Expert’s take: Bringing light to the darkest places

Cross-posted from UN Women

Blerta Aliko

Gender and Humanitarian Advisor Blerta Aliko.
Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Every year on World Humanitarian Day my mind returns to memories of a dark day, 19 August 2003. I had just finished a three-month detail assignment in New York as part of the team working to close down the “Oil for Food Programme”. I was with my colleagues in the office when we received news of the bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad and that one of our coworkers had been caught in the blast. It had only been a couple of days since I had last seen him and that happy event was to congratulate him on the birth of his son.

I pay tribute to him and to all the other hundreds and thousands of humanitarian workers who dedicate their lives to the noble cause of making this world a better place for everyone. I salute those who are on the front lines working to distribute life-saving aid – be it water, food or vaccinations for thousands of children and adults – to ensure the safety and security of those in need while putting their own lives at risk. Those serving in Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Darfur, Somalia, Iraq, the Philippines, Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Gaza, Pakistan and all the other places facing humanitarian crises, often faraway from media eyes. There,  those who believe so strongly in what they do remain despite the pandemics, conflicts or natural disasters that wreak havoc on thousands of lives and sometimes even their own. 

The life of a humanitarian worker can be tough, challenging and sometimes exhausting. But it can also be exciting, fulfilling and immensely rewarding. Working in the humanitarian field takes passion based on a desire to make a real positive difference for the people who need it most. One cannot help but get attached to those communities who despite all of their suffering and pain, remain generous and hospitable, sharing with you all that they have, including their trust.

Working in humanitarian crises, you experience situations and people that will mark your life forever. For me, a good example is the UN Women-supported “Oasis” initiative in Za’atari refugee camp in Al-Mafraq, Jordan, which has hosted to date thousands of Syrian women and girl refugees. Despite the daily struggles and hardships of these women and girls torn from their homes and communities by the savagery of war, they still keep their hopes high, strive to make a better life for their families while finding joy and humour in each other’s company.

I also think of the women of South Sudan who have suffered hardship and war for decades that seems to never end. Earlier this year, as UN Women was negotiating “safe spaces” with official camp coordination management in a very congested IDP site, my colleagues and I were moved by an adolescent girl who approached us to offer her translation services. She told us that she had learned English at school and was eager to go back to learning. Despite the harsh conditions, her main priority was for us to start computer and English classes in the women’s centre so that she and all the other young girls and boys could do something useful until they could return home.

UN Women’s humanitarian work aims to ensure the needs and rights of affected populations are equally identified and addressed, irrespective of their gender. This is a responsibility that UN Women takes on behalf of the UN system and, as such, is wholly reliant on the hard work and dedication of colleagues undertaking their work, often in very challenging circumstances.

As humanitarian crises continue to unfold one after the other, so rapidly that even modern media cannot keep up with the speed and volume, I keep seeing the faces of those people– women, men, boys and girls. Over and over again, women becoming widows, children become orphans while parents bury their own children. Seeing the images from Gaza and Iraq makes me think of a “lost-generation”, the lives of people hijacked for the immediate future and their prospects totally unknown. But it is in the face of this adversity that you will see the resilience, determination and power of people whose will to live in dignity and respect gives humanitarians the strength they need to bring light to the darkest places.

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