Impossible Decisions

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

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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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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. 

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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

The mo(u)rning after

This post is written by an anonymous contributor.

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“Cosmic Bruise” by artist Ivy Michelle Berg, available at: ArtbyIvy

Like many who work in humanitarian aid, when I am asked about why I do it, I dissemble and misdirect, I make a joke or change the subject without actually answering. Sometimes I tell the truth as a joke, and hide it in plain sight. “World Peace” is such a reliable cliché to raise a smirk and avoid the question. To say out loud why I really do it, to put those words into the air, is too hard. I am afraid of the look I will see in the other person’s eyes, and afraid of their judgement. I am afraid that if I am honest, I will have to say it through the medium of a jaunty pop song, possibly from the 80’s. Because the truth is, I do it because I believe in love and I believe love can make the world a better place. Saying it out loud sounds so adolescently idealistic, so sentimentally naïve at best, self-righteous, arrogant and sanctimonious at worst.

I left my job at the end of last year in a maelstrom of mess; stretched out to the point of coming unravelled, shattered by too many emergencies, and a level of hostility within the organisation that I was entirely ill-equipped to withstand, profoundly disillusioned. I felt like the worst kind of fool for believing in any of it, and no longer had any faith in my own judgement. In the months since then, I have been trying to work out what happened, to parse out what it was all about, and to find my way back to myself.

I know about fear, as so many of us do. I know about those moments of absolute clarity when we think we may actually die, today, now. I know about the exquisitely heightened alertness of being in a moment that could go either way; a checkpoint guard toying with Continue reading

Hamster on a wheel

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Familiar feeling?

I told my colleague today about starting this blog. She asked about how much time I’d taken off, what I’d done, when I’d started working again. We’ll get into that later. She also commented on how hard it is to change pace when one is used to working in high-adrenaline contexts: Before I left my country program, there were so many things to do each day I could never fit them all in–but if I didn’t get them done, there would be serious consequences. Now I look at my planner and it’s not even full.  I nodded. It reminded me of the hamster wheel.

When I first decided to leave work, someone who knew what they were talking about told me, Adrenaline is like a drug. You’ll need to wean your body off of it, because it’s addicted to adrenaline now. Your body will resist. But you’ll get through it.

She was right.

Six months later I was away from work, sitting on my couch, in the middle of winter, and I could FEEL my brain RUNNING. It felt like someone had opened my head, inserted a shiny metal wheel and then introduced a very fit and energetic hamster onto it. I wanted to fuel the hamster, I wanted to fill it up on news from Syria (my last deployment) and reports about ISIS taking Ar-Raqqah (near one of our health clinics) and ‘marching’ towards Iraq (the newest unfolding crisis in a long list of crises there) and long commentaries on the origins of ‘extremist groups’ and Facebook feeds from friends still working and living in the region and… you get the idea.

The hamster was burning up the wheel, running so fast that flames were practically Continue reading

Back from the borderlands

AM photo 1

This post is written by an anonymous contributor.

It is difficult to write about ending a mission while on mission. It is difficult to write about taking a break when the breaks one is able to take are too short to notice, too quick to be able to unwind. Working in isolated and dangerous locations takes a toll on a person’s body and mind. We come here to help people, but forget about taking care of ourselves.

I am guilty of this, of not making time to rest and re-energise. I think this is important, even in the midst of a demanding mission. It makes it easier for us to re-enter “normal” society after the mission is over, to meaningfully reconnect with those we love and who love us. I have been continuously working in so-called “deep field” locations for the pastseven years, with fluctuating levels of remoteness and insecurity. I count myself fortunate that only one person I care about was killed. I have had several friends kidnapped for Continue reading