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I think without love there is no peace and without peace well what do we have left?  Only war.  And that's definitely not the place where we want the world or society in the next generations to be.

Nuran

More than food and water

Special guests:

Nuran Higgins, emergency public health, planning and coordination

Host:

Alex Hahn, Australian Red Cross

 

Alex

Leading aid worker Nuran Higgins knows how hard it can be to live from hand to mouth, not knowing where the next meal is coming from.  Once homeless, now helping to improve the way aid is delivered from Nepal to Afghanistan.  Hi, Nuran, thanks for joining me.

Nuran

Thanks for having me.

Alex

So, you've been an aid worker for over 15 years now and you've done mission after mission. What is it that keeps you coming back to this line of work?

Nuran

 I think if I go back to the experience of being homeless at the age of 15, it really gave me a wakeup call around the essence of humanity essentially, and being in a position where people would look at you, not knowing your story and having the opportunity to come out of that experience, I realised how fortunate I was.

I think when you're sort of facing those circumstances, you lose all sense of hope and having the ability to know that in the worst circumstance that life does inevitably get better when you feel that it doesn't. That really has become my driving force to continue to do this work, because every time I go to a new context, a new mission and I'm privileged enough to look in the face and eyes of people that are suffering and be able to connect to some extent what they're going through.  Not totally but having experienced some of those things myself, and know that I'm sharing that space with them and that there is an opportunity to have an impact in a way that goes beyond just the distribution of essential relief items that's going to make a difference for their day, but to reach more deeper into the soul of that person.  So that's what continues to inspire me every time I sort of see that call for a mission to pick my bags up and go.

Alex

Okay.  And you mentioned that you became homeless at 15.  Can you talk to us about the circumstances surrounding that?  How did that happen?

Nuran

I grew up from, you know, with a broken family which is not too dissimilar to a lot of people unfortunately in society, and it was at that time that the environment which I found myself in was quite violent.  My mother was in a very violent relationship and you know whatever the circumstances were at that time, I tried to mitigate as much as possible, protecting myself and my sisters, but unfortunately you know I wasn't in a position to make the decisions of what that meant for me, and I found myself then faced with the decision made by my mother to pack my bags with whatever I had on me and to leave the house. 

So that was a bit of a challenge to sort of find yourself putting forward an ultimatum to someone that you're most closest to in life and then face that sense of rejection.  But, you know, I think it made me a better person from the experience that I had living on the streets and I respect still to this day that, you know, it was not an easy situation for my mother at the time, having to raise four girls by herself, and she did at the time what she felt was the right decision. And for me I've had to sort of accept that sometimes decisions are made that you may not necessarily like but how you react to them ultimately will define the path that you choose to lead for yourself, and that's where I sort of have been able to move beyond the experience to, you know, decide well what does that mean for me, and how do I want to define myself and my journey in life.

Alex

And how long were you homeless for?

Nuran

It was about eight months.

Alex

Okay, so that's quite a long time.

Nuran

Yeah, it was an interesting experience being around people the same age as myself.  You know, and I spent most of the time actually here in the city, so I know lots of places where you can keep warm when it's cold and some of those places have changed as well.  Obviously there's development.  But I always find it kind of interesting walking the streets of the city and seeing remnants of my past and then sort of taking a moment to step back and look at the person I've become as a result of that, and being extremely grateful.

Alex

Can you talk to us about your experience at that time in your life?  What was it like?

Nuran

It was challenging, I have to say.  Yeah, not knowing every day if I would have enough food.  Of course, I had to beg for people for $2.  Put my hands out asking people for $2, and I remember at the time quite distinctly there was - McDonalds was handing out these little $2 cards for a cheeseburger, buy a cheeseburger for $2 and you get free fries.

