A record number of refugees and displaced people worldwide need food, shelter and health care, safety and education for their children, and now protection from and treatment for COVID-19.
From the recent explosion in Lebanon to the five-year-old war in Yemen, humanitarians working for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are on the frontlines assisting people in crisis. Inspired by the people they serve, they are resourceful in finding ways to get help to those who need it most.
Below, a few stories from IRC staff members working tirelessly to make a lasting impact.
The whole country is traumatized.
Supporting neighbors, and children, in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion
Rebecca Mouawad faces plenty of challenges in her work as a senior child protection officer for the IRC. Lebanon is in the midst of an economic crisis, with the collapse of its currency and high unemployment. Many families are struggling to put food on the table. COVID-19 has forced her team to support vulnerable children and their parents remotely.
Then came the explosion of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonia nitrate stored in a port warehouse.
Though she was in a village outside the city, Rebecca heard the massive blast. “I really think the sound echoed all over Lebanon,” she says. “The whole country is traumatized.”
The IRC is responding with emergency cash assistance, and Rebecca’s work is focused on supporting children and their families. She is concerned about children who have lost their homes, those who may be forced to work, and the psychological trauma many may experience.
“There are children who cannot process what happened and why this happened,” she says.
Rebecca went to Beirut to help as soon as she could. She recalls one encounter with an 80-year-old woman and her husband in the wake of the explosion, as she and other volunteers helped to restore order in their house.
“At one moment, as I was cleaning the balcony in their bedroom, I saw that her belongings were everywhere—her perfume, her clothes, her purse—and dust all over the place,” she says. “Through all of this, they were still talking to us, smiling, thanking us for helping them. Her husband started showing us pictures of him riding a bicycle in the mountain when he was 20 years old. It really left an impact on me.
“I hope for Beirut to be at peace and to stay the city that we've always known, the city that we grew up in and the city that we love.”
Being a humanitarian worker is to give hope and healing.
Providing health care in the midst of war
“COVID impacts every home. It's like the war. In every home there is someone who has lost their father or mother or brother or husband or son.”
Dr. Rasha Rashed, reproductive health manager for the IRC in Yemen, lost her uncle to the coronavirus and nursed her father back to health when he became infected.
Yemen is entering the fifth year of a brutal war that has decimated its health care system. Only half of Yemen’s medical facilities are functioning and 18 million people do not have access to proper hygiene, water and sanitation.
Dr. Rasha manages a team of medical workers and midwives who continue to treat patients despite the war. “I'm very proud of this team,” she says, citing the isolation unit created specifically for pregnant women with COVID-19, and the mobile medical units that reach people in remote areas. “They don't get afraid. Even in the worst days and worst months, they don’t stop their work.”
Adds Dr. Rasha, “Being a humanitarian worker is to give hope and healing. When you go to a far away village in the mountains, and you need three or four hours to get there to treat someone and to give them medicine, it gives people the feeling that you care about them.”
It’s particularly hard for women and girls with disabilities and women who are older.
Protecting women from abuse—and COVID-19
“Gender-based violence (GBV) cases, particularly sexual violence and intimate partner violence, are increasing,” says Betelhem Mengistu, a community wellbeing coordinator for the IRC in Ethiopia. “It’s particularly hard for women and girls with disabilities and women who are older, as they face challenges when accessing services.”
Betelhem manages a staff of over 50 to protect and empower women facing abuse. Her work, which helps refugee and Ethiopian women alike, has become more difficult as COVID-19 spreads in the country. Many of the women she serves have lost their sources of income, and girls who relied on school to protect them from child labor, sexual violence and forced marriage are left vulnerable.
Betelhem’s team continues to serve women and girls through remote services and “safe spaces,” although those spaces have reduced capacity to allow for social distancing.
“We have adapted GBV prevention awareness-raising sessions by using local radio” she explains. “In locations where we don't have local radios, we go block by block, transmitting our messages using megaphones.”
Betelhem is inspired by the women she works with and serves. “They have their own assets, and their own knowledge,” she says. “Their leaders, including refugee and internally-displaced women, are dealing with life challenges ever day while also advocating on behalf of other women and girls that they are living with.”
My message to the world is to not forget Afghanistan.
Spreading critical information in a country struggling to cope
“As a nurse and health care provider, I am seeing things and doing things that I never imagined,” says Sohalia Khaliqi, a community health promoter for the IRC in Afghanistan.
Four decades of war have devastated Afghanistan's health system and left more than five million Afghans living in fear of violence and neglect. The COVID-19 outbreak is making the situation much worse, with many families unsure where their next meal will come from.
Sohalia points out that women will bear much of this economic pain. “Mostly, the women I see are heads of households,” she says, going on to point out that women suffer inordinately from lack of security, abuse and discrimination in employment. “They are not living in good situations. Though they had been working and providing for their families, many lost their jobs and no longer have access to basic needs.”
Sohalia herself has had to balance homeschooling and child care while struggling to do her job: contain the coronavirus in a country that lacks a strong health care infrastructure and critical materials. She urges the global community to support Afghanistan with aid and supplies.
“I am proud to help rescue human lives,” says Sohalia. “It is my job as a nurse to change this catastrophic situation.” She mentions another urgent need: mental health support for health care workers. “My message to the world is to not forget Afghanistan.”