A Day in the Life: Observations of a Humanitarian Aid Worker
By Jane Elizabeth Drichta:
I've had a couple of lovely messages lately, all centered around the theme, "So . . . it looks like you have a really cool job, but what exactly do you do?" And please, rest assured that this is a question I ask myself at least twice a day. So, in the interest of clarifying it for us all, I though I'd give a rundown of a fairly typical day.
Just as a reminder, I serve as Country Director with the Free Yezidi Foundation, as well as Founder and Executive Director of Global Motherhood Initiative. Our organizations live together at our compound in Khanke Camp in northern Iraq, working with survivors of the 2014 genocide perpetrated by ISIS. My team runs several programming streams for women, including individual and group therapy, teaching a variety of educational and vocation classes, working with survivors under age 12 in our children's center, and providing loving and compassionate maternity and dental care. And me? Well, let's have a look.
On this particular day, which is a Monday in April, I start my day the way most of us do: far too early and in desperate need of caffeine. (To paraphrase the late, great Douglas Adams, I never could get the hang of Mondays.) Two cups of tea later, I'm ready for the 20-minute walk down to camp.
My housemates, Martina, who is one of our psychologists, and Marilen, a volunteer midwife, accompany me. We try not to talk about work outside of the camp, but the walk there is a bit of a grey area and inevitably, our chat turns to beneficiaries who may need extra support this week.
We are beginning a gardening project, and Martina shares the names of those who may benefit from this particular form of therapy. The Yezidi are traditional farmers, and making things grow rather than seeing them destroyed can be holy. Passing on gardening knowledge, those small tricks every grandmother seems to know, is a valuable form of cultural preservation, particularly amongst a displaced people.
At the same time, I take mental notes to ask the camp management for some names as well, as we particularly want to target the very poorest of the camp residents—those who are not in work and who may be more food insecure than the rest. We recently lost regular food distributions, and its absence is definitely being felt.
This is one of the hardest things; when an organization that has been providing vital services loses it funding, or decides to put its resources elsewhere. There is just a finite amount of money and seemingly infinite need in this world.
Unfortunately, the Yezidi have never had the benefit of a great public relations campaign, and they are quickly being forgotten by the humanitarian community. We aren't the sexy flavor of the month anymore, so goodbye food packs.
Arriving at my office, which is a small prefabricated metal box prone to leaking on visitors during the rains, I start to answer my emails. One from the Reproductive Health working group in Erbil (three hours away) requesting my presence at some committee meeting. Quick delete. One from another NGO wanting me to come to a coordination meeting where we will say the same things as last month. Polite decline. Three from small NGOs in Africa wanting us to open a branch of GMI there. Sad refusal, as I don't think they understand how small and underfunded we are, but damn, I'd love to be back in Africa.
Thirty emails in, thank God, a visitor arrives. I can now legitimately procrastinate on the emails for a bit. It is a lovely woman from Cornwall named, as fate would have it, Jane. Good name. She is an occupational therapist who specializes in children with cerebral palsy. She is here on a fact-finding flyby, looking to do a small project combining clinical therapy and building adaptive equipment out of cardboard, of all things.
Did I mention we receive 50,000,000 boxes of water every other day? And that these boxes are made of cardboard? And that I have a clinic? And that I happen to have a list of people with disabilities who reside in the camp? And that I love everything about this? We are deep into the sharing of dreams and finances that characterize NGO potential partnerships when the midwife yanks my door open, slamming it hard against the wall.
"Faisa's collapsed in the clinic! Will you come?"
I'm already up and running, asking questions. "Pregnant? Has she been ill? Any underlying conditions? Has she fainted, is she seizing, or is it choking syndrome?"
Choking syndrome is our name for when a woman is semi-conscious and grasping at her throat, while simultaneously convulsing. It's a syndrome unique in our experience, and seems to be related to severe trauma; the Yezidi often externalize somatic expressions of adverse experiences, and our psychologists have documented it extensively. It often happens in times of stress, which, unfortunately, is basically every day ending in Y here.
Marilen, being new here, had never seen it before, but had been briefed. Being medically trained, she threw back the answers at me quickly.
"Not pregnant. In for a feeding consult. Pulse steady. She just went down hard, but probably choking syndrome."
