The polar bear who flies
Habib Shashati’s lifelong love of the skies fits well with a career spent climbing to the top
Winter in the wild mountains of Kurdistan, northern Iraq, can bite. Sensible people are wrapped up in layers of warm clothing, and even then, the cold has a way of seeping into your bones. Except for one man who could be found sitting out on his balcony on early December mornings in shorts and a T-shirt, serenely drinking thick, black coffee — the steam curling up through icy air. Strong coffee was a meditation of sorts for Habib Shashati before he headed off to the UN base as Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) coordinator.
Affectionately known as “polar bear” because of a superhuman resistance to cold, Habib — who spent more than two years in Erbil as ETC Coordinator for the Iraq operation — is passing through Dubai on a rare grey day as he heads back to Bangladesh where he is now based.
When the ETC began to demobilize from Iraq almost a year ago — having deliveried vital communications services, including internet connectivity, to communities and the humanitarian sector — Habib found it hard to leave, having developed a very deep attachment to the country. “Iraq was my second home. The first six months I was there, it was difficult as it was a very complex operation and the challenges were numerous — violence, security, the different ethnic groups, religious groups — but you and the team still have to meet the goals and make sure people are able to communicate,” he says.
At the time, WFP’s wider operation involved providing food, cash and other emergency assistance to millions of people in Iraq, despite a hugely complex Mosul offensive by coalition forces to liberate the city from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
A year on, the initial sting of leaving has dulled and he can now focus on what he achieved in Iraq together with the team. “I wanted the network we had left behind to be put to good use. It means that the blood, sweat and tears, and the tight deadlines and the meetings were all worth it.”
Now he’s in Cox’s Bazar where things are — as per his catchphrase — “so far so good”, and he appears to be making a concerted effort not to get too emotionally attached to the new mission. It sounds like a self-help mantra: “Don’t get attached to a mission and don’t compare. Each mission has its own dynamic and way of moving so if you start comparing you’ll quickly lose interest,” he explains. He smiles his usual broad grin and spins his coffee cup. “But you know I have soft spots for Liberia and Conakry and always Iraq. Each country has its own piece that you carry with you when you leave.”
WFP launched an emergency operation in Bangladesh in 2017 to provide lifesaving assistance to Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar, including food, treatment and prevention of malnutrition, school feeding, engineering and disaster risk reduction work, logistics, as well as emergency telecommunications.
To the amusement of his team, Habib has a tendency to be very brief on operational calls and in meetings despite being a well-known chatterbox who can — and often does — spend hours regaling a captive audience of stories about his much-loved parents, his nephew and niece, and how he was — thanks to an administrative error — accidentally listed as deceased back in his native Sudan and provided with his death certificate. “No, no, not anymore!” he says, laughing. “I’m back to life.”
Before joining WFP, Habib qualified as a pilot, completing his training in August 2004 in Khartoum. Though ready to take to the skies, fate intervened with a very different plan: “Literally across the street [from the pilot training] in Khartoum was an advert in the WFP office looking for radio operators. I needed money to finish my studies as a pilot so I applied and was chosen as a radio operator,” he recalls. The rest, as they say, is history.
Habib’s first duty station was in Ad-Damazin, the sweltering capital of the Blue Nile State on 13 March 2005 — his photographic memory retains all dates — before being requested to return to Khartoum as a radio trainer where he himself was taught by, among others, the current Chief of WFP’s IT Emergency and Preparedness branch, Gabriela Alvarado. He also led the separation of the security communications network for the UN in South Sudan after it gained independence in 2011.
Flying planes is his first love, followed closely by climbing telecommunications towers — the highest one was 100 metres in Liberia. “The first lesson in climbing towers is do not climb the tower! Make it the last resort!” He leans back in his chair and laughs loudly. “This is what I was taught. Is there anything else we can do before we decide to climb?” he says, pretending to consider the options. “But you know, any chance I get to climb, I do. When I put the harness on and start working, I sometimes let go of the tower and I am just free, it reminds me a lot of flying. The sense of freedom and peace and the view…you can see everything from up there.”
It is true that for many field people, the dream of a settled family life eventually rears its head, like a siren calling them home. “I am a doer and have been doing this my whole adult life.” By “this”, he means the 17 years spent deploying to emergencies around the globe — the Ebola epidemic in Liberia and Guinea, drought, conflict, an earthquake in Haiti — nearly every category of disaster. “Now what I am missing is to be on the outside [of an emergency] and be the person providing oversight and remote support. I would like to have experience in this and have more family time while still being connected to the missions and to the field.”
And just like that he is off to the airport in his usual short sleeves, no jacket required — his polar bear spirit alive and kicking.