So that was my - I guess my target for three times each day.  If I could just get $6 then I would be able to have three hamburgers and three fries and that would fill me up.  And there would be times where I wouldn't actually get anything, and yeah, so that really made me appreciate how life can change quite quickly, from having everything to then having nothing.  And that's during the day, the night was also - it brought its own demons up of course.  Choosing where to sleep, being a young woman.  People were very territorial, so you could find yourself in the night being somewhere that it belonged to someone and you could end up finding yourself being beaten.  And having to be resourceful and hope that nothing really bad happens.  But of course unfortunately, you know, the circumstances I did end up becoming addicted to drugs for a period of time. But I was very fortunate I never got onto the hard, hard drugs, so I was - I was on the speed but friends of mine, you know, that I'd made, the community that, you know, became my family at the time.  You know, there were many of them that were on heroin and, you know, I never forget the moment where I was sitting under the bridge where Flinders Street Station is there's actually - underneath that bridge you can actually get inside, there's like a little box that you can get inside the bridge, and that used to be a place we'd sleep in winter.  And I remember sitting there scrunched up with lots of other people and there was a girl who I would say probably about 13.  She was pregnant and she asked me to hold her tourniquet.  And I looked at that moment and went it's only a matter of time before that's going to be me and it's only a matter of time before I end up not being here. 

And yeah, from that moment I realised that as dark as what I felt and I really felt at that point there was no sense of fear.  I didn't care what happened because you were just - there was just darkness.  But that moment I realised in spite of that there was something good about me.  I didn't know exactly what it was but I knew that there was something greater than the circumstance that I found myself in, and I just had to believe in that, even if it was just a drop that I would come through this and everything was going to be okay.  And yeah, I'm 40 now, 25 years later and I look at the journey that I've had in my life and I'm extremely grateful for having to go through that and, you know, sharing you know in the different places in the city where they have those shelter places.  Those places I remember were so toxic, you know, being a woman again in-between all these men and it was just, you know, really dark moments but they've really made me the resilient, strong woman that I am today.

Alex

So how do you go from experiences like that which are so bleak and so intense to pulling yourself out of it?

Nuran

Yeah, that's an interesting - you I think in any circumstance when you reach the bottom, if you do have that drop of hope and it's really hard when you've lost all sense of confidence and belief in yourself, it will always boil down to someone holding their hand out and saying I believe in you, and that's I think really the essence of what has driven me over many years to do this work, is that you know holding my hand out and sharing that experience saying that, you know, you can get through this even when you don't feel.  And for me it was my grandparents who I owe the world to and I can't even imagine.  I've thought about it time and time again, what it must have been like for them, you know, about 25 years ago to see their first granddaughter, a speed addict, homeless and having the strength to pull me out of that experience and say, you know, there is something greater and we're going to help you get through this.  So yeah, my grandparents locked me in their middle room.

Alex

They locked you up?

Nuran

Yes, and that's how I went through detox.

Alex

Wow.

Nuran

And yeah, I can't imagine what they felt.  I know what I felt.  I know how excruciating it was to go through that experience of detoxing and not have anything, like you do today.  You know, I remember screaming for hours and hours and, you know, just punching the door begging them to let me out and they would have to hear that day after day after day.  But of course, you know, eventually they did let me out and they trusted me to go to the corner shop and grab some cigarettes and I relapsed.  I went straight into the city and you know got my fix, and I called my grandmother and I, you know, she could tell straight away.  And that's when I knew that this was the end, I needed to stop.  Just to hear that disappointment in her voice and how much I'd hurt her.  I knew then that was it.

Alex

I understand why you must be grateful for your grandparents that they were there for you and they helped you through that.  Do you think that that experience has made you a better aid worker than what you would  have been?

Nuran

Without a doubt.  Without a doubt.  To have the kind of empathy that I have has been because of those experiences and to know, you know, the challenge we face unfortunately is how to balance that.  You know, because it is such a selfless occupation and it can deplete you so quickly but you still need to remain empathetic, you need to remain connected and that's sometimes the hardest thing that the sector doesn't give us.  It tells us the kinds of diseases we're likely to face, the importance of drinking good portable water, all your things like that but it doesn't really prepare you for the deeper human side of what you will face.  The moral dilemmas and how do you actually find a balance.

Alex

Going back to the idea of that aid is more than just, you know, shelter, water and sanitation, can you talk to us about why aid is more than just a roof over head and that that actually means?

