly pale. With my colleagues we walked them to an infant and young child feeding clinic – the only one we knew of – which was closed for the day. As the mother walked away from me, I felt as though I had been punched and I cried, because I couldn’t be professional and do my job to help.

I cried after undertaking an assessment in Liberia of the worst slum I have ever seen in my life. I was asked to provide emergency sanitation for families quarantined as possible Ebola contacts. I worked with colleagues through the night to devise a response plan and pass it through the various echelons of decision making. I cried when I was told no, we could not respond, because of larger organisational considerations that I was not – and would not be – party to.

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If you want to be a humanitarian, best get yourself a stunt double for the emotional parts (credit: memegenerator)

I cried when after months of work supporting Jordanian colleagues to design and create a children’s club, I was invited to a caravan one afternoon to find 30 small boys, dressed in uniform t-shirts and hats enjoying a game about water conservation. I was overwhelmed with joy, both for the children who loved their t-shirts but were too busy enjoying the activities to talk to me much, and for my colleagues who saw their hard work translate into something powerful and real.

These people – including myself – were not unprofessional, nor were they weak. They were being human. Because I cry, I’m labelled as being ‘too emotional’. I’ve been given this feedback multiple times by the same person; my manager. It seems that if I connect emotionally with the work I’m doing – out of sorrow, out of frustration, out of empathy, or out of sheer joy – I’m not performing well in my job.

I accept that I am an emotional person, and I also know that I’m fucking strong. I will fight my corner like a one-eared tom cat, and the corner of people I love – hell, the corner of people I’ve only met once on an assessment – until I’m so frustrated by apathy, bureaucracy and ineptitude the only outlet my feelings can manage is through hot and angry tears running down my face. If you’ve bought me to tears you can bet that you have exhausted the very last of my strength and resilience. Congratulations.

Too often I hear from colleagues that displaying their emotions is considered negative, and too often I hear that emotions rise up when individuals are so frustrated with their situation, there is no other outlet. A friend told me recently at an event that she didn’t want to do any presentations, because if she did she, ‘may start crying out of sheer frustration and anger.’ How is this perceived a healthier situation than a few tears?

There has been significant attention paid over the past couple of years to the state of humanitarian workers’ mental health, and the amount of support they receive for processing distressing sights, sounds and stories every day. Not surprisingly, most studies have found that they do not receive adequate support, but in a context where to connect and display emotions is deemed to be weak, or even unprofessional, it is unsurprising that many humanitarians keep their emotions locked down, only to have them explode at a later and – most likely – highly inappropriate point in time.

We need to stop the culture of associating emotion with weakness. Of course we must maintain professionalism, but we should remind ourselves that we too are human beings, and human beings are emotional buggers who need to feel listened to, appreciated and sometimes need to have a little cry. We are experts at writing guidelines to ensure we respect the emotions of the people affected by conflicts and disasters we work with, but we seem to fail at translating those to each other. If I ever found myself requiring humanitarian assistance, I would want to speak with someone who tried to connect to how I was feeling, rather than a cold, emotionless, humanitaro-bot.

The clue is in the title. Humanitarian. Our emotions are the things that connect us to the people around us. If we don’t have that, what do we have?

Categories of Aid Worker

This last week, I attended a training (and I also went a-dashing; my manager must have read my last blog and taken the non-too-subtle hint implied in the title). I was overjoyed to spend my week with fifteen other humanitarians, all of whom were mad as a box of frogs.

You know that saying, the one that bosses boom out with a slap on the back trying to be funny, or slightly nervous HR ladies murmur on your first day in a new office, ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!’ That is the motto of the humanitarian world. Something is a little bit funny in the minds of humanitarian workers; their internal wires were fused too far away from the brakes and far too close to the big red button with the sign saying ‘do NOT push’. As a result on any deployment you are likely to encounter some very, delightfully odd people.

Categories

You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps! Credit: Tumblr

Some examples? OK, well there was the engineer in Dadaab who spent all of his wages on importing the biggest widescreen TV I have ever seen so that he could watch British Premier League matches. Not so odd? He did this at the expense of having any other furniture, so all games were watched sat on a bare concrete floor. Then there was the engineer who would help me with late night write-ups of discussion groups by using a different voice or accent for each respondent. How we had Scottish, Welsh and Russians in a Somali refugee camp I have no idea. Or the engineer in Djibouti who commandeered my driving licence to hire a Land Cruiser to drive through a salt lake, despite the picture showing a brown-haired female, rather than a blonde, bearded man. Wait… I’m seeing a pattern developing here…

