The “Never Say Never” Team

Battling stormy seas.
Evacuating colleagues from conflict zones.
Doing whatever it takes to get the job done.

For World Food Programme (WFP) shipping officers like HeaShin Kim, every day brings on an unexpected challenge.

“We have ship after ship that we line up to carry all kinds of food, water, medicine. You name it, we deliver,” Kim says. “That’s what we do and we make sure it gets done.”

It. Gets. Done.

A model of the Advantage. © WFP/Rein Skullerud

As the only United Nations agency with its own shipping unit, WFP shipping officers coordinate around 20 ships at any given time to sail the ocean and deliver food assistance throughout the world. Even more incredible — the individuals who make up this unique and powerful unit bring with them years of knowledge and expertise.

They negotiate with shipping lines, envision and mentally calculate the size of a ship and navigate tricky routes to keep cargo safe. They are tough and quick on their feet.

And most importantly, these masters of the high seas know what it’s like to be on a ship. They understand the kind of hard labor and tough mentality it requires.

They’re what we call the “Never Say Never” team.

HeaShin Kim

“I’ve boarded 3,000 ships at least, but I’ve lost count.”
© WFP/Rein Skullerud

Job title: Shipping Officer and Head of the Charter/Operations Unit

Hometown: Washougal, Washington, United States

With WFP: 15 years

In the shipping industry: 38 years

Q: What was it like when you first started in the shipping industry?

Half the time, I couldn’t tell my parents because they would be worried. I come from a very traditional Korean family that thought I should be a doctor or attorney, not boarding ships at night.

There’s a misconception that crews and sailors are wild and dangerous, but they’re people. They’re like us. In those days, there were no wives or women on the ship. Most really missed their family. We would talk about the family, the children. They would show me their family pictures, I would take them to church and take them to soccer matches between ships.

Many of the ships would return often to the same ports, so it was easy to build relationships as friends — it was a shipping family.

Q: What was it like being one of the first women in the international shipping industry?

I was one of the very first who actually started boarding ships. I didn’t think about it because it was a job and it was a lot of fun, and at times I thought, “Wow, they pay me for this.” It was the best thing I ever got into. I was studying to be a clinical psychologist, but I’m so glad I deviated and went into the shipping industry.

It wasn’t until I had been in the business for over 10 years — that’s when I started to realize there are very few women in the maritime industry. I was able to hire women as staff. We had three ladies boarding ships, known as the three angels.

Women are the best in this business. We can juggle so many things. A ship is like taking care of a household. Over the years, I’ve trained many, many women. And men too.

Q: What keeps you motivated to do the work you do for WFP?

Back in 1990s, there was a big call for attention from WFP for North Korea because they had suffered from so much famine. I was seeing pictures, and Catherine Bertini [the former WFP Executive Director] was appealing for donations, for people to help with the famine. It touched my heart because my father is from North Korea. He escaped from there a long time ago. I thought, “I wish I could do something. I would love to work for them.” At the time, it was just a dream.

I really wanted to help do my part to help the people suffering from food shortage. It’s been gratifying to know that what I’m doing really makes a difference for someone. That’s what keeps me going. It’s motivating. I was only going to be here for two years; it’s been 15. That tells you why I’m still here.

It’s challenging and very satisfying because we know the food we are delivering actually reaches the people we serve, and we’re making a difference; we can see it.

Clara Silva

“Some may say it’s destiny. I just fell in love with shipping and never turned back.”
© WFP/Giulio d’Adamo

Job title: Shipping Officer and Head of the Liner Unit

Hometown: Mondim de Basto, Portugal

With WFP: 7 years

In the shipping industry: 18 years

Q: What are some of the biggest highlights from your career?

That is easy — making a presence as a woman in an industry that even today is very much a man’s world. To be able to have done many commercial deals between them and be taken seriously and, most importantly, have their respect.

Second, making a difference with my work at WFP and being able to deliver top-class shipping services to the UN. We are the only agency that has a shipping department, and we’ve been dealing with simultaneous and major emergencies over the past two and a half years — Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Ebola-affected countries, to mention a few.

Q: What about your job would be the most surprising to those who don’t know much about shipping?

