19 August 2014

On World Humanitarian Day, celebrating UNFPA’s humanitarian heroes

UNITED NATIONS, New York – “I was looking for a fulfilling, out-of-the-ordinary task... a motivating career where I could reach society at large and offer my expertise,” said Catherine Njeri Makumi.

She has found exactly that. In her role as a volunteer midwife working with UNFPA in Juba, South Sudan, she works around the clock to meet the needs of pregnant women, many of them displaced by the country’s ongoing conflict.

Ms. Makumi is one of UNFPA’s many humanitarian heroes – aid workers who place themselves in no small measure of peril to serve the most vulnerable, the most impoverished and the most crisis-affected people in the world.

This 19 August is World Humanitarian Day, a day to commemorate the service and sacrifices of humanitarian workers around the world.

 Catherine Njeri Makumi

Volunteer midwife
Juba, South Sudan
Photo: UNFPA South Sudan/Jaime Jacques

The most rewarding part of the job is “being able to walk with a woman through a difficult pregnancy, and see the smile on her face and those of her loved ones when she receives her newborn baby in her arms and breastfeeds with a smile.”

The most memorable moment was when “I received a woman who had an obstructed labour for a week in a remote village... Sadly, the baby didn’t survive the ordeal… The woman made it to our health facility in poor condition. We immediately gave her strong antibiotics, and her relatives were willing to donate two units of blood quickly, as we expected post-partum haemorrhage. The life of this woman was certainly saved due to the presence of skilled international volunteers, both midwives and doctors, not to forget the reproductive health kits supplied UNFPA, which contain medical supplies for emergency obstetric care.”

“Today, I pay tribute to humanitarian workers who help pregnant women deliver safely and protect women and girls from gender-based violence,” said Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA’s Executive Director, in a statement . “These humanitarian heroes extend hope as they strive to save lives and protect human rights and dignity in extremely difficult situations.”

Bearing witness

Humanitarian workers operate under enormous stress. “The workload is huge,” said Ms. Makumi. There are “few available professional skilled workers.”

Beyond the day-to-day pressures, aid workers often bear witness to heart-breaking tragedies.

Mihailo Mandic, a UNFPA volunteer who provided disaster relief during the recent flooding in Serbia, says he has been forever changed by his experience. “Talking with people who had lost everything during the floods left a deep mark on me,” he said.

Mihailo Mandic

Red Cross and UNFPA
Belgrade, Serbia
Photo: UNFPA Serbia
“I became a volunteer when I realized that my country is in trouble… The most rewarding part of my work is the knowledge that I contributed as much as I could.

“Rivers were overloaded, and towns around them were threatened. That is why a lot of citizens were organized to help with the preparation of sandbags, which were then placed on the riverbanks. You can just imagine how much sand was needed for one river, and we had problems with many of them. I was also helping people who were evacuated in one of the biggest evacuation centres in Belgrade, the Kombank Arena.

“I will never forget the moment when I felt the power of community organizing. So many people were giving their belongings to others, so many were working hard to respond to the disaster, so many just felt bad because other people were in trouble. The power of people is so huge. Too bad we don’t use it that often.”

“I believe that with unity we can make a difference. And we did.”

Often, aid workers are as affected by crisis as the people they serve.

“A good number of the volunteers are conflict-affected and [displaced people],” said Mohamad Tarek Alashraf, a coordinator with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent working in the embattled city of Homs. The situation has “caused huge psychological pressure for the volunteers,” he added.

Mohamad Tarek Alashraf

Humanitarian coordinator
Syrian Arab Red Crescent
Homs, Syria
Photo: Mohamad Tarek Alashraf
“The thing that most gives you the energy to go on is the people’s smiles, satisfaction and appreciation.”

A recent memorable experience was when “a man came to [the Syrian Arab Red Crescent] Homs main office crying and asking for help. His wife was about to deliver, and he could not afford the cost of the hospital. [We] managed to offer him a UNFPA reproductive health voucher, and he was able to cover the hospital bills to welcome the new life into his family.”

Another “unforgettable moment was in February, when we delivered humanitarian aid to the Old City of Homs with UN [agencies]. We faced… shots and shelling on our way into the city... After reaching the targeted point, we were stuck for four hours, and the possibility of staying for maybe a whole night was high. It was not only a mission; it was a decision, a lesson, and chance to save lives. Later in the same mission , during the evacuation, a pregnant woman who walked for more than six hours to get out of the besieged area was about to deliver on the street. [We] received her and performed the procedures to save the two lives, the mother and the baby, thanks to UNFPA support.”


The work can take a toll on humanitarians’ health.

“Many people get sick during the rainy season with flu and diarrhoea,” said Hkawng Gan, who works at the Metta Development Foundation, a UNFPA partner in Myanmar, where she manages programmes for women and girls.

The work can also take humanitarians’ lives.

“Working in hard and volatile security conditions, we face shooting almost every time we try to enter a hotspot area in Homs,” Mr. Alashraf told UNFPA.

Three years ago, his colleague, Hakam, was killed while traveling in a Red Crescent ambulance. “Hakam was a volunteer who sacrificed his soul carrying out his humanitarian duty,” Mr. Alashraf said.

Hkawng Gan

Manager of UNFPA-supported women and girls’ centres Metta Development Foundation
Kachin State, Myanmar
Photo: UNFPA Myanmar/Benny Manser
“I am motivated to do the work I do because I have a deep sympathy for the internally displaced people and the suffering they go through.

“One of the most memorable moments for me was during the early days, when I needed to give trainings about gender and gender-based violence. In my culture, this is very new, but I needed to talk about the difference between sex and gender. Rape is also a topic that is very difficult to talk about, and a topic that is even more difficult to talk about is rape within marriage – that it can happen within a marriage if it is forced. At the start those talks, participants were very awkward… yet, in time, participants became more aware of the issues and topics...

“I really like working with the volunteers in the [displacement] camps. It is the most rewarding part of my work… Sometimes, because I do not live in the camp, there is hesitation to talk to me – but everyone is willing to work with the volunteers, and there are more women and girls coming forward with their problems.

“Through the experience of working in the humanitarian field, my own attitudes about gender have changed, and now I am more aware of power relations... I also recognized that there was no gender balance in my own marriage because I still had to do most of the work at home. I realized that to address gender-based violence, we need to start with ourselves and change our own attitudes.”


World Humanitarian Day falls on the anniversary of a 2003 bombing in Baghdad, Iraq, that killed 22 aid workers. But the event does not simply memorialize their sacrifice. It also celebrates the spirit that inspired them – and so many others – to serve.

It was in this spirit that Hakam’s colleagues later drove the same ambulance to reach a woman in labour. The journey was no less risky, but the emergency workers were undeterred. “No car dared to go to that place except for [the Red Crescent] vehicle,” Mr. Alashraf explained.

The woman was brought safely to a UNFPA-assisted hospital, where she delivered her baby. “She was very happy that the beautiful baby was born in good health.”

Afterward, she insisted the volunteers help her name the baby. “We chose to call him Hakam,” Mr. Alashraf said.