The people we meet

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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

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Follow the light

By Megan Nobert

Megan Nobert is a Canadian-born lawyer and humanitarian aid worker. She is currently the Founder and Director of Report the Abuse, the first global NGO created to address sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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Source: Pixabay.com, Creative Commons CC0

Expectations are a strange, terrifying and exhilarating thing.

Two years ago, broken, damaged and in tears, I made the decision to speak publicly about my experience with sexual violence while working in South Sudan. There is a distinct chance that I was not quite prepared to speak publicly, barely grappling with the experience myself and having just told my family about the rape. Perhaps I would never have been prepared for the changes that this decision would bring.

Speaking to the media exposed me in a number of ways. It has meant that every time I walk into a room now, there is a significant chance that someone knows the details of the most intimate moment in my life. It means that dating is now a minefield. And it means that on any given day – at any meeting, party or event – another humanitarian will pull me to the side to tell me about their own experience with sexual violence. Hundreds of  Continue reading

Humanitarian book review: Wild Zen

This post is written by Gemma Houldey and originally appeared on her blog, Life in Crisis, where she shares research and reflections on stress and burnout in aid work. Gemma is an an aid worker, researcher, writer, human rights defender, yogi, conscious explorer, and activist. Follow her on Twitter @AidSoulSearch. 

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Carl Jung (1875-1961). Source: brewminate.com

I recently finished reading the book Wild Zen: An Inner Roadmap to Humanity by Claire Higgins, which charts the experiences of humanitarian workers, including herself, and others who have undergone – and been transformed by – trauma, violence and other forms of extreme suffering.

Claire worked for more than ten years on humanitarian and human rights programmes, and now works as an executive coach. She has tested and trained in many different therapeutic methods as a means to healing herself as well as others; and Carl Jung’s twelve archetypes, which are the guideposts for this book, is one such method. In the book we learn about archetypes such as the Caregiver, the Explorer (also known as the Adventurer or Seeker), the Warrior (also known as the Hero) and the Sage through the eyes of some of the people Clare meets. These include a humanitarian worker who was shot in Chechnya, a bowel cancer survivor, a former political prisoner and several Continue reading

Between Two Worlds

This post is written by Jennifer L. Robinson. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @thepenofjen.

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The author with her brother somewhere on the road. Credit: Jennifer Robinson

When I left Iraq in the spring of 2016 after two full years responding to the Syrian refugee crisis and later to the overwhelming wave of internally displaced people from Mosul, I felt certain that I was done for a while. I knew I wanted a break and could commit to taking one. During that break I would learn to quiet myself, find my center, and focus on a season of creativity. When I said goodbye to my colleagues, I didn’t plan on seeing any of them for at least a year.

My dad picked me up from the airport in San Diego in a new (used) Mercedes, which we filled with the smell of fast food tacos. On the ride home, we chatted about my flight and the weather in Erbil, his work and latest golf scores. My dad was giving me the space to talk if I wanted; I was waiting for a question. After a few minutes we both decided to 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

My Dark Night of the Soul in Aid Work, Part II

This week an anonymous Missing in the Mission blogger shares what she terms her ‘dark night of the soul’, in the second of a two-part post. Grief can be scariest when it seemingly erupts out of nowhere, yet refuses to be stemmed.

Read Part I here.

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Original artwork by Francesca Belardini Arte.

Fast forward to August 2012. My dark night of the soul had been triggered, I believe, by a Qi Master I just happened to be put in touch with through an advert I’d seen offering 40% off an acupressure treatment. The Qi Master had massaged gently around various parts of my body before telling me with a look of concern on her face that I appeared to be holding in a lot of anger, as my liver was extremely blocked.

According to eastern medical traditions, which she’d studied and followed for years, blockages in the body prevent the circulation of vital energy known as ‘qi’ (chi) which in turn can have a deep effect on our emotional wellbeing. Unlike Western medical sciences and their propensity to isolate pain to one particular area of the body from which it originates, Eastern traditions see the body as a whole, with qi acting to ignite every part of our being, determining our mental, physical and spiritual health.

I went home from my massage slightly baffled, both by what the Qi Master had told me and by the unfamiliar pain I’d felt when she was massaging my midriff and abdominal Continue reading