World Humanitarian Day, 19 August, is a time to recognize those who face danger and adversity in order to help others.
On the eve of deployment to Erbil, Iraq, Manan Kotak, UNICEF’s Humanitarian Support Personnel for Education in Emergencies, shares his experiences as a humanitarian worker.
NEW YORK, 18 August, 2014 – I always wanted to work in emergencies. I find it both fascinating and rewarding. I started my humanitarian work in 2001 when an earthquake hit my hometown in India. Twelve years later, I joined UNICEF as International Humanitarian Support personnel working on peace education in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Afghanistan and most recently I was deployed to the Philippines for six months.
One of the most challenging things in this work is the urgency in which you’re deployed. I was in Turkey at a training workshop on education in emergencies when I found out I was needed in the Philippines. I didn’t have the appropriate things with me, clothes or food etc. Thankfully I was able to quickly stop by India on the way to pick up some things – I flew on Christmas Eve – however I didn’t have time to see my family, so I just spoke to them over the phone from Delhi.
The Philippines was very different to other emergencies I’ve responded to. It was a natural disaster. And while I’d responded to natural disasters in India, the devastation caused by the typhoon was very different. It was a mess. Fortunately there were a lot of agencies working on the ground with good coordination and the government of the Philippines was very proactive.
I arrived in Manila for a briefing from the Chief of Education, then flew to Tacloban. As soon as I arrived in Tacloban I was briefed by the Education Team leader. We only talked about work from breakfast to dinner because there was so much to be done and there was limited time. In emergencies you share rooms with colleagues, you share lunch and breakfast and dinner. It builds a closeness with colleagues. Some humanitarian workers in Tacloban were still living in tents. I’m vegetarian and it was often hard to find food. The first three months to be honest were challenging for me. You also have to be ready to learn quickly and on your feet – the second day I was in Tacloban I was accompanying media to the field to raise awareness about the situation there.
“The most rewarding part of my work is meeting the children”
The most rewarding part of my work is meeting the children. When you go in the field and see the smile on the faces of children, the faces of teachers, the faces of parents, you don’t think about your pay, it is just so rewarding. Filipino people are so generous and so polite. Working with the government, working with school principals, working in communities, everyone is so generous and welcoming and thankful for the support. That’s what you feel. You feel like “I did something,” “we did something,” “our team did something.”
When I was leaving it brought tears to my eyes. It was sad to leave my colleagues and the people I’d worked with. They were sad too. You have to make a quick rapport with the people when you work in an emergency because you spend so much time together. Then before you know it you are leaving and have a farewell party and see that people are really grateful to you and you are grateful to them. The relationship with human beings, and how you build those relationships in this kind of job, is the most rewarding.
When this blog is published I will be on my way to my next deployment – Erbil, Iraq. I’m excited. This will be a really different scenario – it’s a conflict zone. There are risks – particularly for your personal safety. It’s more risky than the Philippines or other countries I have worked. But I’m looking forward to this challenge. Of course my family and friends will be worried. However I have heard from UNICEF and UN colleagues already there that the security is good, and I feel confident after hearing these stories.
There is a lot of work to be done, especially in education as this is one of the sectors often overlooked by humanitarian partners in emergencies, and it can be lifesaving for children and the community. Children must have access to quality education, particularly in times of crisis. This is my commitment to my job and myself, so I’m eager to work with communities and partners on the ground to deliver results for children. I look forward to sharing my experiences from Iraq.
As told to Pi James