Know Your Why

This post is written by Leora Ward. Leora is an aid worker and life coach who supports women in the humanitarian and caring professions through her organization, Healing in Service.

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Leora Ward of Healing in Service

I was 24 when I first started working in West Africa, 25 when I moved to northern Uganda, and 26 when I took my first job in Darfur, Sudan. At the time, I got many comments from family and friends about my choice and decision to move so far away, to a war-torn country nonetheless. Some people found it idealistic, others thought it was “cute”, and then others called me a bleeding heart. I didn’t really take it personally at the time and never responded. The fact is that I didn’t have the words at that point to truly explain WHY I went into the humanitarian field. And, ever since then, I have bounced between altruistic responses about wanting to create a better world, to savior-like ones that sound something like, “well, someone’s got to do it!”

It wasn’t until much later that something clicked. I have coached women in the humanitarian and development fields for almost 2 years now. In doing so, I have gotten to know myself better and also understand the real reasons WHY we do this work. It seems Continue reading

Healing from toxic stress

This blog is written by Minna Järvenpää.  For Minna, yoga and meditation have played a key role in regaining inner balance. She is now finding ways to share the tools she learned, through Tools for Inner Peace, which promotes the mental and emotional wellbeing of aid workers, journalists and other frontline professionals.

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First snow on the main bridge in Mitrovica. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Somewhere along a decade-long road from Sarajevo to Kabul I started tilting out of balance – as a result of toxic levels of stress.

The tipping point came on a day of rioting in Mitrovica on 17 March 2004. Nineteen people were killed that day and two hundred hospitalised. I was the ‘Mayor’ of Mitrovica, appointed by the UN in Kosovo as caretaker when the Serbs of the divided town refused to vote. I had seen the violence coming but had been unable to convince those who could have prevented it to act. During the months after leaving Kosovo, I sat and stared out at the Adriatic sea, until the images of that day blurred along with the remembered smell of tear-gas and the sound of bullets ricocheting from the trees.

Already in the lead-up to the violence, I had developed brutal insomnia and started lashing out at people in a state of exhausted dysfunction. The only times I remember experiencing real relaxation in the months before March 2004 were when a friend and colleague in Mitrovica dragged me along to a yoga class.

In the aftermath, when I began suffering from hypervigilance (every car on the road was potentially out to run me over) and avoiding people and conversations that would trigger Continue reading

Exhale on 2016.

Exhale.  We made it.  We’re in 2017.  The churning jowls of last year didn’t devour all of us, even if they ground our souls to gristle.

Why did 2016 feel so existentially threatening?  For those of us involved in international affairs, especially humanitarianism, the broad political trends were hard not to take personally.  Brexit was a stunning reminder—a wake-up call?—that growing global cooperation is by no means a given; many components of the Leave Campaign demonstrated the power of xenophobic falsehoods, fear-fueled hatreds that then reared their ugly heads time and time again throughout the Republican campaign for the American presidency.  As these efforts and others, like the “no” vote for Colombian peace, drew to their nasty, lamentable ends, we became increasingly distrustful of those around us: are my neighbors closet xenophobes?  Are my friends secretly racist?  What do my family members really think?  The gap between public polls and private voting booths left us wondering if civility had crumbled behind closed doors.  The loss of trust was one of 2016’s greatest casualties.

As humanitarian aid and international development workers, we were right to take far-right political campaigns personally: they targeted our livelihoods, which reflect core sets Continue reading

Writing to Save Our Lives

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Is anyone reading me?  Source: http://static.guim.co.uk

Writing is a matter of life and death.  I sincerely believe that.  If you do not, consider what it meant for a person’s name to be written—or not—on Schindler’s list.  If writing were not so grave, governments would not target journalists with such chilling zeal.  Words are power, and we face a moral obligation to harness them with as much heart and conscience as we can.

As crucial as I know the act of writing to be—a godsend for humanitarians and, we hope, a salve for readers—I marvel and sometimes despair at how much we are writing about so little.  My natural inclination should be to support the proliferation of the written word.  But when The Guardian published a “call to arms” last month, calling for an end to the “report writing madness,” I raised the pitchfork.  We are writing into the void.  When I Continue reading

Self-Connection for Survival

This week’s blog is by Leora Ward, creator of Healing in Service. Leora has worked for many years in the social justice, women’s empowerment, and humanitarian fields.

How do we really know when we are whole? How do we know when we are healed?

