Confessions of an aid worker.

How did I get here?

On 6th April 1994 a plane carrying President Habyarimana of Rwanda was shot down. This tragic event triggered immediate violence, which spread like wildfire across the country leaving no family untouched. Genocide killed over 800,000 people and uprooted one million people from their homes, who fled to neighbouring countries of Tanzania and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to seek shelter in refugee camps. Little did I know then, that a year later I would be working in one such refugee camp in north-west Tanzania. That was just over twenty years ago and I find myself reflecting on my journey as a humanitarian aid worker and the lessons I have learned along the way.

Where it all began.

I graduated in Biology from Durham University in 1991 after three very happy and formative years at St. Mary’s College. There, I forged life-long friendships, explored subjects I am passionate about, joined campaigns, orchestras and music groups and mingled with students from different countries. All this opened the window on to the wider world- a world I remain ever curious about. I learned to stand on my own two feet and be resourceful, especially through 3am essay crises, 5am rowing practices and furious dancing at Student Union Freak-outs!

Back then (gosh I sound old), I couldn’t get a job in Biology straight away so I took a gap year to learn how to apply myself. I did voluntary conservation work, a spell in retail, a stint as an assistant warden at a haunted youth hostel and volunteered on intermediate technology projects in a Spanish deserts with the Sunseed Desert Technology Trust.

Throughout I learned the importance of serving others and working hard whatever the task. I went on to gain a masters in Rural Resource Management at Bangor University, where I had the opportunity to carry out my thesis research in Kenya in 1993. Confronted by the poverty of rural farming families and the challenges they faced every day just to survive, I experienced an epiphany. Africa captured my heart and I knew I had to return one day.

Voluntary homesickness and sharp shocks.

The following year, I was working as an Assistant Scientific Officer at the Forestry Commission in leafy Surrey, a world away from the slaughter, displacement and trauma in Rwanda. However, a few months later I took up a volunteer position with a small, local charity called Christian Outreach Relief and Development (CORD) and found myself on a plane bound for Tanzania in 1995.

I joined an amazing team of aid workers providing construction, medical and community services to Rwandan refugees in two large refugee camps in Ngara. Tentative and homesick, I struggled with the shock of seeing refugees cramped together in appalling conditions and hearing accounts of their traumatic experiences. I remember clearly a little girl who couldn’t speak because she was traumatised, having been forced to watch while her family was butchered in front of her. She attended a safe play group in the camp and some months later I saw a glimmer of hope when she began to play with other children.

Women and girls had been raped and remained at risk, re-living the horror again and again, while the perpetrators lived among them. Genocide ringleaders had found safety in numbers while fleeing across the border and held the camp populations in a tight grip of fear and intimidation. Families of mixed Hutu-Tutsi marriages suffered vicious attacks and my colleagues and I helped them to escape death threats when they wanted to return home.

Learning the value of team work and resilience.

It was a steep learning curve, I was stretched beyond what I perceived my capabilities to be – from being an administrator to being a leader responsible for coordinating community services in a camp of 80,000 people. Community services included reunifying separated families, providing home-based care for vulnerable refugees and supplementary meals for malnourished adults, formal and informal education, youth vocational training, agricultural and environmental initiatives, micro-credit, support to sports and drama groups and cross-border peace initiatives.

I learned the value of team work. My fellow team mates taught me what I needed to know and kept me going when times were tough. However, I learned the most from the refugees themselves, how the resilience of the human spirit can shine through adversity. I remember with fondness our warehouse manager, whom I will call Odille. She had lost her husband to AIDs and she lived with her son.  One day she invited me to lunch. I went to her home, a simple hut made out of poles and plastic sheeting. She had very few belongings but she had saved money to buy a chicken to cook for lunch because she considered me an honoured guest. I was truly humbled by her act of generosity and kindness. Dignity, honour and friendship were very important to Odille and I learned that refugees are not passive recipients of aid.

Since then I have worked in over twenty countries for non-governmental organisations and United Nations agencies. I have been deployed to emergency response teams in conflicts in South Sudan, Kosovo, Congo and Kyrgyzstan and natural disasters in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Haiti, Mozambique and Myanmar to name but a few. In addition, I have trained national counterparts in disaster risk reduction and protection of civilians in Barbados, Bolivia, Kenya, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Thailand and advised senior military officers during Peace Support Operations training exercises.

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Photos by Cathline Neels, UNFPA.

Touched by tragedy and poignancy.

