It was December 31, the last day of 2005, and Islamabad was being pummeled by a heavy snowfall. Many Pakistanis huddled in displacement camps due to the devastating earthquake several months earlier, and as the day thinned, Syed Sulaiman, Concern’s Emergency Advisor in Pakistan, began getting phone calls about the unbearable cold in some of the tents, and especially its impact on children and elderly.
Sulaiman is a humanitarian hero among the nearly 3,000 who work for Concern in 29 countries across the globe
He knew it was frigid and some tents leaked, but he also knew he was empty-handed. “We had already distributed all our stocks… and furthermore, that day was a holiday so most of the organizations were out,” he said. “I started thinking out-of-the-box and suddenly it came to my notice that one of our partners had procured plastic sheets to be used for the construction of emergency latrines.”
With lightning speed, Sulaiman contacted Concern’s partner and got authorization to take the plastic sheets — every single one — from its warehouse. As the mercury dipped and the hours wore on, he worked without stopping. He passed through three camps, quitting only at midnight. By the light of the next morning, he saw the results of his labors: every tent in each camp he’d visited was blue, covered by the plastic sheets he’d distributed.
Risking their lives to help others
Sulaiman is a humanitarian hero among the nearly 3,000 who work for Concern in 29 countries across the globe, including some of the poorest, most vulnerable, and neglected. Among those 29 countries, Concern works in Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Pakistan, and Afghanistan — the five countries that had the most violent attacks against aid workers, according to the 2015 Aid Worker Security Report.
In 2014, 329 aid workers were victims of major attacks in 27 countries in 2014. Of them, 120 were killed. It’s this uncertainty and danger that inspired World Humanitarian Day, which marks the day 22 aid workers were killed in a bombing at the Baghdad UN headquarters in 2003.
Twenty-two years ago, Concern lost one of its own in Somalia. Valerie Place was a volunteer nurse from Dublin, Ireland, who signed a two-year contract to manage a feeding center in Mogadishu. It was at the height of Somalia’s 1992 famine when the vehicle Place was traveling in was ambushed as she traveled from Mogadishu to Baidoa. While Concern has lost other humanitarians in the field to illness, Place is the only staff member who was violently targeted.
At its core, World Humanitarian Day is a day to honor all people who, like Place, have lost their lives in humanitarian service, while also celebrating those who continue to touch the world through this work. From Syria to South Sudan, here are some of the stories of some of our many heroic staff.
Syed Sulaiman, Emergency Advisor, Pakistan
“Never give up!”
Sulaiman has worked in the humanitarian sector for 18 years, responded to numerous crises, and adopted the motto that served him well that night he distributed tents as the snow fell: “never give up!” To Sulaiman, responding to emergencies when they strike is only part of his job. Ultimately, aid workers should be helping communities care for themselves. “I would like to see the humanitarian sector focus more on building communities’ resilience,” he said.
Samar Finianos, Shelter Project Manager, Lebanon
“After having contact with vulnerable people who have different needs, I feel I cannot stop working in a humanitarian field, it gives me an eternal joy and peace to do work that is really helping people.”
Samar Finianos, the shelter project manager for Concern in northern Lebanon, marks her two-year Concern anniversary on World Humanitarian Day. Finianos helps support Syrian refugees through their country’s protracted crisis by helping them live in a safe shelter with access to water and sanitation.
If she could deliver just one message to the world about her work, “I would want them to know that nothing brings joy to the heart as much as making a real difference in people’s lives and helping the ones who need help,” she said, “even if they just need someone to listen to them.”
Stefano Granzo, Field Logistician, Central African Republic
“For me, it is important to share a sense of hope because it can be easy to lose perspective when times are stressful.”
Stefano Granzo is a field logistician in Central African Republic (CAR), where fighting has crippled the country since early 2013, leaving some 2.7 million people in need. A good day for him is when schedules are met and supplies delivered. Meanwhile, a bad day “is when you get malaria… or when security threats delay the delivery of urgent good for the beneficiaries.”
In CAR and elsewhere, Stefano’s hope is to not only meet immediate needs, but also to help communities chart their own futures. “I want everyone to know that our mission is not only to provide help, but to leave quality methodologies to the local people as a resource, so that they can improve their performances and enhance their skills to develop their country,” he said.
Subodh Vijapure, Emergency Water and Sanitation Advisor, Nepal and South Sudan
“Despite the challenges, I still loved working for the innocent people, especially women and children, who suffered because of the war.”
Subodh Vijapure, an emergency water and sanitation advisor for Concern, was sent to Nepal after the recent earthquake but has spent most of the year working in Bentiu, South Sudan. A civil engineer, Vijapure worked in South Sudan in 2011, but returned to find the context entirely different in 2014 as the country was consumed by civil war. In the initial days of the response, supplies were limited, so Vijapure slept directly on the floor of his tent and used cardboard for warmth. While systems improved, the challenges he faced everyday were immense.
“There is no such thing as a good day in Bentiu, as things are always down to the wire,” Vijapure said. “Either there are heavy rains in the camps or an epidemic outbreak, internally displaced people (IDPs) being shot at, or outbreaks of fighting… if the above-mentioned things don’t happen, then definitely generators providing water will break down, or the IDPs will protest against the international non-profit organizations to stop work as they are not happy with the daily wages.”
Emma Flaherty, Emergency Coordinator, Sierra Leone
“We all need to remember that when we talk about ‘aid workers’ for the most part we are talking about people from the places we are responding in. They are the people working hardest and at the most risk and yet they still do it.”
Emma Flaherty credits her career in humanitarian aid to “a series of pretty amazing teachers and university lecturers” who not only opened her eyes to the inequalities in the world, but also made her question why they exist and what can be done about it. She has worked in Pakistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, Syria, and South Sudan and is currently coordinating Concern Worldwide’s Ebola response in Tonkolili, Sierra Leone.
When asked what is the most rewarding thing about her job, Emma’s response was clear: the national staff who worked alongside her. “They don’t have the option to leave when they are tired or overwhelmed or frightened like myself and other international staff can,” she said. “They are always the first to respond and the last to leave, often while they themselves are the survivors of the emergencies we’re responding to.”
Colm Moloney, Program Support Officer, South Sudan
“Generally, I try to maintain a positive perspective, and a commitment to achieving results and making an impact.”
Colm Moloney began working as Concern’s Program Support Officer in Juba, South Sudan one year ago. A typical day consists of reporting on existing Concern programs and preparing proposals for new projects that respond to the humanitarian needs created by the civil war.
In October 2014, Moloney was in Bentiu, South Sudan, when heavy rains flooded the camp, collapsing 180 latrines and creating a major sanitation crisis. “Overnight, the conditions deteriorated devastatingly for camp residents, in an environment in which their shelters had submerged in water for weeks, due to previous rounds of flooding,” he said.
Moloney was involved in securing funding to build 8,000 flood-resistant shelters in Bentiu. “I had the opportunity to speak with some of the beneficiaries of that project in June this year,” he said. “Seeing the fruits of all the work that our team had put into planning that project and getting it up and running was hugely rewarding, and definitely among the ‘good days.’”
Every day through August 19th we will be sharing stories of Concern’s many humanitarian heroes. We hope you will join us in celebrating them, and honoring those who lost their lives. By sharing their stories, we can continue the humanitarian tradition of touching lives to spread, inspiring the work to live on in future generations.