I have been stewing on these questions for a while. And, when I look at them on the page, they seem silly. They seem like the embodiment of my privileged, Western upbringing… only questions that would come from being raised in a society that obsesses about success and encourages women to uphold an unrealistic notion of perfection. And, when I take a gentler and more loving look, I see hope. These are questions borne out of a desire and a longing for true happiness. When read without judgement, they are simply the innocent questions of an aching heart.

My curiosity about my own journey and why I became a humanitarian worker has haunted me for years. I never knew how to respond when asked, “Why did you choose this work?” I sometimes answered out of guilt, sometimes out of ego. Sometimes I would say that my grandparents were Holocaust survivors and it was my duty, or that my sister worked for Continue reading

The Liebster Award

LiebsterAward.pngPeer support is what we’re all about, so how lovely to receive a message from PoojaG — a prolific young blogger who writes Lifesfinewhine — saying that she nominated Missing in the Mission for something called a Liebster Award. Which is a bit like a chain letter circa 2004 but then you give it a chance and realize… it’s kinda fun.

The Liebster is given by one blogger to another. It’s not officially judged or based on any criteria other than wanting to show support, encourage newer blogs, and spice things up with some personal questions. The rules vary but in general getting a Liebster means 3 things: answering questions posed by the person who nominated you, nominating other (preferably less-established) blogs, and writing questions for them to answer.

This week’s post will be a bit different but we hope you enjoy it all the same.

PoojaG asked:

1. Who inspired you to start blogging?

The very first blog I remember reading is Sleepless in Sudan, during my first overseas mission as an aid worker in Darfur. It was truly a radical thing to have a blog, even an anonymous one, in that environment. To bear witness to the things one would see and hear, in a country where this could easily get you expelled (ask Jan Pronk). It was also Continue reading

Brené Brown & the Power of Vulnerability

In aidspeak, ‘vulnerability’ is almost always a negative word. It denotes weakness, fragility,  a heightened possiblity of something or someone being in danger or at risk, unsafe or unprotected. It is something to be guarded against, mitigated, planned for; we often talk or (moreso) write about how our programs will ‘target vulnerable populations’ or ‘reduce vulnerability.’ We show donors and security officers how we recognize existing vulnerabilities and have made plans to keep ourselves and our staff safe.

This is not the fault of the aid world. Merriam-Webster defines vulnerability as meaning “easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally” or “open to attack, harm, or damage.”  A quick scan of other online dictionaries did not turn up any indication of Continue reading

On leaving work and wondering what to take away

This week’s blog is by Leora Ward, creator of Healing in Service. Leora has worked for many years in the social justice, women’s empowerment, and humanitarian fields.

As I leave my current job, after six years, it feels as if a phase of my life is closing. A circle is about to be completed, and I am left wondering what I should take away. What am I supposed to harvest from this season of my work in the humanitarian field?

This question has been cycling through my mind over the last few weeks. As I have written about it in my journal, talked about it with friends, and even listened to similar stories from other women in the social justice field, I have come up with three things that seem to continue to show up (for me and others) in our community.

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FEELINGS OF OVERWHELM AND ISOLATION

Many of us feel overwhelmed by the scope and scale of need in the world, and the long-term vision required to fully achieve social justice. These feelings (and the associated grief) leave us discouraged, overworked, and isolated. The emotions can be so intense that we consistently feel like we are falling over and maybe flat onto our face. We also typically don’t have the networks or support we need to keep us healthy, grounded, and balanced in Continue reading

Sea Change

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Source: MIT Water Club 

My father taught us very early on to respect the sea. As young girls, my sister and I would go into the water with him on an inflatable raft and learn to “catch” waves, to ride them into the shore. If we started paddling too late, we would miss the wave entirely; too soon, and it would break on top of us and sometimes throw us off the raft. We would go tumbling along on the sand under the water, forced to hold our breath until the wave let us come up for air again (getting “rolled”, as he called it). It was scary, but exhilarating.

Our most important lesson came on calm days, when he taught us not to mistake the smooth surface of the water and absence of waves for a lack of action underneath. Even when they are barely visible on the surface, there are always currents and sometimes a strong undertow. These powerful forces can carry us very far — in a direction that we may or may not want to go. And sometimes they act stealthily, taking us a ways down the shore before we even realize that we are being redirected.

When I first took a break from aid work, I felt burnt out and alone.  I started this blog in part to confront that stereotype, to respond to the many whispered conversations and questions of, “I feel like that too” and “But how did you do it?” and “Aren’t you scared you’ll never be able to go back?” I had seen a close colleague and friend, someone who I had long admired in the field, leave her job in a sudden and heartbreaking way. I supported her as best I could during her last few months at work, when she felt abandoned by the very entity that she had given so much to over the years. She eventually took the difficult and Continue reading