There is a long-established and well recognised categorisation of aid workers that labels individuals as missionaries, mercenaries or misfits. Or perhaps it’s more of an evolution than a categorisation… but I know a few people that skipped the first two stages if that’s the case. If you’re a missionary, you’re likely to be a new starter, full of over-zealous gleam and hope that you can change the world without that nasty business of getting eaten by the locals (that’s ACTUAL missionaries, like years ago. It rarely happens now). You will preach the good word of Sphere to the non-believers (like militaries and governments) recruiting enthusiastic devotees to worship at the shrine of the Cluster (coordination meetings in an upmarket hotel). But, after a period of dedication, your faith may start to waiver. Your prayers for assessment data, flexible funding and prompt decision making go unanswered and you cry alone in the darkness (because the solar lights are being held in the port until the overlords will them out). It is at this point, you may begin to transform into a mercenary. Mercenaries are the aid workers going through the motions. They’re highly skilled with great experience, but with perhaps a tad too much of both which leaves them feeling jaded. These are your cynical bastards; they’re unlikely to find one element of a programme they can’t complain about. However, for the true mercenary, money and status are their primary motivators, and countless crushed wings of little missionary butterflies twitch under their boots whilst they stomp their way to fulfill selfish ambitions, losing sight of the bigger picture. Woah, ok, got caught up a bit there. However, not all aid workers end up that way (hurrah); some become misfits. Misfits have got the experience, got the devotion, but might be a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. These are the best kinds of humanitarians; they care, but they don’t take their own life too seriously. They immerse themselves into the job and the context, often with the result of extremely poor fashion judgements. Sometimes, misfits are called ‘lifers’, because they’re in the sector – or more accurately in the field – for life. The hallowed desk job holds no allure for the misfit.

On the training I attended, surrounded by wonderful oddballs, we mused on the ‘types’ of humanitarian workers. We were in the pub after a day of being shot at, driving into minefields, tackling sucking chest wounds, and – in general – having a bloody awesome day, discussing how much fun it had all been (I hasten to add that this was all simulated. There was no military attack in rural Shropshire last week. The pub wasn’t simulated though; that shit was real). It struck us then that most normal people would not consider simulated shootings, minefields and sucking chest wounds as a fun Thursday. We wondered what drove us to seek out those experiences. One of the group explained that once he had been posted to Tanzania, and spent his entire deployment on edge because it was ‘too nice.’ One of the collective surmised, ‘I think that’s just aid workers, you’re either unstable or you become that way.’

I’m not sure what type of aid worker I am. My faith has certainly wavered too far for me to be a missionary, but I like to think that my main motivator is still the humanitarian imperative of wanting to save people’s lives and ease their suffering. I guess that leaves me with misfit. I’m happy with that.

I’m Bored.

Close on the heels of those misty-eyed looks from strangers when admitting what you do for a job, is the assumption – by those same strangers – that your life consists of endless helicopter rides, trekking across mountains, surviving on WFP rice rations or passionately shouting down a telephone, ‘Damn it man, we need those latrine slabs and we need them now!’ whilst ISIS storm your compound.

The truth is; aid work is not always exciting.

Whenever I stop to re-assess my job (which recently has been more than a healthy amount), I am reminded of those memes that people make that go along the lines of, ‘what my friends/parents/society/tax-man (that last one for aid workers is probably lounging under a palm tree waving two fingers in the air) think I do’, with a final ‘what it’s really like’. What would you think is the final picture for humanitarians? Digging with bear hands into an earthquake collapsed building? Trekking across a mountain covered in bags of plumpy nut? Pointing with an air of authority whilst holding a clip board and wearing a multi-pocketed, multi-logo embossed gilet? No. Nothing quite so exciting. For humanitarianism, the ‘what it’s really like’ usually consists of a person holding their head in despair whilst surrounded by piles of paperwork and an open laptop displaying the swirly circle of doom on Google chrome.

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That’s not what its really like… that man needs more empty coffee cups and less hair. 

Don’t get me wrong, humanitarianism is exciting for the most part. Its high-stress, high-octane, problem-solving awesomeness.  There are the opportunities to work with incredible people, and to travel to places you would never ordinarily see, not even if you booked your last holiday with Exodus. But that’s not all day, every day.

A lot of time will be spent in meetings. So many meetings. I once spent so much of my week in meetings, my team thought I had been kidnapped. A bit more time is spent shackled to a laptop staring bleary eyed at spreadsheets wondering why finance has coded all the payments for water trucking under ‘kitchen ware’. A bit more time will be spent signing things. If you work in any role where you have budgetary authority, you’re likely to dedicate at least 10% of your entire working time being chased around the office by team mates equipped with blue pens, but woefully inadequate knowledge of budget codes.

But no part of aid work, and I mean literally, no part, beats the boredom of “working from home.” I am currently “working from home”. It is force of habit for me to write this in quotation marks, since everyone knows “working from home” entails lying in your pyjamas on the couch watching Homes under the Hammer whilst occasionally checking your work emails on your phone (praise the lord for mobile technology; it saves having to be anything other than horizontal whilst “working from home”). As a rapid response person, my job is supposedly sees me dashing around between countries, but sometimes there is nowhere to dash to, so instead you sit on the sidelines like the slightly strange kid that always got picked last for the rounders team (ah, memories).