Nuran

Yeah, I think - it's a good question.  I think at the beginning of any emergency, you know, there is a very narrow-minded focus and it needs to be because it's about saving lives. But then, you know, we sort of use terminology, response, early recovery, recovery, long term development, you know, we put them into these boxes but ultimately you know once you get over that kind of peak of where the impact of where an emergency has reached its point, people go back to what their instinctually driven by and that's a sense of community.

We need to remember that this person at the end of the day is part of a family, part of a community and how do we connect with that to understand how we can support them with their own resources, with their own understanding of what's needed so that we're able to really build back resilience.  Because we like to use this word resilience and sustainability and all of these lovely terminologies but that stuff takes time, and that's often you know, even if we think about the structure of how we work, we work in 12 month contracts. To build trust within a community to understand the complexity within a community, the hidden  - you know, the web, it goes beyond 12 months.

Alex

So with all that in mind, what does aid mean to you?  What does the true delivery of aid mean to you and following on from that, what would be your ideal version of aid delivery?

Nuran

What does aid mean to me?  I think if I stand back and I look at how as an outsider if I look at a sector which has developed into a huge business, and then I come back to who I am - my identity and what drives me, I see aid as something that's a transferability between two people, and it's not just the ability of saying okay, if we look at healthcare, for example, it's not just the ability of us having the medicine to give to the community, but it's about the transferability of what they give us in understanding why healthcare is an issue, and how do we take that information and advocate in a way that can shift some of those challenges.  But also create a space for them to improve their own lives. 

So for me in any emergency fundamentally we need to not be thinking only of saving lives, we need to have that strategic mindset, and sometimes that's often forgotten because the pressure of everything else that's going on at the time.  But it's fundamental to not just think okay, this point but the decision I'm making now what is going to be the impact of that in the next three, six, 12, 24 months, based on what's already existing.  You know, if we think about the movement as a whole, you know, we're everywhere. So how do we utilise that capacity, that expertise in a way that really is building back the foundations of the society and not our own existence.

Alex

How easy is that to do, to think about that long term goal when you're working 18 hour days in very high intensity, very highly stressful, very immediate needs kind of contexts?

Nuran

It's not easy.  I'll say definitely upfront, it's definitely not easy and there are a number of reasons why.  As you said, 18 hours a day, you know, you do get exhausted by the first month but for me what I've sort of looked at, I've sort of broken it down over the years and said okay, what are the challenges that hinder our ability to think beyond saving lives but to think in that moment in time strategically, and what are the mediation measures that we need to put in place and make an effort to do that.  So one is, you know, the actual timeframe, the pressure that you're put on and to have to make rapid decisions. So how can you then make rapid decisions with clarity.  You actually need - and this is where it comes back to self-care, you actually need to take the time out to say I need my space so that I can come every day with a clear mind and cope with the stresses that are coming.  Because the build-up, the cumulative build-up of stress then compromises after two weeks.  I've seen it where you know I was up at 5 o'clock every morning doing yoga and meditation, people thought I was looney but I could see clearly after two weeks people were making irrational decisions, people started to get aggressive because of that stress, and yet I, you know, was waking up, giving myself the space that I needed to go today is a new day, you know, counteract the stress build-up and be ready to tackle the day ahead.  The second is the actual structural challenges, the organisational culture, and so you're always going to be bound by leadership; policies, procedures, and this is a biggie because again we are - we're driven by, you know, this humanitarian imperative but that is bound by a structure that we have to abide by and sometimes it goes against our natural human instinct, and so how do you find the measures to counteract that. 

And that's where really understanding then well what is the organisational culture that I'm actually a part of and how can I use, you know, the softer skills that I have to listen to where people are coming from to try and find an alternative solution to what is needed, because I know that this decision is actually going to be counterproductive in 12 months' time.  And it takes experience, it doesn't just - you wake up the next day and you're able to do it. And even now still, you know, I find myself every time I'm out in the field there's a lot for me to learn from that experience because each context brings something different.  And then the last is purely really taking into account national staff.  What are they dealing with?  What were they dealing with before?  What were their strengths as a national society and how do you actually further build on that rather than saying okay, we need to do everything. 

