Woman overlooking the water

Every drop in the ocean matters: what 20 years as a female humanitarian has taught me

By Isabel Gomes, Senior Director for External Engagement and Resource Development

At the age of 25, I stood in front of a group of men in Angola, fresh from the conflict, some of them still children. Nervous but exhilarated, terrified yet calm, as we talked about peace and the impact of it on their lives, I knew then I could not do anything else for the rest of my life. Twenty years of humanitarian work later, I still could not imagine doing anything else. It has taken me to some of the most difficult and challenging contexts, from East Timor to Liberia, Sudan to Pakistan, Indonesia to Mozambique, and it has taught me four things I reflect on today, World Humanitarian Day.

  1. Hope is alive, where some of us might see no reason to hope. The resilience of people I have met is a continual source of amazement to me. I have seen brave men, women and children, who somehow, in spite of their circumstances, find within themselves strength to persevere and go on. I have countless memories of children with little more than the clothes on their back, running around with footballs made from plastic bags, or wheels made from bending wire, just wanting to be children.
  2. We do this work with a broken heart. The impact of the stories I have heard and seen, the people I have met, does not go away. As a mother I see my daughter in many of the girls we are trying to help. On my recent trip to Mozambique I met a 12-year-old girl who, after losing their parents in Cyclone Idai, was acting as a parent to her siblings. I think of her mother, who I have never met, and I share the same maternal instincts to want to protect our kids.
  3. People’s kindness has no limits. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh three months ago, I visited a common kitchen in one of the refugee camps. They have very little yet before I left they prepared food for me, and their big smiles as I ate it were genuine. They take immense pride in showing kindness to others, preparing and offering everything they have, despite everything they have been and continue to go through.
  4. The desire to do more keeps increasing. The more people in need I see the stronger my desire to do as much as I can to help people to get back on their feet. As Mother Teresa said: “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”