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What does it mean to be a humanitarian?

14 August 2019

Hi everyone,

I’m in Sydney and NSW this week to meet with some of you and chat about how we’re progressing with our work in the new financial year. Among the topics of conversations were the recent 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions and the upcoming World Humanitarian Day.  

World Humanitarian Day signifies the countless sacrifices made by aid workers who risk their lives to support people affected by crises, wars and disasters around the world. We mark this day on 19 August every year to advocate for the safety and security of humanitarian aid workers. 

A heartfelt thank you to all our aid workers who go above and beyond to help those in crises. If you haven’t, have a read at this note to those who say humanity is dead

I’ve asked Rose, Michael, Amber and Marlee to share their thoughts on what World Humanitarian Day means to them. Here are their stories.

Nuns and tent city

On World Humanitarian Day 2019, I will take time to reflect on the plight of the millions of displaced people through war, disasters and climate change around the world. 

The 2019 campaign is focussed on Women Humanitarians, we honour the hundreds of thousands of women working in crisis environments helping those in need. To our Women Red Cross/Red Crescent workers in the field, I salute you all. You are our Heroes!

What does World Humanitarian Day mean to me? 

I have never worked in a conflict Zone but in September 1999, I was actively involved in the arrival of 2,000 Timorese evacuees (following the East Timor election) to Darwin. These people were mostly UN workers and their families who were attacked by the anti-independence militia groups.

It was the first time I was directly involved in dealing with traumatised people from the effects of conflict. When the first B52 bomber (Hercules) arrived with a batch of evacuees, they only had the clothes they wore and the only thing they were holding were Christian artefacts. They refused to get on the buses at the airport. They explained that they did not want to board the bus because some of their loved ones were ushered into buses and never returned! They would only trust Catholic nuns if they were in their habits! 

I quickly made contact with some nuns through Catholic Mission, requested them to wear their old ‘habits’ (they had to dig them out of a camphorwood chest!) and help us alleviate their fears. 

The evacuees’ fears were palpable. The relief on their faces was one to behold when they saw the nuns approaching! They got on the buses and we took them to an evacuation centre for health screening followed by a hearty meal before they were transferred to the ‘tent city’.  

In the course of two weeks we were all totally exhausted working in the ‘tent city’ despite plenty of support and assistance. Imagine how difficult and resilient it is for our frontline Red Cross people working in areas of war-torn and disaster-affected countries.   

We can take one small action to support those brave women to do their work - by making a donation to our Humanitarian Aid Program.

Communities, neighbours and individuals

World Humanitarian Day is a very personal day for me. A day that I have drawn strength from through the universally recognised concept of humanitarianism as shown through languages as in Fijian - veivuke raraba, Indonesian - kemanusiaan, Mongolian - хүмүүнлэгийн,  الإنسانية – Arabic, Sudanese - Kamanussan, or Islandic - Mannúðar. No matter the language, I am awestruck by those who commit themselves to support others whether that be in their community or further afield in an international setting.  

The women of the remote Damian Village in Guangxi Province, China volunteering their time and labour to build a water system to support their community. The entire water reticulation system network was dug by the women of the village.

Officially, World Humanitarian Day is focussed on honouring humanitarian efforts worldwide and highlighting what humanitarians and people affected by crises encounter every day. I have been extremely fortunate to work beside many individuals who embody the spirit of humanitarianism, for which I am extremely grateful, and would not be the person I am today. However, what I have been most impacted by, is not the commitment and sense of giving from my colleagues, but by those for whom being a humanitarian is not a profession and who take action in their daily lives, sacrificing their own needs for the needs of others. While we celebrate all humanitarian action, I am truly inspired by the communities, neighbours and individuals who through their volunteer action display the spirit of humanitarianism without expectation of recognition or reward. 

This year the focus of World Humanitarian Day is on celebrating Women Humanitarians and their undying contribution in making the world a better place. This year I will reflect on the strength and perseverance of women who contribute to the Red Cross Red Crescent as primary careers of their family, as first responders, as professionals who lead programs, and as leaders in guiding our amazing Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.  

Women Humanitarians are often overlooked or forgotten. The often subtle contribution by Women Humanitarians is too readily missed in the hustle and bustle of disaster and crises. However, it is the willingness to continue to act that is the strength of women within our workforce and our communities and that accentuates their humanitarian contributions.

A simple act of kindness

This day raises diverse awareness for me and brings about mixed thoughts and feelings. It also prompts me to think about my own contribution and humanitarian action within my own family, local community and globally.

People are in need all over the world, whether it be from natural disasters, armed conflict or other crisis and need the help of others to improve their current situation and alleviate their suffering.

In one aspect, this day brings a real sense of pride and privilege to be a part of the world’s largest humanitarian organisation; trying to make this world a better, a happier and peaceful place to live. Locally, my time is largely dedicated to improving the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in Australia, people living with mental health concerns; a personal crisis that for some is deep, painful and persistent and something they battle with on a daily basis. This work is very close to my heart.

Globally, this day reminds me about the amazing humanitarian work that goes on around the world. At the same time, the many who have been injured and lost as a result of trying to help others in need brings about sadness for me; that innocent, selfless humans have lost their lives as a result of trying to help other people in need. Some humanitarians are real heroes and they deserve a day dedicated to them, to remember them.

The world needs more humanitarians: more skilled, courageous, brave, kind, generous, selfless, empathetic people. I’m hoping this day prompts others to reflect on their own contribution to making this world a better place and ultimately do more good. I am quite fond of this image – many people coming together for one cause, a simple act of kindness.

My great-grandmother, Violet Pearl French

‘Humanitarian’ is not a word I’ve ever felt comfortable labelling myself with. It’s always felt like a kind of formal title attached to certain criteria and specific roles that have been out of reach or out of sight for someone like me, with goals like mine.

As a Kamilaroi/Dunghutti woman, determined to advocate for and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in all aspects of life, the work I and those around me have been doing for most of our lives, has never felt specifically ‘humanitarian’, but rather, just something that is right and has to be done. We do what we do to honour those who came before us, who fought for the opportunities we have now in the hopes of furthering the prosperity of those who will come after us.

Since coming on as the Chair of the Australian Red Cross National Youth Advisory Committee earlier this year, I guess this word ‘humanitarian’ is growing to be more familiar and much closer to me and my community than I once thought. I quite often think about my great-grandmother, Violet Pearl French, as the prime example of a humanitarian. She raised ten children of her own and adopted or housed many others who had nowhere else to go, throughout her life and even through the tough period when the family could only afford to live in a tin humpy, on a dried up riverbed in Moree NSW.

She was a quiet, humble and selfless matriarch for not only my family, but everyone who had the pleasure of knowing her. She spent her whole ninety years of life, giving. Giving love, care, compassion and even well into her eighties, volunteering with the elderly through a ‘Meals on Wheels’ service. She and her story are what World Humanitarian Day means to me, particularly this year with the focus on Women Humanitarians. This day is about celebrating the everyday champion, who pours their energy into helping others. The person who is just doing what’s right to them. And most importantly, it’s about showing others across the world, that there’s nothing stopping them from being a humanitarian too.

Thanks Rose, Michael, Amber and Marlee for their perspectives. When I was talking to Red Cross members in Glen Innes yesterday we were able to share examples of local humanitarian action as well. It was a great reminder of the breadth of what World Humanitarian Day honours across the world. 

Chat to you next week.