Alex

So you've worked in Afghanistan a few times?

Nuran

Yes.

Alex

It's one of the more dangerous countries in the world, especially for an aid worker. What exactly keeps you going back?

Nuran

It feels like home to me. I remember the first time - I had a fascination with Afghanistan actually since 1998.

Alex

Why was that?

Nuran

Well I was a volunteer for the Red Cross, Australian Red Cross and we were dealing with newly arrived refugees, youth and I was just really fascinated by the culture, the people and that set off then this fascination for me over the years when I, you know, ended up starting to do international work to be able to close that loop in understanding well this is the journey that they've come from, what is it actually like there.  And yeah, I think like most places you know it's never what people assume it to be and there will always be a place where you feel more connected, and Afghanistan is definitely one of those I think.  There is a very deep spiritual connection within people, in spite of all of the crap that's going on that they hold very strong, and that for me again with who I am as a person is really important to have that spiritual grounding.  So yeah, I just - yeah, it's home for me and I feel lost if I don't, you know, pass a year without doing some work there.  Yeah, so since 2009, yeah, I've been going back.

Alex

That's quite a strong pull.  So is it - so you say it feels like home to you [Yes] which I suppose our audience might find surprising, you know, because –

Nuran

No meat pies or - yeah, VBs there.

Alex

Yeah, well exactly. Which is probably a good thing.

Nuran

Yeah.

Alex

But other than the spirituality what is it about Afghanistan that makes you feel like it's your home?  And I've heard it's your favourite country as well.

Nuran

Yeah, it is, it is, it is my favourite country.  I think I've been really blessed to have travelled quite extensively throughout the whole country.  There's 34 provinces and I think I've travelled to 24 of them, so I've ticked off pretty much most of the country and every province is different, and you can see that and each border to the country you can see the influence, you know, from the east with you know Jalalabad, the west with Iran, in the north, it was that kind of fusion I just find really fascinating to sort of see. There is a humbleness that you see within people in spite of everything.  You know, there will be a suicide attack and everyone is in shock and within an hour once everything has been cleared, people will get back to life and find somewhere within that space to remember the fragility of life but also take that back home in the sense of God, I'm really lucky.  I'm lucky I have my family, you know, there's a sense of gratitude despite the circumstances which they live in, and I think for me it just grounds me more and more as a person every time I go there. 

Women for me I think as well their resilience, their ability to still stand strong in their own unique way I think I find really inspiring, especially the younger generation that are coming up that have you know had access in different ways to education, to what their parents did and are really taking that and driving it forward in their own kind of unique way, and I'm really - I'm really excited to see what the country will be like in the next 10 to 15 years with this huge investment of education that's happened over the last 15 years, and how that will shape the country.  What that will look like.  But then there's also the cultural heritage, the preservation of culture and there is amazing arts that exist in that country, so much talent.  Entrepreneurialship that you know over time having been there and had access outside of just, you know, compound lifestyle over the different years that you get to see this stuff and you're like wow, this is a really interesting place. So yeah it will always continue to pull me back.  I think for me there's two, there's Afghanistan and there's Nepal. Both of those countries fill me in different ways but yeah, Afghanistan is definitely, yeah, I think I need to get like a passport or something, or citizenship.

Alex

So why you were over in Afghanistan you set up a health program there.  Can you talk to us about that?

Nuran

So the Afghan Red Crescent is the biggest health service provider across the country and, you know, their health and care program is massive.  It goes from primary healthcare to emergency health care, community health.  They've got clinics across, you know, all 34 provinces, mobile health teams.  It's a huge program.  And I was fortunate having worked there in the past to take on a role as a health delegate to work closely with the national society around trying to strengthen their healthcare program. 

And so last year my role over the year was really to take stock of where things have been over the last three years, three to five years and what does that mean with the changing landscape in Afghanistan for the next three to five years.  How does - you know, what are the key aspects of the national society, the movement as a whole that they need to be thinking about, particularly around access to healthcare.  As you know it's a huge issue.  You know ICRC has been very strong in advocating its campaign on Healthcare in Danger and they've done a lot of work around how do we look at this issue of access.  So this really took up a huge part of you know the work that I did going out into the provinces, I was you know in places where it wasn't so dangerous to then places like Helmand out really, really in remote parts of Helmad in Lashkar Gah where the mobile teams were trying to understand the challenges of, you know, even just getting out to that point and not being shot at, to witness you know how they're actually providing health service provision, what are the community thinking about, how we improve the challenges around access with the key interlocutors, all of that kind of stuff. 

So it was really I felt extremely blessed to be given this opportunity to look - you know, unpack the program, think from an operational and strategic point of view what does the framework need to look like moving forward, and how do we then take that back in a discussion around the table with the movement as a whole to say okay, what does that mean for us and how do we ensure that the challenges that we know are coming from a security point of view, how are we still going to be able to reach those most vulnerable or, you know, those that have limited access to healthcare even further because of the conflict.

Alex

How is that program making a difference that you say?

Nuran

Yeah, in so many ways.  Like even just the - for example, the healthcare - the basic healthcare clinic in Lashkar Gah, you know, I remember coming in and you know looking at the - not just only the structural but looking at the kind of competencies and skills of the staff, the resources and I remember a woman coming in with three - with triplets four months old and you could see without a doubt, you know, they weren't going to make it.  If one was well that would just be an amazing thing, and she had travelled for miles where there was intense fighting. She risked not only, you know, her safety, her children's safety, to try and get to somewhere where there was access to healthcare. And of course, you know, the health facilities at a basic level are very limited to deal with the complexity of what was presenting but then it was about looking at well, what other agencies are actually in that province that have different specialisation, and we were lucky that MSF was there and we were able to refer.

The mobile teams are - you know, again is another really good example and I've travelled out to see, you know - there's like 31 and I travelled out to see 13 of them, tried to 50 per cent.  And when you see even with them, you know, just having a four wheel drive with basics and the impact that they can make.  You know, some locations we travelled was like five hours one way just to get to see them in the field because they were that remotely set up, and you just think well if they weren't there and there were some - you know, there were a number of situations where there were critical cases and they were able to stabilise and you think yeah, this is really making a difference.  It's one life at a time but it is a life.

Alex

Now you did mention Nepal earlier.

Nuran

Yes.

Alex

So you've done three missions there, is that correct?

Nuran

Yeah.

Alex

So for context, this was the earthquake that was in April 2015.

Nuran

Yes, correct.

Alex

It killed 9000 people and it left around 4 million people displaced, is that right?

Nuran

Yes, yes.

Alex

What is the most moving story that you remember from - well, your three missions there?

Nuran

I think my favourite moment was actually the Norwegian field hospital.  Myself and my colleagues from the Nepalese Red Cross, we were going out to the field to see how the field hospital was going and we started to walk through the different wards and there was a grandmother with her grandchild, very, very small grandchild who had been caught up in the earthquake and it had fractured legs and - two fractured legs. And you know she had trekked from a very remote hill area to carry her down, an old lady sitting with the basics kind of, you know, a few pieces of food here and there.  And this little child was just still smiling regardless of, you know, the circumstance.  And I remember coming - you know, getting down on my knees and sort of you know acknowledging her in Nepali, “Namaste” which is, you know, how are you.  And you know holding up your hand as you do in greeting them.  And this little child has just, you know, pulled his hands up and did the whole, you know, "Namaste" thing and my colleague took a photo of it and when I saw it later in the day I was like yeah, these are the precious moments that you go this is what it's - this is what drives me and this is what inspires me to know that yeah, what we're doing isn't everything because you can never - you know, you never have enough ever but to know that the services that were provided to that child will enable that child to move forward in life in a healthier way as a - you know, as a result of having that field hospital set up following the disaster.

Alex

So finally Nuran, what is it that you love about aid work?

Nuran

Humanity.  Peace and love in spite of all the adversity. I think without love there is no peace and without peace well what do we have left?  Only war.  And that's definitely not the place where we want the world or society in the next generations to be, so yeah.

Alex

Nuran Higgins, thank you very much.

Nuran

Thanks for having me.

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