The stories aid workers don’t tell their friends at the pub

A rare moment of humour in a clinic for people wounded by weapons in Pakistan. Photo: ICRC

The work itself is frankly mundane: sorting spreadsheets, attending meetings, occasionally trying to fix a broken generator.

Except you’re in a shipping container on an island ravaged by a cyclone, and the spreadsheets are tracking relief supplies. Your 9am meeting is about how to help thousands of people fleeing a city at war. And that broken generator? It powers a field hospital in a remote swamp and people will die if it doesn’t start again.

In almost every crisis in the world, you’ll find Red Cross or Red Crescent teams on the frontlines, helping people. These teams are led by people from the affected country, but can include specialists from all over the world.

So what’s it like to be aid worker on the frontline? And what motivates them to do what they do?

“I started out in the private sector with a company that specialised in waste water treatment,” says Australian Red Cross aid worker Sarah Davies.

“I distinctly remember getting my superannuation statement, which had my retirement year of 2035. And I thought, do I want to keep doing what I’m doing now until 2035? The answer was NO.”

That moment of clarity led Sarah to Red Cross and, most recently, a 12-month stint in Syria to restore water supplies that had been damaged in the conflict.

More than three million people have been forced from their homes in Iraq, with aid agencies and surrounding communities struggling to support them. Photo: IFRC/Stephen Ryan

A career in aid work can often involve being a witness to tragedy. Fellow Australian aid worker Don Johnston was working with the Iraqi Red Crescent when Islamic State militants launched a brutal attack on the Yazidi population in Sinjar in 2014.

“What happened was like a slow-motion apocalypse,” he recalls.

“There was a wave of people — several hundred thousand fleeing into Kurdistan — and Red Crescent was there with sandwiches and water for them.”

With 30,000 people still trapped on Mount Sinjar and under siege, Don and his colleagues were doing their best to get relief supplies to them. “We had cell-phone contact and, over the course of three days, we were talking to people while they were trapped and their children were dying. My colleagues, some of the strongest men I’ve ever met, were weeping in anguish as they listened to their friends and families slowly being eliminated.”

From the worst of humanity’s acts can come the best. Don recalls that when the siege was broken by US and Kurdish forces, thousands of people from the city of Dohuk drove out to collect Yazidi families from Mount Sinjar and bring them to their homes.

Liberian Red Cross volunteers prepare themselves to bury yet another victim of the Ebola outbreak. Photo: IFRC/Vicor Lacken

Libby Bowell likewise found horror and hope in Liberia during the Ebola virus outbreak. “Our worst nightmare was that the epidemic would hit a big city, and it did,” says the Australian-based public health adviser. “You’d see nine or 10 people from a single family being wiped out before your eyes.”

The outbreak ended because of the actions of everyday people: women who asked Libby to teach them to care for their sick relatives without contracting Ebola; young people who volunteered to bury the dead, clad head-to-toe in protective suits in the searing heat.

“Everyone was prepared to roll up their sleeves and help. Even when they were exhausted, they would say, this is our problem, this is our country.

“If we don’t help, who will?”

Amid the major crises, an aid worker’s day involves an unending series of small problems. “Rains cut off roads, conflicts close borders, you have power outages and fuel shortages, political strikes, governments changing, people getting sick, you getting sick.

“Nothing is ever ready when you want it to be and everything takes longer than you think it will,” Don admits.

“Basically, you’re a team of MacGyvers in a pressure-cooker situation.”

Success can be rare, so you celebrate it where you can. As Libby recalls: “A priest in Solomon Islands said to me once, ‘For 46 years I’ve had diarrhoea. Now that I understand how it’s transmitted, I’m never going to have it again.’

“There’s a moment like that on every mission, where you feel like you get to do something of value.”

Spontaneous kindness: people from all over Greece came to help asylum seekers feeling violence in Syria and Iraq. Photo: IFRC/Caroline Haga

Then there’s the privilege of being part of a global humanitarian movement. Don Johnston was recently in Greece, where refugees from Syria and Iraq had fled to seek safety.

“I was seeing thousands of Greek volunteers at the Greek-Macedonian border giving people clothes or bowls of soup. People from all over Europe were driving to this little pocket of precarity and misery and doing what they could to help; just because we’re all human beings and there’s a sacredness in life.”

In the end, aid work leaves an indelible stamp on you. “I don’t actually know how to describe it,” says Denise Moyle, an Australian nurse who’s worked everywhere from Darfur to Yemen.

“Being an aid worker is exciting, it’s challenging, it’s addictive and frustrating, but it’s been the love of my life for quite some time now.”

These are small snippets of the stories we share on our How Aid Works podcast. Each fortnight, we ask a panel of Australian aid workers to tell the stories they’ve never told anyone else.

Words by Zayne D’Crus — Australian Red Cross