Hélène’s Story: A Humanitarian in Northern Iraq

Hélène working on a delivery of emergency food parcels in Zakho City. Credit: Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger

by Florian Seriex

Leading into World Humanitarian Day, August 19, we share the story of Hélène Schmidt, who was working near Mosul, Iraq, when an extremist group forced hundreds of thousands to flee. She is one among our team of more than 6,500 humanitarians helping people in over 45 countries around the world.

Two trucks are parked in a huge cloud of dust. They contain several tons of food aid for thousands of people who fled the fighting in northern Iraq. Hélène Schmidt is responsible for the distribution that will soon begin. She becomes hoarse as she coordinates the teams amid the din of the engines. It is nearly 120 degrees outside as people gather at the entrance of the distribution point. It will take several hours for each family to receive an emergency ration.

It is August 2014, and Hélène arrived in the country six weeks earlier to set up a food security program for Action Against Hunger. She was working near Mosul when military offensives quickly changed the situation. “On the ground, the work was going well,” Hélène recalled. “We had distributed nearly 800 tons of food in July, but on August 4, while I was still in the warehouse, one of the teams called to explain that the local population was fleeing. I told them to leave immediately and joined them on the road. Village after village we saw families packing their cars and heading in the direction of Iraqi Kurdistan.”

Within weeks, more than 800,000, people fled. The needs were immense, so Hélène’s team expanded rapidly in response. Through the end of September, over 2,500 tons of food were distributed to tens of thousands of people. “We went from 12 to 50 people in less than a month,” she said.

The work is hard and the families were frightened, many having lost relatives and survived atrocities. One meeting in particular deeply marked Hélène. “I remember the distress of one old man. His daughter was holding her baby in her arms when an armed man grabbed and threw the infant, killing the child. There are no words to describe the horror of such an act.” In such situations, an essential part of our work is providing psychological support to help people through trauma.

Months later, winter arrived. People were still displaced and the living conditions were terrible. Hélène organized winter distributions including jackets, sweaters, socks, and boots. Everything was bought locally to minimize costs and to support the local economy.

Hélène remained faithful to the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan and to Dohuk, a city of 350,000 people. The European Union Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) funded a new project which will help us refine our efforts. “We launched this project with the goal of anticipating new waves of displacement in case of military offensives. Last year we responded quickly, but thanks to the current work, the help we can provide is more targeted and immediate.”

Among other things, this ECHO-funded project should facilitate crossings at checkpoints, ease the relationship with local authorities, and improve our knowledge of local markets in order to be able to meet the needs of tens of thousands of people. Every day, meetings are held with local actors in areas near the front line.

Action Against Hunger works to find solutions that enhance the local economy and ensure sustainable food sources for the population. In particular, distributing food coupons allows families access to the products they want while boosting the local economy. We study aspects of local life, monitoring water points, training of social workers, and evaluating supply capacities.

Hélène said of her work, “It’s a complicated job. Overnight, we can be denied access to an area due to military operations. Another time, we will need additional documentation. But as authorities see the merits of our work, the relationship becomes easier. So when there is a massive displacement of population, we are ready to help them.”

Help us save lives around the world. Donate.