There is still work to be done; however, that work is often so mind-numbingly, spirit-crushingly boring it can induce a level of existential angst hitherto unconsidered by the average humanitarian worker, particularly those who thrive on the go-go-go of an emergency environment. It is during these periods that I have a tendency to become very emotional, especially when my opportunities to go back to the field get cancelled. Sometimes my parents hope they can cure my boredom with small consolation prizes, leading to interesting new realms of sibling rivalry:

Me: ‘Do you like my new pyjamas?’ My sister: ‘I want new pyjamas!’ My Mum: ‘Well, when your deployment to Yemen gets cancelled, you can have new pyjamas too’

I canvassed opinion on Aidwork Oddity’s new Facebook page (that’s right, we’re on Facebook! Self-plug!) and apparently, if I can get through working at home without eating too many biscuits, I’m already crushing it. Within the last two weeks, I don’t think there has been a biscuit on the Tesco aisle that I haven’t sampled. Don’t worry, I did take them to the till and pay for them first.

I suppose I should look on the positive side: I’ve been able to catch up on A LOT of day time telly when waiting for work inspiration to strike, including Jeremy Kyle. Watching that programme exposes viewers to a lot of conflict and distressing sights, like ill fitting tracksuits, so I guess I found it vaguely comforting. My manager tells me I should enjoy the time working on the go-slow to relax and prepare for my next deployment; it bodes well for our working relationship that she clearly hasn’t yet figured out that I’m a highly-strung workaholic occupying a normal person body suit.

Until there is more news about where I’m going next, I’m stuck in a working from home boredom hell. I’ve got to pray that a space opens up for dashing somewhere pretty soon. If I have to do a second round of the biscuit aisle, I’m not sure I’ll fit in the airplane seat.

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Syria: Five Years On

Apologies, dear readers, that I am behind on my posts. This is because – as you well know if you read my last post – I am on holiday, and so have less aid-work worries than I usually do. Except yesterday, I took a boat trip. On this boat trip, we got into some choppy waters. The boat climbed up and crashed down like a poorly designed roller-coaster at a street funfair, and we cheered and whooped and clapped that it was so much fun to be crashing over the waves.

But it got me thinking about the thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean at the moment in search of safety or a better life, or both. Even though it was fun, the wave surfing was a little scary, uncomfortable and nauseating. I thought of having to spend not 10 minutes, but perhaps 10 hours in a boat less sturdy than mine and across waves much rougher than mine. The thought terrified me.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the Syrian crisis. I worked in Syria for the all too brief period of 9 months a few years back. When I first started, I was given a full security briefing. Our security advisor was warning us of Al Nusra front as being the main threat against foreign workers and generally causing mayhem, then, as if overnight, security warnings took a darker turn. Al Nusra were not the only bad guys any more, it was a group called ISIL. Where I was working, the area outside the camp was a battleground between ISIL and the Free Syrian Army. During my time there, one of our members of staff went missing for three days; when he returned to work, he explained that ISIL had come to his town, rounded up all the men and taken them for questioning about their faith at gun point. Another time, my team and I narrowly made it across the border into Turkey as a fire fight broke out around us for control of the border crossing. The camp where thousands of innocent, terrified Syrians sought shelter was targeted by suicide bombers twice; the week after I left my deployment, one was successful. A supposed safe haven full of innocent men, women and children escaping fear, violence and uncertainty. The bomber killed 40 of them.

One day, my team and I were assessing some water tanks installed for new arrivals. As we were doing so, the noise of a plane hummed in the distance. I have never seen a change in atmosphere happen so quickly; women screamed for their children to come back into the tents; men shouted the imminent arrival of the aircraft to each other, desperate to shelter and protect their families. I’m not sure I had truly understood the horror that people had lived through until that point.

Once on our drive out of the camp, my Syrian colleague told me, ‘It’s ok for you, you get to leave.’ It was possibly the first time I allowed him to see my distress. I was so focused on presenting detachment and professionalism, that my feelings spilled over from this small remark. I was invested, boots to head, with him, with them, with this camp and the dysfunctional little town it had become. But what made me fall apart was that he was right; if things became too much for me, I could request to leave. And in the end, that’s what I did; not because of the war, not because of ISIL, and not because emotionally I was spent, even though I was; because I no longer trusted my organisation to lead a well organised response.

I understand the concerns of Europeans being reticent (putting it nicely) to allow the wave of predominantly Syrian refugees into their countries. We went through something similar when the size of our humble little camp tripled within two weeks due to heavy bombardment in Aleppo. Yes it was chaos, but it was worth it to offer the smallest amount of hope to people so desperate to feel safe.

Last year I hoped we would not see another, and it saddens me to think that it is only since the crisis is knocking on Europe’s doorstep that it can no longer be ignored. Whilst it makes me sad to think it has come to this to force the world’s hand into some kind of concrete action, I hope it finally does. Imagine for a second that it was you and your family; imagine the noise of the planes; the shaking of your house when a bomb lands nearby; leaving your home, belongings, your history in order to keep your children safe; imagine that the only route you see open to you is a rough journey across a choppy sea with no assurance at the end. If you could imagine that, you would remember the Syrian anniversary and call for greater support of Syrian refugees. Let’s hope that there is not a 6th anniversary.