World Humanitarian Day: ‘I will not let the pandemic stop me from serving those in need’

Nafisa from Afghanistan shares what inspires her to be a humanitarian even amid the challenges of COVID-19

Nafisa self-isolates at home to protect her family from the virus, but does not let the hardship stop her. Photo: WFP/Wahidullah Amani

“My name is Nafisa Reshtin, I am 49 years old and since March 2011 I have worked as a Field Monitoring Assistant for the World Food Programme (WFP) based in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“Before the pandemic, I used to wake up to the loud calls of street vendors advertising their merchandise: vegetables, milk, boiled eggs… Some even used megaphones: “Come and buy fresh, home-made cheese and make your breakfast tasty and delicious!” or “Fresh bananas — the best and cheapest!” These calls inspired me to get up every morning and go to work to help those families that could only rarely — or never — afford to buy something from these vendors.

“When the authorities ordered lockdowns across the country to quell the spread of COVID-19, from one day to the next, street vendors stopped pushing their carts through the residential areas of Kabul. Suddenly, they were part of the 16 million Afghans that WFP estimates are at risk of going hungry as their livelihoods have been disrupted by the pandemic.

Nafisa counts and checks the bills handed to beneficiaries. Photo: WFP/Wahidullah Amani

“I usually arrive at the distribution site at 09:00. We have distributions nearly every day, whether it’s in-kind food assistance or cash transfers. First, I check in with the assessment teams from our cooperating partners and the observers from the authorities who selected the families for assistance. The selection is based on our vulnerability criteria — for example, families who experience acute economic stress, households headed by women or elderly people, families with more than nine members or those that include members with a disability.

“Often, I go and talk to the families in their homes prior to the distribution, to make sure that the right people were registered. During the distribution itself, my job is to ensure that all the rules and principles of WFP are being respected, including the core principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.

“Banners at the distribution sites clearly state what our beneficiaries should receive, but often they cannot read, so I explain this to them. I count the money they receive to make sure the amount is correct and sometimes I reject bills that are in a bad condition and ask the staff from the financial service provider to replace them with newer ones. I also inform our beneficiaries about our complaints and feedback hotline and how WFP can be reached in case of need.

“These are my main tasks during the day, but of course they are not all. I meet with local officials, community leaders and local councils to explain our selection criteria and consult with them on when to conduct registrations. I also need to explain to them that our resources are limited and we only can assist those most in need.

“Sometimes, people show up at the distribution sites who have not been registered for assistance, asking us if we can assist them in some way. It makes me sad to tell them that unfortunately we do not have extra food for them. Sometimes they get rude and swear at me. But I do not mind, because I know they are desperate.

“People trust WFP and they trust me quickly, especially the women. They share their stories with me and, often, I am the only outsider they can share their experiences with. They tell me about their poverty, the struggle for food and — sadly — often about domestic violence.

Women trust Nafisa and open up to her about their lives. Photo: WFP/Wahidullah Amani

“I interact with some of the 10.3 million people WFP plans to serve in Afghanistan in 2020, including 3 million beneficiaries struck by the socio-economic impact of COVID-19. Many people are struggling for survival and worry more about where their next meal will come from than about getting sick with coronavirus. I just met a woman who told me that she could not stay at home even for a single day during the lockdown because she needed to make money to buy food for her family. She works as a dish washer after funeral ceremonies. She probably washed dishes at ceremonies held for people who died of COVID-19. Our minister of health recently said that 10 million people in Afghanistan are estimated to have been infected by the virus.

“Everybody knows someone who fell sick, including in our office. Nearly every day there were messages on our WhatsApp group about someone who was seriously sick, and most of us experienced symptoms. For two weeks, I myself could not go to work and stayed in quarantine after having had contact with a colleague who tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, I was fine and the colleague has recovered in the meantime.

“When I get home in the evening, I go into self-isolation in a separate room so as to not put my family in danger. My husband is very afraid I might bring the virus home, so I do not have contacts with the children and do not store any of my equipment in the house.

“It is tough. But I love my job and I feel blessed for being a humanitarian and helping those who need our assistance most. I will not let the pandemic stop me from serving them.”

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store