WORLD HUMANITARIAN DAY Today we are all humanitarian workers

By Melanie Brooks, Media and Communications Coordinator for CARE International’s Emergency Response Team in Geneva, Switzerland

Two images of Shirley flash intermittently back and forth in my head: one, of Shirley smiling, laughing with tsunami survivors in Indonesia; the other, of a bloodied Shirley, slumped against the door of a bullet-riddled car in Afghanistan. I never saw the second image, but it’s in my head anyway. For the past two years, it hasn’t left.

Two years ago last week, Shirley Case, a humanitarian worker from the province of British Columbia, Canada, and one of my close friends, was shot and killed in an ambush by the Taliban along with three other aid workers. They were returning from a field visit to one of their schools outside of Kabul, where they were providing education to children with learning disabilities. Shirley, who had helped Darfur refugees in Chad and tsunami survivors in Indonesia, had been in Afghanistan just two months.

Those two images of Shirley are the flip sides of the same coin: one, the humanitarian commitment to help others in need, and the other, the dangers that come with our job. Shirley saw both. Last week’s appalling murder of 10 aid workers in Afghanistan is a reminder that the danger is still there.

Today is World Humanitarian Day, a day where we remember colleagues who have died while trying to help others, and raise awareness of what we do and why it is so important we continue. The day was established by the United Nations in 2008, the same year Shirley died. That was also the most dangerous year on record for aid workers; along with Shirley, more than 260 were killed, kidnapped or injured in attacks that year, making aid work more dangerous than being a UN peacekeeper.

But aid workers aren’t peacekeepers, or soldiers. We’ve signed the Red Cross Code of Conduct saying we don’t take sides; we provide aid based on need alone, regardless of nationality, race, religion or ethnicity. We don’t carry guns. But that makes us easy targets for militant groups that attempt to strike back at Western governments or make a political statement. If a militant wants to retaliate against a Western army or government, who would they choose: a well-armed and trained soldier, or an unarmed aid worker?

Aid workers build schools, vaccinate children against disease, and provide food and blankets and shelter in emergencies. In the past year alone, humanitarian groups helped tens of millions of people: earthquake survivors in Haiti, people facing possible famine in West Africa, and families fleeing the deadly floods that are ravaging Pakistan. Humanitarianism means helping others.

But the places where people need help are often also the most dangerous: conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape is a weapon of war, or disaster zones like Haiti, where hundreds of aid workers were among the victims of this year’s massive earthquake. And after the quake, it was aid workers – the majority of them local staff who had lost family members, friends and their own homes – who rushed into the disaster zone to dig through the rubble for survivors and give out food and water and supplies.

In many ways, aid workers are like firefighters, running into a burning building when everyone else is running out. But imagine if hundreds of firefighters were purposely killed or attacked in Canada every year simply for trying to help people. We would be outraged, appalled – and we would speak out.

Walking a tightrope every day

After Shirley’s death, a mutual friend working in Afghanistan wrote about how she wasn’t sure if she should stay, if the risks were worth it. In the end, she stayed, but aid workers are walking the constant tightrope of balancing staff safety with the overwhelming needs of the people in those countries.

And when we are forced to leave because of insecurity or threats from rogue governments or militant groups, as was the case of World Vision and two other aid agencies when they were forced out of Somalia last week, it is the people left behind who suffer because the food and health care and education is no longer being provided.

This year’s theme for World Humanitarian Day is “I am a humanitarian aid worker.” Shirley Case, 30 years old, lover of hiking, biking, and her then-soon-to-be-born niece, and owner of an unforgettable megawatt smile, was a humanitarian aid worker. She loved what she did, and believed we could make the world a better place. There are hundreds of thousands of humanitarian workers around the world who believe the same thing.

After Shirley’s death, her friends and family and colleagues around the world have banded together on two projects: one, to build a school in Nicaragua for more than 100 vulnerable children, and another to create a scholarship at Royal Roads University in Victoria (province of British Columbia, Canada), for students in financial need who want to study Human Security and Peacebuilding, like Shirley did.

I smile when I think that even though she’s not here, Shirley the advocate has managed to get her own way, and turn us all into humanitarian workers. And when I picture a hundred smiling children attending a school with Shirley’s name on it, it helps push that second, darker image of Shirley out of my head. I can focus on the first image, the reason why Shirley, and all of us, are humanitarian workers: to help others, and the joy that comes with hopefully making the world a better place.