Working for years in fragile contexts, I get my spunk from women I met

Why do I love this work? I would always get strange reactions every time I tell people where I work. It is one thing to be a humanitarian worker doing global emergencies and another thing to face the daunting challenge in a fragile context such as South Sudan's. Why can’t I just do the “normal” job where it is safe for women? I became used to this question.

I look at the facts objectively. An estimated 49 percent* of South Sudan’s over 12 million population are women. If they can survive, even thrive, then I surely can. I knew from experience that this resilient spirit is intrinsic in women all over the world, even in the most challenging of environments.

I met 28-year old Enstar in Iraq at the height of the displacement crisis in the Kurdistan Region in 2015. Pregnant at that time, she had to run away from home into a crowded internally-displaced camp with her three young children. She delivered her youngest in the camp. They lived in a small space inside the tent most of the time huddled in front of a heater at winter. Her eyes were sad but strong.

As a mother, I do not have to ask. Her strength came from knowing that her children’s survival largely depends on her.

Courageous. Toni reminded me that there is hope even after a horrible experience. There lies the true resilience of a woman.

Some of the most heartbreaking girls’ and women’s stories I have listened to are from South Sudan. Toni* was abducted for almost year by an armed group and turned into a child soldier. At a young age of 14, she was made to do despicable acts to survive. “We were warned of serious consequence if we do not follow what we were told to – stealing, looting, even killing people. There was no other choice.”

It is beyond me how one can rise above this kind of experience. But Toni is optimistic she can use that most difficult time in her life to make it better.

In South Darfur, Sudan, I was inspired by 60-year old Hawa who has sent her three children to school from her grains business. She expressed how grateful she was with World Vision for training her on marketing. Without fail, she prepares early and spends at least 10 hours in the public market. Unmindful of the long hours and the heat, she shared her dreams for her children to have a much better life than what she has.

Isn’t it the same dream every woman has wherever they are? They can be a mother like Hawa or Enstar, or a sister and daughter like Toni. Often, their lives are lived selflessly for others.

Selfless. From the break of dawn to sunset, Hawa works hard to earn and be able to send her children to school.

But one special story that never left my heart is that of Maggie’s in Zimbabwe whom I met almost 10 years ago in an irrigation project supported by World Vision. She was then in her 60s. Maggie lost her seven children to HIV&AIDS and was left to care for her six grandchildren. She was past her grief when I met her. With what she had been through and what she faced raising her grandchildren, I can only salute her.

I have never seen a smile to match hers on the same journey. There she was, grateful of what she had in life and doing her best on the huge responsibility that befell on her.

Passionate. Rose Achan's formidable effort has helped train 102 health volunteers to provide treatment and prevention of diseases in their own communities. Her effort has saved close to 10,000 children from malaria and other deadly diseases.

May faces, many dreams, many inspiring stories. These women remind me of my mother who went through the same struggle from conflict, poverty and crisis but lived to raise us well. These women make the world go-round, regardless of the place, season or condition. As Eleanor Roosevelt has aptly described, “A woman is like a tea bag - you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

On Women’s Day, may these stories that inspired my strength, also remind you of the women in your lives, toiling quietly. May you find the time to honor them for dedicating their life to serve others.

*Not her real name to protect her identity.