It leads the world’s economy and is probably the industry that created or started globalization. And in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, shipping is considered one of the greenest forms of transport for moving cargo long distances.

It’s all about demand by the consumers. An amazing 90 percent of the goods we buy arrives by sea. Each year, some 86,000 ships move more than 9 billion tons of cargo — more than a ton for each person on the planet — across our seas.

Tillo Amoussou

“You’re called for duty, and you’re fully motivated, and you have a role to play.”
© WFP/Giulio d’Adamo

Job title: Shipping Officer

Hometown: Montreal, Canada

With WFP: 2 years

In the shipping industry: 16 years

Q: How did you get to WFP?

I spent much of my career in the private sector, working for shipping and port agencies, shipping lines in West Africa and North America. My interest in WFP started when I was in the Maritime Academy in Abidjan, [Cote d’Ivoire], where I saw WFP logisticians coming for continuing education.

I thought that I would like to give something different, and this was reinforced by my wife; she helped me realize that I care for people, and that helped me think, “Oh wow, let’s see what else I can do.” I’m honored to have that opportunity with WFP where I can use my expertise and skillset toward caring for the most vulnerable.

Q: What keeps you up at night?

I have a commitment and concern of being able to respond to deliver when needed, when required, to be there whenever we are called upon.

In cases like the Vanuatu emergency operation [after 2015’s Cyclone Pam], we had to operate around the clock, remotely coping from Rome. When it was night here or very early morning, I was already on the phone to touch base with field contacts and local shipping lines. We had to plan, manage and monitor our shipments from afar — from the moment the food was loaded until it was discharged.

What’s important is that our shipping operations bring us to explore all options to ship from place to place — places where I would’ve never thought I would ship to and from. And we do it because of the need, because of the humanitarian call of duty. At the end of the day, we’re up to that kind of challenge.

Mari Masuoka

“I’m really part of the circle of logistics.”
© WFP/Rein Skullerud

Job title: Junior Professional Officer

Hometown: Tokyo, Japan

With WFP: 2 years

In the shipping industry: 5 years

Q: What is the most challenging or unusual operation you’ve been a part of?

Probably when I was in Myanmar as a pipeline officer in Logistics. There was a flood emergency during the summer of 2015. It was my very first emergency experience. It was a very challenging time from a logistics perspective.

Effective strategies needed to be built to solve logistical challenges deep inside Myanmar in a short time frame. Many roads were completely broken down, and no trucks could go through, and we had to think of many ways to deliver food as soon as possible. At the same time, managing stock was a vital issue — grasping the stock situation, what to buy, where to distribute from — to ensure smooth operations, with the collaboration of every WFP unit. It was a very busy but interesting experience. I’m proud and grateful that I was a part of it.

Q: What about your job would be the most surprising to those who don’t know much about shipping?

I had an on-board training on a container vessel when I was in the private sector, where we were physically on the container ship for seven to eight days with the captain and crew — you are in the middle of the sea and there’s literally nothing around you. It’s a 24/7 non-stop job to ensure everything is in order, and I was amazed to see how the job gets done on the ship.

When it’s midnight or sunrise time, it’s absolutely beautiful with the containers and the stars in the sky. You see the containers, the sea, the sunrise and the stars. It’s stunning.

Mustafa Aydin

“Shipping is subject to maritime adventure, an unknown. Anything can happen on the high seas.”
© WFP/Rein Skullerud

Job title: Shipping Officer

Hometown: Istanbul, Turkey

With WFP: 7 years

In the shipping industry: 16 years

Q: What has been the scariest moment of your career?

Before starting at WFP, when I was sailing [from Sweden to Boston, Massachusetts], our ship was about to sink.

We were in Biscay Bay in the Atlantic Ocean, north of Spain and the west coast of France. We had very bad weather there, and we got to the stage where we had to abandon the vessel. There was very low air pressure prevailing over the ocean. We donned our life jackets, and we were ready to abandon ship. Then the weather started improving [so we didn’t have to abandon ship after all].

Q: What keeps you motivated to do the work you do for WFP?

I love shipping, it’s simple. I love what I’m doing daily, I love to deal with challenges and solving problems.

At sea, you have to be everything, through education and training. You need to be a good sailor, diplomat, doctor, cook, technician… because you are alone there. If you face problems, you are alone there. Even by myself, I had to give injections several times; I have training in how to stitch a wound.

It develops your skills dealing with different nationalities and people from all around the world. It provides you with a very different vision.

Daniel Stolk

“They say New York never sleeps, but a port never sleeps either.”
© WFP/Rein Skullerud

Job title: Deputy Chief of Shipping Service

Hometown: Rotterdam, Netherlands

With WFP: 16 years

In the shipping industry: 23 years

Q: Why the sea? What brought you to this industry?

I was born in Rotterdam, which is the largest port in Europe — it was largest in the world until 2004. When I was young — about 10 years old — I went with my dad to the port where I was fascinated by the vessels, the operations on the docks, the smell of bags of coffee, tea and spices, the salt water, the warehouse operations. A port is always different from a city inside a country. The atmosphere and mentalities tend to be more open — a no-nonsense approach with trade as the binding factor and focus on getting the job done. I liked this environment. You have the hustle and bustle on the docks with never a dull moment.

I earned my first pocket money as a stevedore — as a port laborer or, some would say, a dock worker. By doing that and earning my first pocket money and working in the port — I was still in school — this is where I first encountered humanitarian aid cargo passing through my hands for WFP, the Red Cross and other organizations.

Q: Why work in humanitarian aid?

The challenges are different. The objectives are not profit making but providing food assistance to the most vulnerable in the world. You’re often working in the most inaccessible and sometimes risky environments, delivering hundreds of thousands of tons into war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and remote destinations like Bangui through the port of Douala. And let’s not forget our rapid response capacity when natural disaster strikes like [Typhoon Haiyan in] the Philippines and Ebola.

Shipping and logistics have their day-to-day operational challenges even in stable environments, but this is something different. As one of our ship owners recently said, “The challenges you face on a day-to-day basis would push a lot of hardened maritime professionals to the limits!”

We’re a small team, and we can’t operate without our commercial partners, service providers, agents and carriers. Our role is to explain, invite, build trust and encourage the private sector to work for WFP Shipping in sometimes harsh conditions and give us that little extra [push] that makes us successful providers to WFP and the wider humanitarian community.

Q: What are some of the biggest highlights from your career?

One of the most challenging was the Iraq crisis in 2003 and 2004. At the time, the country was under a very tight embargo and all imports were monitored. After the collapse of the regime, these vital supply lines were cut off, and the UN requested WFP to take over this contract.

All of a sudden we were confronted with having to manage one billion metric tons of food supplies at various stages of the supply chain coming from everywhere — all to support Iraq’s entire population of 27 million people. Vessels were stuck, ports were not functioning, so we had to find holding places to accommodate hundreds of thousands of tons until we set up a system to continue the flow of essential food back into Iraq.

Judith Thimke

“I have a team that never says never.”
© WFP/Giulio d’Adamo

Job title: Chief of WFP Shipping Service

Hometown: Eau Claire, Wisconsin, United States

With WFP: 22 years

In the shipping industry: 11 years

Q: What was your first shipping voyage like?

When I was sailing from Valencia, Spain, to Dakar, Senegal, as the only passenger on a large cargo ship, I would stay up all night up on the bridge, talking to whoever was the officer in charge while the captain was sleeping.

We had deep, one-on-one conversations under a universe of bright stars, gliding through the ocean silently, about what it’s like to live and work on a ship. They really opened up to me and explained how lonely it can be spending months away from their families and how challenging it can be when they reunite. I really admire the character and sacrifice that these people make.

Q: What is the best part of your job?

I’ve been able to lead a team and learn from a team who can take impossible situations and come up with very interesting solutions and problem solve. For me, what I really love about this job is that no day is the same. Any day can bring an incredible challenge. And I have a team that never says never. Never says “[I] can’t do it.”

Q: What have you sacrificed for your job?

Personally, I don’t see it in terms of sacrifice. There are some tradeoffs that have been made, mainly personal ones relating to what it meant for my family to live this experience, which at the same time has enriched all of us. I still feel most days that I’ve won the lottery.

To be given the chance to do what I love, raise children as global citizens, work with wonderful people, face new challenges every day and, most importantly, have a tangible impact on others’ lives is a true blessing. It plays an important role in developing who we are.


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