Sharing Humanity: Hafiza’s Story

Hafiza Khan knows first-hand what it’s like in the wake of a super cyclone. To mark World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, Hafiza and other team members from the World Food Programme are sharing their stories about working in their own countries to help end hunger. This is Hafiza’s story from Bangladesh.
Hafiza Khan in Bangladesh.

My name is Hafiza. I was born in a village in southernmost Bangladesh, right on the coast, and I grew up experiencing many disasters: cyclones, flash floods, tidal surges and river erosion. Looking back at my school days, I vividly remember walking from house to house after a natural disaster, seeing how the poorest of my community had fared. And with that came a feeling of hopelessness: what could I do to help in the wake of a disaster when the needs were so great?

When Cyclone Sidr hit the southern coastal areas in November 2007, it arrived as a “super cyclone” — with winds of up to 250 kilometres per hour. It killed 3,000 people and caused damage in 30 districts, devastating homes and livelihoods, crops and food supplies. The next day, I visited a few of the affected areas to see for myself. I spoke with many women. One of them was Amara, who just hours before had lost her daughter. Even today, nearly a decade later, I can remember her voice. She said something like this:

“We had a big and strong house, where 80 people took shelter. But the water got higher and higher, the waves stronger, and our house finally gave way. It got swept away with all of us inside. We tried to get out and some of us managed to climb nearby trees, but my daughter is not good at swimming. My husband reached out to grab her, but the current was too strong and fast — the water carried her away from us.”

Can you imagine watching your own child get swept away? This moment will never leave me.

After the cyclone, the World Food Programme reached 2.2 million people with emergency relief. I think our national staff contributed tremendously to the speed with which WFP responded: within 12 hours of landfall, we had already reached many people — I don’t know how some of them would have put food on the table otherwise.

After heavy rainfall caused flash floods in southern Bangladesh in 2015, WFP worked with the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and the Australian Government to deliver food to people in the worst-affected areas. Photo: WFP/Kamrul Mithon

I feel honoured to meet the people in the communities where we work and listen to their stories. And I am always happy to accompany government officials, donors and other partners to show them the fruits of our partnerships.

As a national staff member, I have no language barrier, so it’s easier to learn about people’s experiences and concerns. I also know the culture of my country and use that to the World Food Programme’s benefit. The people we support are mostly female, so being a woman makes it easier to get to know them and their concerns, especially in a conservative country like Bangladesh. We can talk more intimately, and there are topics that they would never discuss with my male colleagues. But still today, there are also challenges for us female professionals. We need to be mindful of local beliefs when planning field trips. In general, men are more respected, especially in the countryside, and it is easier for them to travel to hard-to-reach areas.

So I have learned to work with poor people and high-ranking officials alike and will always try to use this to spur change. That trust between me as a national and my fellow Bangladeshis, be they rickshaw drivers or community chairmen, is very important. I think it also can reassure people that we are actually here to help; it may give them a stronger sense of ownership.

We still face high levels of poverty despite strong economic progress. Yet the picture is changing. Children under the age of five are healthier than ever before; coastal and river communities are better prepared to cope with climate shocks; and more girls and boys complete primary school. The World Food Programme has been working in my country since 1974 and we remain committed to continue playing our part, both as a development partner of the government and as provider of humanitarian assistance. There are good reasons to be optimistic as we continue our work here. #ShareHumanity

Read Besher’s Story from Syria.

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