Impossible Decisions

This post is by Adam Tousley, who currently works for an INGO in northern Iraq.

Buddhist protests_crop

Photo provided by author; source unknown.

On 25 August 2017 in Maungdaw Town, Northern Rakhine State (NRS), Burma, I was planning to go for a run at 6:00 AM.  The day before, the United Nations Department of Safety & Security, who were a three-hour boat ride away, stated that despite the heightened tension between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities there was nothing overly concerning. Instead I woke up at 3:00 AM to a large exchange of gunfire outside my INGO guest house.

There is a common nightmare for some people finding themselves naked in public places.  Take it from me; waking up semi-naked in a gunfight in Burma is far worse, especially if you’re a bearded pasty white dude.  Our buildings were targeted by small arms gunfire, and my organization was singled out for attack on social media (thanks Facebook).  After two days in hibernation my colleagues and I were directed to evacuate.

No one can be fully prepared to lead a base through evacuation in a rapid onset emergency.  For those who have, you may remember the frustration in finding a carefully developed evacuation plan was not as developed as you had envisioned (at least I hope I’m not the only one).  What had been the worst-case scenario on your risk assessment yesterday was the reality today.  The road you could run on yesterday is now Continue reading

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The Extended Gratitude section

Afraid_of_nobody

“Afraid of nobody”. Source: McLean’s optical illusions. T. McLean. 1833. 11 lithographs on discs that, when spun & observed in a mirror, create the illusion of movement.

This post is the second in a two-part series written by Trayle Kulshan (read the first post here). Trayle recently finished her memoir, “Revolutions”: 99 lyrical, 99-word stories from her travels as an aid worker. You can find it on Amazon and read samples on her website

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A single page at the end of my book spells out “Gratitude,” but the generosity of strangers, of women, of friends cannot be contained on a page. I asked for a lot of help. And I got it. And it made me a better writer and a better person.

Asking for and getting feedback on my book was a way of making connections with people and building a community around myself when I was feeling lonely and isolated. I’d moved to a new city, I was a new mommy, I was not working, and I missed “my people.” Connecting with like-minded artsy-fartsy folks kept me sane. So while feedback served an important role for my book, it also played a bigger role in my life. The feedback mechanisms I talk about here don’t have to be used for a project. They can just be used.

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My previous post may not have made it explicit, but as someone who was very insecure and has trouble making decisions, feedback was priceless to me. It helped me figure out exactly what it was I was trying to create. I wanted to publish and I wanted magic. I needed help.

Feedback wasn’t about making me more confident, it was about Continue reading

Writing stories otherwise untold

This post is the first in a two-part series by Trayle Kulshan. Trayle recently finished her memoir, “Revolutions”: 99 lyrical, 99-word stories from her travels as an aid worker. You can find it on Amazon and read samples on her website

Optical_illusion_disc_with_birds,_butterflies,_and_a_man_jumping

Source: “McLean’s optical illusions.” T. McLean. 1833. 1 portfolio: 11 lithographs on discs, hand-colored, discs are to be spun on a spindle, and observed in a mirror, to create the illusion of a moving image, 25 x 25 cm. As seen on the cover of “Revolutions”. Animated GIFs from Wikimedia users Trialsanderrors & Racconish. 

Just before their eyes glaze over. That’s the point when someone usually tosses out the well-worn phrase, “Oh, you’ve been to so many interesting places, you should write a book.”

So, I did.

Indeed, like most aid workers I have enjoyed working in “many interesting places”: Guinea, DRC, Kenya, Afghanistan, Egypt. I was a WASH specialist for more than 10 years, during which I met my Syrian husband who introduced me to the Middle East, and—after many exciting exploits together—parenthood. We had a baby and settled in Dubai, where he took a good HQ-type job. So here I was, being a full-time mommy, missing the action-packed field I figured it was time to write the book.

But a funny thing happened… it ended up not really being about aid work adventures at all. It ended up being about me. It ended up being about gaining perspective, and about Continue reading

Two weeks

This week’s post is written by J, a humanitarian aid worker, novelist and prolific blogger whose sites include Tales from the Hood, AidSpeak, and co-creating Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. To stay up-to-date with J’s aid-related writing, commentary, and fiction, check out his Evil Genius websitefacebook and twitter pages. 

empty-desk

Source: Waters True Value wants you to know how to organize your desk

Two weeks. That’s how long it takes, on average, for the so-called high performing and indispensable aid worker to be forgotten. You know, the one who knew the local language and culture so well they were “practically local”? Or the one who threw the fabulous parties, or the one who always knew who in the host government to ask for what. Or maybe it was the one who—by sheer force of will or expertise—managed to accomplish what no one else had prior.

Everyone else was certain this person was irreplaceable, that the office or programme just could not go on without him or her. And you know what? Within ten working days – just two weeks – their old office or cubicle had already been reassigned, IT had reformatted their old computer, and their old position had either been refilled or their responsibilities divvied up among those left behind.

I once knew a guy who got blindsided by a downsize dressed up as a restructure. It was a shitty way for the organization to move him along, and everyone felt it. Staff were incensed and outraged in the coffee room. He’d had a long and illustrious career. He had Continue reading

What’s stopping you from stepping back?

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.

I recently had a baby. There is nothing like a baby to throw a wrench into life’s pace and plans (at least at the very beginning). I am still trying to get my head around how much longer it takes to “accomplish” anything, or leave the house, or do simple things for that matter. Everything just feels so much harder now and requires more effort.

Last year, I was building a lot of momentum. I was engaging in community meetings and events. I was contributing to important conversations in the humanitarian sector. I was taking courses, attending workshops, and learning from those I most admired. I was speaking, teaching, and facilitating about topics that mattered to me. I was actively in conversation with other women about collaboration on new projects. I was moving forward, with loads of momentum, and purpose.

I was also in the midst of a deep, meaningful, and sometimes confusing, internal conversation about where to situate myself in the women’s movement. Where was I needed? Where did I add the most value? Where could I Continue reading

Listen.

Over the past few months, we’ve been listening. Deeply, actively listening. To the multitude of voices that have been silenced for far, far too long.

This International Women’s Day began with a headline from the Guardian that screamed: ‘You need to hear us’: over 1,000 female aid workers urge reform in open letterAlexia Pepper de Caires, one of the organizers of the letter alongside Sarah Martin, Danielle Spencer and Anne Quesney, sums up their motivation succinctly: “The whole point of the letter is, ‘You need to hear us, because we’re the ones who are telling you what’s happening.'” The letter calls for “fundamental reforms to shift the patriarchal bias in aid” and is signed by over a thousand women in 81 countries.

An easy ask? No. But if anyone is up for the task, these 1,000+ women spread around the globe are. I am. If gun rights activism in the US is anything to judge by, the next generation of aid workers surely is. The women you say hello to in the hallway, or grab drinks with after work, or report to, or that report to you, the women with whom you exchange all-knowing glances at the coordination meetings, definitely are.

As we wrote in 2015:

There is solidarity here. And a growing space in which people feel empowered to speak with louder and louder voices about practices that have, up to now, been considered “part of what you signed up for.” These are the words of a friend’s boss when employees asked, three times, about staff well-being during a global all-staff meeting.

My friend’s boss is wrong. He doesn’t yet realize that we have already been carried farther down along the shore than we realized. Not only by our own small strokes in the big blue sea, but also by the undercurrent of others’ actions and testimonies, which grow stronger and wider as they join with other currents. A sea change is underway.

Yes, it’s tempting to  Continue reading

The people we meet

Jhau trees

Where Jhau trees still line the shore between the Bay of Bengal and Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf Marine Drive. Photo by the author.

An 80 kilometer stretch of road connects the border-town-turned-humanitarian-hub of Cox’s Bazar with what has become a refugee mega-camp, and is officially called the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site. Driving along it one evening, my Bangladeshi colleague sat gazing out her window at the calm waters of the Bay of Bengal. Apropos of nothing, she said quietly, “Sometimes when I look at the horizon, like when the sun sets and meets the sea, I think the world ends there.”

“So you’re a flat Earther?”

My joke fell flat (pun intended) and Sumaiya* returned to her reverie in the front seat. No offense taken: at this point we have moved way beyond polite laughter. We spend six days a week together, often long days, working to put in place services for Rohingya women and girls. Since August, at least 655,000 people have fled unimaginable brutality in neighboring Myanmar, joining over 200,000 Rohingya already here to form the ‘world’s fastest growing refugee crisis’. The Bangladeshi government clearcut a vast swath of the Teknaf Game Reserve to create the mega-camp in which most now live; it’s a disaster in every way you could imagine, plus a few you probably can’t unless you, too, are here.

Elephant routes of Ukhia_ISCG

For example, the sheer number of elephant routes that criss-cross what is now a densely packed, tented refugee camp/makeshift settlement/spontaneous site. Source: ISCG

More than once, when walking through the camp, Sumaiya will survey that horizon—makeshift tents and stripped hillsides as far as the eye can see, the land denuded of any and all vegetation that could hold it in place once the rainy season hits. She will Continue reading