It started with music. For those of us who came of age in the 1960s, music was a transformational force, and so it was with my journey into a career in humanitarian aid.
I was first attracted to this work by the famine response in Ethiopia in 1983-85. Unlike other disasters before it, television brought images of what was happening straight into our living rooms, while the global fundraising concert event, Live Aid, got the message out to the world that what was happening was unacceptable.
A few years later, the war in Bosnia broke out. Once again, music played a role in inspiring me to get involved — the Irish group U2, in conjunction with Pavarotti, produced a fundraising video called “Miss Sarajevo.” It moved me immensely. No longer could humanitarian aid roll around in my head as an idea. It was time to act.
At that stage I had my own business in Ireland and my plan was to split my time between overseas work and the family business. However it soon became apparent that the two could not coexist and I made the decision there and then that I was an aid worker not a businessman. That was the beginning. I spent two nerve-wracking months in Bosnia, and have not looked back, since then working in South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Darfur, Kenya, Somalia and Lebanon.
What has kept me going back overseas all of these years? The short answer is job satisfaction. I enjoy the challenges, overcoming the difficulties, and working with people who are motivated. During my time in Darfur, as head of a logistics unit, one of my tasks was to ensure that food was delivered time and time again to 240,000 people. Each time that the food reached the people who depended on it, despite the difficulties, there was always a feeling that is probably very unique to this work — a mixture of pride in the achievement of a daunting task, relief at having overcome huge risk to myself and others, and a deep personal satisfaction that is hard to find anywhere else. A mission accomplished in the face of such adversity is much more satisfying than one that is easy to accomplish, especially when lives are depending on it.
Balancing work and family life can be a challenge at the best of times, even when the family is together in the same place. When you’re spending months in a desert in Sudan it’s a bit more challenging to say the least.
It is a special kind of challenge when birthdays, christenings, anniversaries, or illnesses occur and I am thousands of miles and days of travel away. At the same time, it is difficult for everyone back home when they hear of dangerous situations in unknown places, and wonder. It’s a two-way street — and I count myself very lucky in that my wife and family support me in the job that I do.
My wife has said that being the wife of an aid worker is obviously different from the norm, but so is being the wife of a fisherman, or a soldier. It is a matter of adjustment and readjustment.
One of her sayings is that you only have one life, so make the most of it. I like to think she coined the phrase.
We both have to make periodic adjustments to accommodate a changed lifestyle. When I go away, I have to adjust to living and working with different and ‘different’ people, often in extremely difficult conditions and she has to adjust to living on her own again and sorting out the day-to-day issues that arise.
Some years ago she told me that one of my sons expressed concern that I was going to dangerous places and leaving her on her own. She asked him if I were in the army and going to those same places, would he still feel the same way?
“He is not in the Army” was his reply.
“Correct,” she said. “He is an aid worker and giving aid is what aid workers do, especially in war zones. Best if you get used to it.” She’s a straight-talker, my wife.
That is my life and work in a nutshell, and it’s comforting to know that my partner accepts this life, as it is, for us.
I later spoke to my son about his concerns, and part of the problem was that we did not communicate much when I was overseas. He is a specialist in an armed unit in the mostly unarmed Irish police force, so I always thought of him as the strong one. It had not occurred to me that he might be anxious, but of course he is my son. We keep in touch a lot more now and that seems to have eased his worries.
After 18 trips overseas, we have now established a system that works for us, and equally importantly, we know what doesn’t work for us. We recognize the emotional turmoil that can be involved before, during, and after a mission, and we openly discuss how we feel. We plan for what has to be dealt with at home while I am away and put measures in place.
My wife is aware that on my return, I need time to adjust to being back in a safe place where food is plentiful. The condition known as reverse culture shock is a real issue for many aid workers and I find that the best approach is one day at a time. After three or four weeks, I eventually readjust.
I will be forever grateful that I was given that first opportunity to go to Bosnia. I did not really know what to expect, and on my return I was like a ship without a rudder, finding it very difficult to settle back in to ‘normal’ life. The things I saw, heard, smelled and discovered in my time there, some horrific, some life-affirming, changed forever my notion of ‘normal’ or ‘real.’
I can never truly prepare for what I might encounter anytime I leave home, but that first trip taught me that the key to re-integrating was ‘leaving a trail’ for loved ones. I know that what they need from me is information and contact so I research, print off maps, and discuss the planned mission in as much detail as possible. They begin to understand what lies ahead, and they also know I will keep in regular touch by Skype and email, even (the now compact, lightweight) satellite phone as a last resort. Communications technology has improved so much in the last 20 years, and far-flung aid workers and their families are among the greatest beneficiaries.
Often I have been asked how much longer I intend to work in emergencies and the answer is until I do not enjoy the work, or until I am not able for the job, physically or mentally. At this stage, I am ready to go to wherever I am needed and am looking forward to face new challenges, wherever they may be. Still, I am constantly aware that I could not do this work without an understanding and supportive family, and whenever I get credit for helping change or save lives, I readily pass it on to Bob Geldof, U2 and Pavarotti, but mostly to my straight-talking wife, my two sons and my daughter, and everyone back home.
Earlier on Huff/Post50: