Despite dangers, aid workers dedicated to help people in need – UN

19 August 2010

“My fear is to fail in assisting people in real need.”

Those are the words of Martha Kow-Donkor, an associate field officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Yemen, where the situation in the country’s north remains volatile months after the signing of a ceasefire between Government forces and rebels.

She braves insecurity to deliver urgently-needed aid to people uprooted by conflict in Sa’ada governorate, where relief workers’ access is curtailed by the presence of armed groups, tribal checkpoints and landmines.

She is just one of thousands of aid workers around the world being heralded today for their efforts, often in perilous conditions, as the UN marks World Humanitarian Day.

The Day was proclaimed by the General Assembly two years ago to commemorate the 2003 Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad, Iraq, which claimed the lives of 22 UN staff members and injured more than 150 others.

It also spotlights the needs of the people that aid workers try to help, such as the 10 million refugees and the nearly 30 million others uprooted within their own borders, as well as the one in every six people in the world who are chronically hungry.

Last year, 102 humanitarian workers lost their lives, compared with 30 deaths among aid workers in 1999. In addition, nearly 280 aid workers were victims of security incidents, more the quadruple the number one decade ago.

For Wafa, 39, who works for UNHCR in Iraq, the mere act of going to work and returning home every night is a life-threatening experience.

“When I walk in the streets, I always look around me,” she said. “It has become part of my nature.”

Wafa recalled seeing a car bomb detonate in front of her on her way to work, with several people traveling the same route having been kidnapped or killed.

Also working for UNHCR in the country is Hassan, 42, an Iraqi national, who takes a different path to work every day. He hides his UN badge and conceals the nature of his work from even his closest friends and relatives.

“Only my brother and wife know for whom I work,” he said.

In spite of the dangers and risks surrounding their work, both Hassan and Wafa say they are committed to helping those in need.

For his part, Jan Delbaere, a Belgian, knew as a teenager that he wanted to make his mark by helping to end hunger and poverty.

His work has put him in some high-risk situations, including Pakistan, where the hotel he was staying in was bombed, and Rwanda, where he carried out life-saving work when the genocide broke out in 1994.

Mr. Delbaere, currently the Deputy Chief of the Food Analysis Service of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), said that among the most difficult parts of his job is “working face-to-face with the realities of human suffering.”

For example, he said, he was in Myanmar after it was pummeled by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. He stopped at a village where nearly all the children had drowned. “Their parents were still in shock from the experience.”

Mr. Delbaere said that the most extreme situation he has witnessed so far is the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic January earthquake in Haiti.

“I spent a week camped out at the airport next to the only working runway in the country,” he remembered. “After a while, it started to take a toll on me.”

But even in the midst of the unbelievable misery and suffering, “you hear a lot about people surviving against all odds, which is quite uplifting,” he said.

The WFP staff member said that his job requires him to be on the road frequently, and that his five-year-old daughter no longer speaks Flemish with him because he is away from home so often.

But in spite of the difficulties, “I love my job,” he said. “It fulfills the dream I had when I was younger to help change the plight of the world’s poorest.

“My contribution may be a small one, but it’s part of a larger effort that has succeeded in helping millions of people. I take pride in that.”


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