On genocide and earthquakes

April 24th was the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. I listen to BBC in the mornings, and they had been talking about it for days. Playing recordings of interviews with survivors, talking to their descendants, discussing the Turkish government’s refusal to recognize the genocide even a century later and what that means for those whose lives have been forever affected.

Anniversaries like this really affect me. I felt down, sad, confused. Listening to stories of Armenians forced to march into the Syrian desert, I thought of what I had seen while working in northern Syria: so many families forced from their villages and living under olive trees in the provinces bordering Turkey. As aid workers, many of us have an intimate knowledge of war, desperation, even genocide. For me, it felt deeply important to acknowledge and honor what Armenians have been through and what it must feel like to still, 100 years later, have a modern, democratically elected government tell you that it didn’t happen. A colleague of mine evidently feels the same way; he invited all of us to eat at an Armenian restaurant in his neighborhood on the day of the anniversary. The doors were thrown open, and a strangely festive-yet-somber mood emanated from those gathered as we stood on the sidewalk eating kebabs from paper plates.

Less than 24 hours later, I heard the news about Nepal. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake with a rapidly increasing death toll. I worked in Nepal 5 years before, and still keep in touch with Nepalese friends and colleagues. Not knowing what else to do, I checked their Facebook pages — all the while thinking to myself, their homes are probably destroyed and you think they’ll be on Facebook?! — and was overjoyed to get a notice from something called “Safety Check” telling me that Sumit had marked himself safe. Within a few days, my other friends had communicated they were okay and were already involved in relief efforts. Soon, I saw Facebook updates from non-Nepali friends headed there for the response. Emails started arriving asking if I was available to deploy. I read them and thought, I’m working full-time, living a “normal” life in a beautiful city… I have a lease! I can’t just quit and go to Nepal tomorrow.

But I wanted to. I really, really wanted to.

Wanting to go to Nepal wasn’t a thought, it was a visceral response. An almost magnetic pull. I needed to be there to help because I knew I had skills that could be useful. Because I had lived and worked there and was familiar with affected parts of the country. Because I had Nepalese friends who needed support and I could reconnect with them, help them access funds and supplies, help them set up or link to services for survivors.

There’s a guilt that comes from stepping back from this kind of work. In general, it’s not a good idea for people to rush off to an earthquake-stricken country halfway around the world to offer help. Mostly they will just get in the way. But for those of us who have committed our professional, academic, and personal lives to training in exactly this kind of work, who go there to offer support and assistance to the main first responders — the people from that country — to not go also feels like getting in the way of an effective response. A handful of people have these skills and experience, and I’ve always felt honored and grateful to be one of them. To feel guilty about not using these skills when they are needed is not to exaggerate my importance, or relevance, to the response. It’s to be honest about what it feels like.

A friend who is an arborist at a large urban botanical garden told this story:

…you asked what I do with trees. Last week I turned one 90 degrees. It has slumped a bit and had a low limb – in conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act – over a path. Admin told us we had to remove the branch and instead we dug it, wrapped it, spun it 90 degrees and tucked it back in so it’s character wouldn’t be lost. It took two days and a lot of people.

Today I noticed a limb with a great crack in it, had a nice climb to get up there and installed a cable. Over the winter I removed some 100-year-old veterans that had become unsafe. When I have the time, I’ll put together a proposal to plant a Live Oak in a roundabout where it will arch over passersby in all directions in 100 years.

There is a lot of diversity to the job. There is one other Arborist with whom I pal around all day every day like we’re a married couple. We say “I love you” to each other and laugh a lot. It’s one of the greatest bromances in history.

I count my blessings daily.

What does that have to do with Nepal? Well, we talked about Nepal and he reminded me that generally the best way to support a crisis is to give money, and to come 6-12 months later when most people have moved onto the next crisis, but support is still needed. I fully agreed, but also shared with him that when you are trained to respond to an emergency, that general advice rings hollow. You feel that you are abandoning colleagues — because you usually know people who are part of the response — and people in need. I told him:

It’s kind of like the tree you talked about working with at the garden — there are only so many people trained to cut the limb properly, but then there are a much smaller number of arborists with the skill and experience and concern to actually TURN the tree so that you can spare it extra harm and support it to maintain its dignity.

I was asked by several organizations to go to Nepal for the immediate response, and it was really hard to say no. Yes, others can go and some of them are worth their weight in the potable water and food they’ll use up, and some of them are not. I counted my blessings in that work in spite of a lot of tough days and sometimes a lot of danger — another similarity to being an arborist! — and made a conscious decision to transition into violence prevention work because I was tired of using my hands to dump water out of a leaky boat and want to try and build a better boat (if that makes any sense).

I don’t usually express this stuff to my ‘non-emergency’ friends but feel the space to try and do so with you, so thank you. I can’t write more here because to be honest, even writing about it stirs up a visceral response… but hey, perfect time to sit still for a bit [meditate].

The other things I’ve found to be helpful are continuing to respond indirectly: connecting friends there who are working with different agencies or sectors, sharing job postings with those qualified to apply, telling non-humanitarian response friends about the best ways to help and organizations to support with donations–particularly local organizations with less media coverage than the big INGOs and UN agencies.

There is an addictive component, which I’ve written about before and will likely come up again in future posts. Some of my friends say that they no longer feel the need to immediately respond when disaster hits. I am happy for them. I am not there yet. And I seek to put words to this experience of guilt, of abandoning, because perhaps you feel it too. And because, even if it’s a difficult feeling, even if it isn’t true, it is real. By naming it and sharing it, we can acknowledge the good place from which it arises and perhaps, slowly, start to orient ourselves toward other expressions of solidarity and support to human beings who are in distress.

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