I have been touched by both tragedy and poignancy. The tragedy of famine-stricken mothers carrying their babies for miles and miles to reach relief distribution points and young boys recruited into rebel forces in South Sudan while the conflict rages on; refugees returning to bombed out buildings in Kosovo, once their homes, and struggling to stay warm in winter; and the fourteen year old girl looking after her paralysed grandfather in a camp for internally displaced persons in Congo, who had been repeatedly forced from their homes as a result of cyclical violence.

I remember many poignant survival stories. For example, in Bangladesh an eighty year old lady explained how her niece had carried her to safety across the storm battered delta to the cyclone shelter and said that twenty years earlier, when the last massive cyclone hit, she had carried her niece to safety.

In Colombia, I witnessed families, who had been displaced by conflict and organised crime, receive a warm welcome and practical support from other displaced families and brave nuns who had stood up to armed rebels. In Ethiopia, I listened to the remarkable accounts of older women who were sent as envoys for peace to broker agreement between warring clans and in Sri Lanka I met women and men who had survived the Tsunami and worked tirelessly to rebuild their livelihoods so they could put their children through college.

Being a humanitarian is challenging and risky.

Being a humanitarian aid worker means bringing life-saving assistance to disaster-affected people as quickly and safely as possible. Humanitarian assistance has to be appropriate, impartial, neutral and based on needs alone. The work is not for the faint-hearted. It is not glamorous and risks are high.

Aid workers risk death, abduction, injury and illness while working in some of the most dangerous environments in the world. Just getting to work can be challenging! In the last twenty years, I have survived several dodgy plane, helicopter and car rides, learned to drive a truck and 4 x 4s off-road and across rivers (yes I can change a tyre by myself), waded through swamps, trekked for miles across desert, sailed in dug-out canoes and speedboats, and rode on the back of ox carts, motorbikes and in the back of pick ups. I even had to co-pilot a plane, while flying out of a war zone! Much to my surprise the pilot sitting next to me said ‘Here hold this (meaning the co-pilot stick) and look out of the window and tell me if anything is coming’.  I did as I was told. Who wouldn’t? Needless to say my heart was in my mouth all the way back to base.

Accommodation can be risky too. I’ve lodged in a one-person tent (where I lived for two years), round wooden huts, concrete boxes, containers, shady guest houses on red light districts and shared team houses, all of which bring their own hazards i.e. rats in the kitchen (Tanzania), cobras in the shower and camel spiders in my hut (Kenya), scorpions in my tent (Sudan) and mice in the bed (Kosovo).

I’ve been homesick, dirty, sweaty, stinky and sunburnt and a home for numerous intestinal parasites and malaria. Like many humanitarians I have, on occasions, had to escape on foot from armed militia (very rapidly), avoid aerial bombings and minefields, hit the deck to avoid crossfire and been evacuated and medi-vacced. I have experienced PTSD and re-entry syndrome, (the latter is the shock of returning to one’s own home environment and subsequent difficulties in adjusting) which has left me wondering where I belong.

Belonging to a global family.

Over the years, quietly and gradually, the realisation dawned on me that I belong to a global family. Despite the hazards of the job the rewards are many but are not necessarily obvious nor expected. To me the smile of a child is worth more than a wage, as is the solidarity of walking alongside survivors of conflict or disaster and doing what I can to assist, however big or small the job.

Along the way there have been a fair few surprises. From the marriage offer of 500 cows from a rebel commander in South Sudan to be his wife number two (needless to say I politely declined) to a Congolese colleague naming her baby daughter after me in, a gesture which touched me deeply. I am reminded of our shared humanity.

Twenty years on from the Rwandan genocide, conflicts and disasters are still an every day reality for many women, men, girls and boys. In the coming years it is highly likely that disasters, both natural and man-made, will increase in frequency and severity, which will affect more people in our world. We have a choice. We can look on while this goes on around us or we can lift a hand to help in acts of compassion. We have a collective responsibility towards each other and the planet we inhabit to be ready to act in order to prevent and overcome some of the greatest challenges of our time.  Are you ready?

This article first appeared in St. Mary’s College Friends Magazine, issue 2, Summer Term, 2014. I have updated it.

Want to know more?

If you would like to know more about humanitarian aid work, then drop me a line at sarah.justine.packwood@gmail.com.

I am currently freelancing as an international humanitarian and community development consultant. I work with a range of individuals and organisations from Non-Governmental Organisations, Social Enterprises, United Nations agencies to Government institutions so if you or your organisation would like me to work with you, take a look at my Linked In page for my range of bespoke services and contact me there.

For those readers, who are already in service as humanitarian aid workers or community and social justice activists or social entrepreneurs, I offer support to aid worker wellness through my reiki public practice and coaching as part of my intuitive healing work.

I shall look forward to hearing from you soon. Thanks.

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