This is a rather interesting article about the affects of rather intense situations on volunteers/aid workers . Granted, I am not in the forefront of conflict and I don’t have to worry about LRA attacks at this time, but it makes me think about the people I’ve met that are in the midst of the storms. The article talks about a safari lodge in Northern Uganda which is about 3 hours of a drive I think from where I live. Since Peace Corps is concerned about our safety, we are not allowed to drive there. If we fly avoiding the roads that cattle herders have taken out vehicles on, they’ll think about letting us go but keeping us alive is more important than a sweet safari.
Anyways, words in bold are ones that either bring about “so is life” and agree or make me think. Thanks to Terry who posted this on facebook.
“Humanitarian work is not a job, it’s a calling. Nothing is going to stop someone who feels that pull” — Chris Gillanders
Driving along Ambush Alley, a 120-kilometre dirt track that runs between northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chris Gillanders knew not to stop for anything.
It was a lesson the Toronto-based aid worker had learned from experience. That day, he was lucky: The most dangerous stretch of road in the world was free from attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Gillanders was employed by the United Nations World Food Program. His unit, based in northern Uganda, was responsible for delivering 10,000 tons of food aid per month into South Sudan. It was perilous work. Being taken hostage and negotiating his team’s release from rebel groups was a frequent occurrence.
Ambush Alley was the only way to reach a safari lodge in northern Uganda, where aid workers would meet for a little R&R. Although it was generally considered safe at the time, the rebel activity in the surrounding countryside scared off less intrepid travellers and the aid workers often had the lodge to themselves.
“We didn’t think anything about it,” Gillanders said. “The war zone was our normal place of work. When a UN psychologist came and did an evaluation on us, she said our levels of stress were right off the charts, the same as soldiers in a combat zone. The risks we took were beyond abnormal.”
Agencies such as Doctors without Borders, World Vision, Plan Canada and UNICEF are constantly looking for funds to assist devastated populations in Haiti, Pakistan, Darfur, Sierra Leone and Sudan. Many Canadians donate to these causes. Some, like Gillanders, do more. International aid workers are the grease that keeps the cogs on the disaster response wheels turning. They are the largely unsung heroes who bring food, medical care and shelter to people who have lost everything. But at what cost?
“Volunteers come back with a wide range of reactions,” said Harry MacNeil, a 56-year-old field worker and human resources officer at Doctors without Borders’ Toronto office. “Some feel great satisfaction if things went well, but if it was a difficult mission they can be traumatized.”
The organization provides medical relief to populations suffering in conflict zones and disaster sites around the world. After a nine-month mission, volunteers undergo one-on-one debriefing sessions with human resources personnel.
“If we need to, we’ll put them in touch with a psychologist,” said MacNeil. “We also have a peer support network. Usually people want to unload to somebody who has also gone through a difficult mission. It’s important that someone understands how you feel.”
Darfur was MacNeil’s hardest mission. “I was nine months on the front lines and when I came back I was angry, bitter and frustrated. It was an emotional roller coaster, the team was constantly changing and there was gunfire and shelling all around us. We had no control. Every time we’d build something, someone would burn it down. I didn’t speak to any of my friends about my experience for three months after I got home. “
Exposure to trauma can result in symptoms such as sleeplessness, crying, nervousness, feelings of isolation, and stomach disorders, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees publication “Managing the Stress of Humanitarian Emergencies.” These problems indicate burnout and, in extreme cases, post-traumatic stress disorder.
How deeply a person is affected depends on his or her emotional resiliency. “For most of us, that is connected to our past, for instance how happy our childhood was,” said Calvin McConnell, a clinical social worker with Homewood Health Centre’s Traumatic Stress Recovery Program in Guelph.
Burnout, he said, is marked by feelings of peer estrangement, depression and apathy. “Aid workers are also at risk of experiencing secondary or vicarious trauma, which is compassion fatigue,” he added.
