And the Oscar for Public Service goes to…USAID!

More than 360 people have served on our Syria and Iraq disaster teams. Now is your chance to meet a few of the amazing humanitarians who are this year’s winners of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal in the category of National Security and International Affairs.

USAID’s Paloma Clohossey talks with Fatin and Osama at the Akçakale refugee camp in Turkey. Fatin and Osama fled Syria in 2015 with their two children, eventually finding refuge in Turkey. The monthly food vouchers that USAID provides helps feed the family. Photo credit: USAID/OFDA

For the past six years, Alex Mahoney has led a team of more than 360 disaster experts in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, and Washington, D.C. who are tackling two of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises. This team, with the help of UN and NGO partners, delivers lifesaving assistance to four million people in Syria every month and an additional three million people displaced by ISIS in Iraq.

Alex Mahoney, USAID Middle East Crisis Humanitarian Response Manager. Photo credit: The Partnership for Public Service

Although Mahoney is the face of the response, teamwork is at the core of their mission. The team draws on decades of experience, expertise, and creativity to responding to one of the most challenging crises of our lifetime.

Left: DART members meet with the UN World Food Program, Turkish Red Crescent, and the Turkish Disaster Management Authority in Turkey’s Beydagi refugee camp to monitor emergency food programs. Photo Credit: WFP/Maud Biton. Right: These Iraqi children who survived the horrors of war charmed members of our Iraq Disaster Assistance Response Team during a May 2017 visit to a community center USAID helped build in northern Kurdistan. Photo credit: Anna Earles, USAID/OFDA

Also among those being honored is Tiare Eastmond, who has served on the Syria Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) in Jordan since 2015. Despite the seemingly incomprehensible scale of the devastation, she says the little things are what affect her most.

Tiare Eastmond has served on USAID’s Syria Disaster Assistance Response Team since 2015. Photo courtesy: Tiare Eastmond

“The worst part is the individual stories that come across our radar about people living under horrible siege conditions in Syria, what the conflict does to families and children especially impact me the most,” she said.

On the night of February 22, 2013, Syrian government forces launched a Scud missile into an Aleppo neighborhood, killing 120 people including Yousef Abo’s entire family. Torn apart by the loss of his wife, two sons, and two daughters, Yousef stands on the very spot where his home once stood. Photo credit: Pablo Tosco, Osfam Intermon

Sasha Bennett-Roomipoor grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan, and witnessed firsthand the struggles refugees face.

Sasha Bennett-Roomipoor has served as External Liaison Coordinator and Deputy Manager for Coordination on USAID’s Middle East Crisis Humanitarian Response. Photo courtesy: Sasha Bennett-Roomipoor

“During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, almost daily, I would see Afghan refugees scavenge for food and shelter in residential suburbs which had a profound impact on me. After college, I joined the Peace Corps, worked in domestic refugee resettlement, advocated for refugee protection, worked at UNHCR, and am now working at USAID, where I’ve been for over six years. Working at USAID is immensely gratifying and I firmly believe in our Mission.”

For QueTran Nguyen this response also feels more personal than others. It is a constant reminder of her own family’s journey.

QueTran Nguyen served as a Program Officer and Coordinator in Jordan, Turkey, and in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy: QueTran Nguyen

“When I see and hear about Syrian refugees risking their lives to hazardously flee their home country with only the clothes on their backs, I think of my own parents and siblings, who were part of the hundreds of thousands of ‘boat refugees’ fleeing Vietnam,” Nguyen said. “They faced that exact ordeal after the Vietnam War. My humanitarian work is a ‘thank you’ to everyone who helped my family reach a refugee camp in Singapore then the U.S. to pursue the American dream.”

Jack Myer is the longest-serving member member of the USAID Syria DART. Photo credit: Carol Han, USAID/OFDA

Jack Myer is the longest serving member of the USAID Syria Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), having served as the DART Leader from the inception of the response in 2012 until March 2017.

For Myer, a lot of work went into finding creative ways to navigate war zones and fluid frontlines to reach millions of people cut off from receiving aid.

“We worked with partners to get aid across borders into Syria using whatever means necessary: backpacks, small trucks, air drops from planes, even donkeys,” said Myer. “With more than 13 million people in need of humanitarian aid, failure was not an option.”

Ron Mortensen has served as the DART Leader in Iraq five times over the past two-and-a-half years. In this lead role, he collaborated and coordinated with some of the highest U.S. government officials in Iraq. However, he believes the real recognition belongs to the locals on the ground.

“The true heroes in this response are the Iraqis and Syrians who are delivering the humanitarian assistance on the ground under extremely dangerous and difficult situations,” he said. “The Iraq government also deserves recognition for its efforts to safeguard the lives of the hundreds of thousands of civilians located in combat areas.”

Iraq DART Team Leader Ron Mortensen (left) stands with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones (right). Photo courtesy: Ron Mortensen

Nguyen agrees. Although the hours are long and the work is challenging the dedication, the tenacity, and passion of the team keeps her motivated. She believes it’s the team effort that will finally bring an end to the crisis.

“The Samuel J. Heyman “Sammies” award is not about an individual’s work. Many, many hands and brains were — and continue to be — needed to bring peace and alleviation of suffering in Syria.”

Warm blankets, coats, and winter supplies provided by the United States were distributed by USAID partner the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to Iraqi families on February 1, 2016. Photo credit: IOM

Learn more about USAID’s Syria disaster response here. Information about USAID’s Iraq disaster response can be found here.

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