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Life on the frontlines of humanitarian aid

Three Red Cross aid workers share their insights from this year's crisis hotspots.

Friday November 28, 2014

Red Cross Aid Workers
Aid workers Jess Letch, Libby Bowell and Don Johnston at the Red Cross public forum held in Sydney

Last night three Red Cross aid workers shared a rare glimpse into life on the frontlines of this year's humanitarian crisis hotspots - conflict in Ukraine, the mounting refugee crisis in northern Iraq and the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

Red Cross and Red Crescent societies were already on the ground in each country, ready to respond. Our three Australian Red Cross aid workers were assigned to countries where their expertise was needed most to support the local humanitarian relief effort.

Aid worker Jess Letch worked with the ICRC in Ukraine, helping to reunite families separated by the fighting as part of the Red Cross International Tracing Service.

Hundreds of thousands of people in eastern Ukraine were forced to flee their homes, many of them vulnerable disabled people evacuated with their carers. Over 400,000 people had already been internally displaced when she arrived, with up to 22,000 people on the move in one week.

Above: Jess Letch(right) helping people get in touch with their families in Ukraine

Jess explained that people needed aid but the problem was getting across the frontlines, as each day presented a new risk. The supply of food, medicine and fuel was erratic and phone and internet lines were down, which meant many people had lost touch with their loved ones.

During her assignment Jess helped to transmit over 350 messages of hope to separated family members. "It seems like a drop in the ocean, but it meant so much to those families," said Jess.

Australian Red Cross aid worker Don Johnston was sent to Kurdistan and Northern Iraq this year as a Field Assessment and Coordination Team Leader, where he helped managed the relief effort to support both Syrian refugees and internally displaced Iraqi people, families and individuals who were on the move.

"Thousands of people fled due to fear of their lives," said Don. "These people will be displaced for years and years".

Above:  Iraqi Red Crescent aid reaching families in desperate need.

When Don arrived, the initial priority for Iraq Red Crescent was to provide water and food for more than 100,000 people who were on the road, followed by blankets, mattresses and kitchen sets. Their longer term needs will place enormous stress on already stretched local infrastructure.

Don understands better than most how the generous public support given to the Syria Crisis Appeal allowed Red Cross aid to reach more people and plan ahead for an uncertain future. He expressed his sincere gratitude to everyone who had donated to the appeal.

The final Australian Red Cross aid worker to speak at the forum was Libby Bowell, a nurse who recently returned from Liberia where she worked to control the Ebola outbreak through community health education.

Libby's years of experience as a public health coordinator with Red Cross has sent her into many major disaster zones and four major cholera outbreaks, but she said going to Liberia to deal with Ebola was her most confronting assignment. Seeing her fellow nurses dying was very tough, along with the growing number of Ebola orphans.


Above: Red Cross aid worker and nurse Libby Bowell at work in Liberia

When Libby arrived, burial duties were new for Liberian Red Cross. By the time she left she said there were 16 teams of 7 people, trained to collect between 5-10 bodies per day from the community for safe burial. They had to teach family members not to touch the bodies of their loved ones.

"Ebola was real. It was harsh. They're tired, doing an almighty job," said Libby in praise of the colleagues she left behind in Liberia. "We're making headway but it must stay front of mind," said Libby, urging people to keep up the support to bring the Ebola crisis under control.

In the Q&A session, many people sought advice about becoming an aid worker. All three advised that a degree in international development did not guarantee a career in aid work. The best way was through a practical skill, such as nursing, engineering or project management. Understanding of issues such as public health and water and sanitation were also important.

Peter Walton, Head of International Programs at Red Cross, also advised that international volunteering is extremely valuable experience for anyone interested in becoming a professional aid worker.