Pathways to leadership

Humanitarian responders from very different backgrounds join the NNPHL program and come away with a common goal.

Pathways to leadership

Two very different career paths, one common goal. The story of how the face of humanitarian leadership is changing, under the umbrella of an innovative training program.

“I had no idea what an NGO was or why we received assistance.”


Ahmed Hussein has a special understanding of the value and impact of humanitarian aid. As a young boy living in Northern Iraq, he found himself at the center of one of the bloodiest and most violent conflicts of our time.

2 young refugees in 1980s Iran

Ahmed (right) with his younger brother.

It was the 1980s, and Iraq was at war with neighboring Iran, resulting in massive casualties and an extreme hunger crisis, verging on famine, that caused misery for most of the decade. When he was six years old, Ahmed’s family, from the ethnic Turkmen minority, fled as refugees to Iran.

“On our way to Iran, we were given aid in the form of one meal a day, which saved my family. My entire family would pray for the aid workers, but I had no idea what an NGO was or why we received assistance.  At that time, the only phrase I learnt was ”امم متحده مساعدا’’, which translates to ‘United Nations assistance.’ Whenever I heard the phrase, I would run to my mom to inform her that they were coming to feed us.”

Ahmed’s family would be displaced by conflict twice more, leaving a lasting impact on him — and a burning desire to engage in community action.

“I took a chance and applied to every job opening.”


For Samar Finianos, her entry into the sector was very different, although she too grew up in a country that had been blighted by violence throughout the 1980s.

“I had never given any thought to the field of humanitarian aid work. I was interested in working in the environmental field, having received my Master’s in the subject from Lebanese University in 2012.”

Samar struggled to find work — until war broke out in neighboring Syria. Tens of thousands of families began pouring across the border, seeking refuge from the conflict. International NGOs set up relief operations to help those who arrived in Lebanon, traumatized and with nothing.

A member of the Concern Lebanon team visits a refugee family in the wake of storm "Miriam"

Visiting Syrian refugees in Akkar, Lebanon. Photo: Concern Worldwide

“I took a chance and applied to every job opening, whether I had experience or not.
Everything changed when the Concern Worldwide team contacted me for an interview and hired me as the Hygiene Field Officer based in Akkar.”

Samar and new colleagues faced an overwhelming and exhausting task, working with people living in informal tented settlements, who were exposed to the elements. “It was very challenging at the beginning as I had no prior knowledge of NGOs.”

Over many long hours, Samar’s humanitarian career would receive a baptism of fire, as the team struggled to ensure refugees had the supplies and shelter they needed to sustain the severe Lebanese winter of 2013. Within six months she was promoted to Team Leader, and then Project Manager.

Climbing up to the balcony

Ahmed, Samar, and thousands of other locally based professionals in dozens of countries are the ones to whom the world will turn when crisis looms or disaster happens. They are the future of humanitarian response. And that’s why it’s people like them who have been encouraged to further develop their leadership skills through the National NGO Program for Humanitarian Leadership (NNPHL).

Much of the course is carried out through online modules, featuring real talks from senior humanitarian professionals and academics, with a system of practical exercises and mentorship. Each cohort also gets together for an intensive week-long worshop, where they are exposed to new ideas, new thinking, and the experiences of others facing similar challenges.

Group at work

Samar (second from left) at work with her colleagues.

“I expanded my network and learned from other leaders from a wide range of countries, experience, and backgrounds,” says Ahmed, who attended a regional workshop in Jordan. “In addition, I learned a new set of skills to improve decision-making and coordination that are needed in humanitarian world to make a proper intervention in fragile contexts.”

“Now, I understand the real meaning of adaptive leadership.”

“I learned how to look at a situation from ‘the balcony’, where I can observe issues from a different perspective,” according to Samar, who spent 5 days in Dublin with about 20 fellow humanitarians from different countries. “Now, I understand the real meaning of adaptive leadership and put the lessons learned into action with my own team. Most importantly, I have learned how to coordinate effectively with all stakeholders on my assigned projects.”

Prince Charles with Ahmad

Ahmed meeting the Prince of Wales

For Ahmed, there were additional benefits. “My personal life also began to improve. Before the NNPHL Training, I was always under pressure to get work done and worked very long, stressful hours. This affected my mood and influenced the care I was giving my family, including my two daughters.  Now I realize when I am under stress, I try to focus on my job and complete my work during the day, giving me more time with family.”

Learn more about the work of Concern