Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What makes people go to a disaster?

It's been six months since the disaster in Nepal when the earthquakes hit. The team at Care Australia were already working in Nepal but had to provide substantial emergency assistance to care for the hundreds of thousands of people who were all of a sudden without a home. Or a school, or a workplace. Or shops to buy food...

But what is it that makes someone pack up their comfortable Australian lifestyle to go and live in an area where disease and harm could come their way? These are one of the things I think of when I see the helpers on the news stories. How does one find themselves there? 

Lucky for me I was able to just ask one of the CARE Team, which is exactly what I did. 

Dee works for CARE and was in Nepal to help, so I sent her a few questions.

How is it that you find yourself in Nepal? 

As an international NGO, CARE has a presence in many countries around the world so during an emergency the CARE family really works together to support each other to make sure that we’re reaching people affected by the disaster as quickly as possible. There are people with different sets of skills throughout the global CARE network and in an emergency such as the Nepal earthquake, we bring those people together to provide some additional support. We have a great emergency HR coordinator who sits with CARE International who has been working closely with CARE Nepal since the earthquake to bring these people together. So depending on who is needed, she’ll go out to the wider CARE network to ask whether they can be seconded for the emergency response. It really is a global response – we might come from CARE Australia, CARE Myanmar, CARE Afghanistan, CARE Canada, CARE Philippines, CARE USA (and that’s just to name a few).

Can you explain what a typical day in Nepal is like for you at the moment, what activities occupy your time?

Haha! I wouldn’t say there has been a typical day. Every day is new and different. I guess most recently, I was able to go out with our WASH team in Sindupalchowk (a district in Nepal) where we’ve been working with local partners to provide water, sanitation and hygiene and also emergency shelter. When I went out with the WASH team, we were able to talk to people in the community to see how they were feeling about the emergency toilets that were recently built and how people were going with that construction. It was a really interesting day and you know the Nepalese people are a really resilient people so I was just really inspired to see their smiles and their strength. We met with one older lady who was at home while her family were out farming and she said that if her family weren’t out at work, she would have loved to have offered us lunch. That was a great day because people are still so generous and thoughtful.

Is it difficult to leave at the end of your scheduled time there? 

Yea definitely! Of course!

What is your favourite thing about working with CARE

Well many things, I think I work with a really great team both in CARE Australia but also the team in Nepal and these guys are really passionate about what we do, you know? I love that! I guess one of my favourite things is our commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment. A disaster really impacts men, women, girls and boys very differently – this brings about different needs. So when we go in to an emergency response, we work with communities and local partners and local NGOs to address those different needs and we try to bring all those different voices to the table.

Would you recommend others volunteering to go and help out a country in crisis, what tips would you give those who want to be involved?

There are some really great organisations out there that provide training and opportunities to prep people who are interested in development work.
Especially for people who have a certain skill set, I would recommend getting that training and taking time out to think about how you can contribute effectively and also why you want to do it. You know, if you’re an engineer you might want to work with Engineers without Borders. If you’re a medical professional you might think about MSF (Medecin Sans Frontieres), Red R that take people from many different specialities, they also give you training about working in humanitarian emergency response and also provide safety and security training as well. CARE also has an emergency roster that you can apply for as do other NGOs because when you send someone into an emergency situation you want to make sure that you’re doing good by them as well and that they’re prepared and as experienced as they can be.
Working in a disaster response can be draining and it’s high intensity. Right now in Nepal there are people there who have had years of experience in emergency. When you get there, you hit the ground running. It might mean that in your first day you’re out looking at emergency shelter options because you’re a shelter advisor (and in your previous life experience you’re an architect or an engineer). You’re also working with people who have had to deal with a lot and it’s really important that we can be supporting them instead of being additional burdens.

I think if you want to volunteer think about organisations that provide those opportunities and also provide opportunities for professional growth as well in a non-disaster zone. Think about programs like AVID or AVI if you’ve never ever done development or emergency work before because it’s a good platform to for lack of a better phrase “test out the waters” and see if it’s for you.

I think it’s so great that people are passionate and want to contribute – I mean that’s why I work for CARE but I think we always just need to be mindful about how we contribute. I would never recommend that someone packs a first aid kit and a blanket and books a flight over to any disaster response, I think you need to back up passion and experience with the right support. That’s what I had, I work with an amazing team in CARE Australia who supported me and prepped me so that I could be an effective team member in country. There’s always so much going on and it’s just as much about looking after yourself as it is about being part of a response because if you don’t have the right tools to look after yourself then you can’t be of any assistance to anybody else.

I think any natural response for many people is to want to help. We’re humans, we’re relational beings and we care about other people and that is such an important trait to have through life but I think when we do it we need to be mindful about how we go about it. And you need people to support that process as well – people who are more experienced and can be there to say “hey, are you sure you’re ready for this?”

Six months down the track there is still so much work to do to rebuild communities in Nepal, but progress is being made, monsoon season will mean people have to work in muddy wet conditions and this is sure to slow things down. Life for people in the remote villages will remain very difficult for some time yet. Plastic sheets can be the only shelter people have from the weather. 

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