Years in the field on difficult assignments turn some people into adrenalin junkies. “This comes from living through periods of sustained chaos, where the focus is strictly on survival. It can become a way to avoid what is going on inside, which might be scarier than the chaos,” said Gillian Templeton, co-coordinator of the Homewood trauma recovery program.
The challenges are not restricted to coping mentally. Relief workers also experience physical pain in the field, said Dr. Tanjina Mirza, vice president of international programs for Plan Canada. “When I first started in the business 20 years ago, I was working in a UN refugee camp in Bangladesh. It was overcrowded and there were very few toilets. I constantly had diarrhea and infections. My young son did, too.”
Witnessing the reality of aid politics can be eye-opening and disturbing. “Crises are happening every day and often the world doesn’t know or care,” said the 50-year-old Mirza. “For instance, this fall there was a food crisis in Niger and thousands of people were dying. The media didn’t cover it at all. Our country director in Niger was desperate. He couldn’t raise the funds he needed.”
Long hours, living in temporary shelters with limited food in a conflict or natural disaster zone, where suffering and violence take place daily, take a heavy toll on aid workers. However, these discomforts are not the prime reason volunteers come back early from Doctors without Borders missions. “Incompatibility with team members is the main reason people leave,” said MacNeil. “We get a lot of A-type personalities. The ideal volunteer has to be flexible.”
Susan MacGregor, international development program coordinator and instructor at Humber College, spent 10 years in the field with Air Serv International. Acting as country director, she found the effects of stress were cumulative and difficult to self-diagnose.
“In the Congo, a military leader was executing people across the street from my bedroom,” she said. “I woke up and dragged my mattress out into the hall between two concrete walls and went back to sleep. Over time, you lose your ability to judge what is safe. I had been working in war zones for three years, and that’s not a good thing for your mental health.”
One of the toughest parts of the 40-year-old’s job with the humanitarian aviation company was to make life-and-death decisions affecting other people. “I had a doctor come in and ask if we could fly to a village and bring back a woman who was going to have a breech birth,” she said. “It would have cost $18,000 and the outcome was unknown. If I had done it, I would not have been able to get food and medical supplies to a whole village of people who were waiting. It puts you in a position of playing God, and humans shouldn’t have to do that.”
Gillanders thought he was impervious to traumatic stress until he was on vacation in Sylvan Lake, Alta. The 37-year-old former Canadian military-commander-turned-aid-worker would wake up from vivid nightmares, soaked in sweat.
“I sought out an aid worker psychologist and learned it was my mind releasing its fight-or-flight mechanism. In front-line conflicts, your mind is wired to keep you alive and safe. It’s very hard to unwind from those tensions and reactions.”
Four years ago, Gillanders decided it was time to redefine his career.
“The Lord’s Resistance Army had attacked a village and I was on an assessment team after the atrocities. We were standing around smoking cigarettes and telling jokes in an area where people had just been hacked up.
“It was very callous, and it dawned on me that I had lost my sense of humanity. I had become cold, surrounded by so much rape and violence. I was scared. It was time to come home and reconnect with Canadian society,” he said. Now he runs his own Toronto-based consulting company, specializing in economic development projects in Africa.
In the past 20 years, much has changed for aid workers. Briefing and debriefing sessions have become mandatory at most agencies. Counselling and peer support systems are easily accessed after missions.
“After the Gulf War, more research was done on battle fatigue, which extrapolated to aid workers. Previously, faith-based missionary groups were the only ones doing much counselling,” noted MacGregor.
Despite the risks and emotional wear and tear, aid workers find their time in the field incredibly rewarding. “I was recently in Zimbabwe, visiting our food distribution program, and I was able to sit and talk with some of the local women who were ensuring the neediest people got the food,” said Mirza. “I felt so happy and blessed to be able to do something good.”
Since he’s been home, Gillanders has reclaimed the empathy that motivated him to do aid work in the first place. “I’ll always remember the mothers who thanked me when their child was brought back from the brink of starvation. Their lives are every bit as important as ours.”
Maureen Littlejohn is a Toronto-based freelance writer and is enrolled in Humber College’s International Development program.