From the Philippines’ war in Mindanao and the massive Quezon floods to the Asia Boxing Day tsunami, the Horn of Africa back to the Philippines’ strongest storm Haiyan, the displacement crisis in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Nepal’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake, I could say have covered some of World Vision’s most challenging emergency work. As a communicator, these assignments brought me to the exciting grips of dread and indescribable sadness.
Along the way, the 14-year experience earned me lessons that shaped me as a communicator, a mother, a humanitarian and simply a human being who has sat at the frontline of humanity’s pain, suffering and amazing hope despite the seeming futility.
My experience might pale in comparison to World Vision’s seasoned aid workers who have shuffled non-stop from one disaster to another working right where the action is – in the field and immediately when the destruction struck – but I could dare say the requirement in each of us is the same - adapt to the need and the context, work hard whatever job was entrusted, rise up to the tough conditions and deal with the emotional consequences later.
There is no way of denying there is. The pain stays in your memory forever. One cannot go to an emergency like an 8-5 job. There are sacrifices one will have to live with for a lifetime.
As a communicator who can put my experience into words, stories, video and other forms of expression, I would think I am luckier. I get to put the loads of pain and ache for possibilities that are hardly there into one voice so people will understand how it is on the ground and act. Yes, do something!
My words – I thought most of the time – were often drowned by a world too tired of relentless news and stories so horrid. The cycle has become normal that people I believe are not indifferent to them but just too swamped where to care first, or next.
What did I learn, so far – or even unlearned? I could share some but the list is long. Top on the list was working with the locals and understanding the context. Talk to people, read, connect, forget biases and adapt. You cannot come in like a know-it-all cowboy (even if you have decades of emergency experience behind you) and do your thing. All else narrows down to how you adapt and get people to working with you.
You have to keep in mind that everything is not about you – it is how you deliver the job effectively that people around you will own it. Forget credits. You came to help. You are a humanitarian and a storyteller. It is never about who did the job but how you did it together – and well. Sometimes you get spotlighted – just remind yourself you’re the messenger, not the main character.
Next on my long list is to get the inspiration going. Then the rest is easy. You get this by working hard and enjoying the work. It would show in anything you do and set the people around you in motion. I still remember how my team in Haiyan Typhoon Response rallied through the non-stop media demand with sleep-deprived eyes but with that determined smile on their faces. The setbacks downed us but we picked up pieces very quickly. The high energy to do the job well extended to compassion for the typhoon survivors and the relief team working round-the-clock. That’s team work running in full gear.
Understand how relief and recovery work as much as you can. This is the only way to complement the work of our hardworking relief workers running things on the ground and be able to share what is going on. You are their mouthpiece as well as the survivors who went through harrowing ordeals. You need to get it right – and do it right. Along the way you will realize that there are so many things you need to learn that aren’t found in the book. You get to them by being right where the field workers are.
Build your competence consistently. Humanitarian work is evolving in full speed and in angles we haven’t even seen before. Strongest typhoons. Biggest influx of refugees. Massive earthquakes. Disasters are going overboard beyond our imagination we cannot afford to be inept and bungling in our jobs. No matter how small our contribution is, we are in the business of saving lives, and this requires the highest degree of capacity and endurance put together.
Last but not the least – love your work. It is a privilege not everyone is accorded with. By loving what you do, you spread around hope which is always the one thing that matters for people to take on the challenge of moving on, picking up the pieces and live their lives again.