When we arrive, our clinic manager has placed Faisa into the rescue position and is talking to her softly and evenly. Faisa's two year old looks on, nonplussed; this happens several times a day at home, and he is an old hand at it.
Faisa comes around slowly, wiping saliva from her chin. She immediately reaches for her child, holding him close. She won't make eye contact, embarrassed, though of course she has no reason to be. I notice her shoes are far too small for her, and she is painfully thin.
"Marilen, have her stop by my office on her way out. Let's see what we can figure out for her."
I return to the office and am soon deep into plans again on how we are going to save the world from cerebral palsy. The possibilities here were so great! There are no services at all for disabled people in our camp, and the stigma against them is so strong. This could really change lives, and I am so energized with the possibilities. We could teach the parents how to make the adaptive equipment themselves, giving them ownership of the project. The occupational therapist could work with them, showing them the clinical techniques, and provide education around the condition, and then our clinic manager could follow up with them, and they could receive coaching sessions over Skype. Such a great, manageable project. And then we could move on to other camps, repeating the workshops and scaling up. So great. Now to figure out funding.
A knock interrupts our plans, and Faisa enters. No sooner does she step foot into the office than she collapses again and would have smashed her head into the sofa leg had I not happened to catch her in time. We repeat the safety steps, and once again, she comes around, her eyes again darting to her son.
I glanced at the therapist, whose eyes were wide. "She'll be okay," I assure her. "Faisa, do you know anything about gardening?"
I'm now forty emails in, most of them journalism requests. I'm super cautious around journalists. Some are amazing. Some are not. Some think they are the first people in the world to realize that there has been a genocide and are not so understanding when I explain that perhaps the women may not want to tell their stories again in the hope that finally, someone will help them. They are tired of being used to "raise awareness," and their journalism fatigue is strong. I get weary of explaining that at this point, their stories are a gift, one that cannot be given lightly, and that they must be treated with the utmost respect.
This always seems to be difficult to understand, and I once almost ruined a nicely catered lunch when a freelance photojournalist announced that yes, photo scenes were often manipulated, and that he was as guilty of it as the next person. I gaped at him, biryani forgotten. "Well, why don't you just . . . I don't know . . . not?" I asked.
"Well, I want to tell the truth."
But that is not the truth. That is his interpretation of the truth, nudged in one direction or another, and influenced by a thousand factors. Somehow he seemed put out when I refused to let him photograph our women's faces. Can't think why.
"Jane, can you help?" the old woman asks in Kurdish. She thrusts her medical records at me, written in English and laminated against the harsh environs of the camp.
Advanced uterine cancer. No. I cannot help.
"Jane, we're out of water and Kleenex. Can we get more?"
I checked the budget spreadsheet and nodded.
"Jane, what day shall we go to the bank?"
Tuesday. I can usually get the hang of Tuesdays.
"Jane, our printer is broken, can we make a couple of copies?" asks the policeman from the station up the road, thrusting some photographs of unsmiling, bearded men into my hands.
I feel like this should worry me more than it does.
"Jane, can I get you a cup of tea?"
"Oh, God, yes, thanks. No sugar, please."
"You're so weird." My Yezidi colleague giggles on her way to the kitchen, as if we haven't had this conversation five hundred times before.
"Jane?" Marilen pokes her head in. "Sorry to bother you. Majin had her twins last night."
That wasn't right. I mentally scroll through charts in my head. "Not Majin, surely? It's too soon, right?"
My heart sinks. "Is everyone ok?"
Marilen shook her head. "She's home, but one of the babies didn't make it. I don't have any details. We were going to visit. Will you . . . ?"
I grab my bag. "Let's go."
"Jane, the guy is here about the fence. He has the estimate."
"Tell him it's too much."
"Jane, something smells bad outside."
Eight hours and two aspirin later, its time to go home. And while this may seem like a crazy day, it's rather typical. I often think my job consists of moving from one fire to another, just beating down the flames long enough to run to another alarm. But in truth, I wouldn't trade it for anything. It is rare job that provides the perfect balance of head work, heart work, and hand work, one where you can fully use all parts of your humanity, and I'm lucky to have one.
And now, one more cup of tea before bed.