I Want To Be A Humanitarian.
But How?

I want to be a humanitarian.

Unlike ambitions of being a doctor, a lawyer, an architect or a coder, the journey to mine seems more ambiguous. I find myself asking questions I otherwise wouldn’t have to for other professions: What does being a humanitarian even mean? How does one become a humanitarian? What majors do you read at university that will direct you there (is there even such a thing)? I have so many questions. 

Lucky for me, I had the chance of meeting with a woman who had spent 14 years, up until 2014, as a humanitarian. (She prefers to remain anonymous, so let’s just call her S.) Needless to say, I bogarted her time and gleaned every detail and story while I had her company.

But, to be honest, even after our lengthy chat, the road ahead still seems a little foggy to me. I wonder if the odds will be in my favour. After all, I’m 19. Who knows if life has other plans for me when I graduate. Who knows if I’ll have other plans for me. One thing is for sure though: Whether or not I do eventually get there, I can at least look back at this as a part of my journey, to being 19 and naive enough to believe dreams come true even if I have few clues on how to get there. 

If you, too, are wondering how one might become a humanitarian, what it means, what it takes, I hope the highlights of my conversation with S will offer you some idea and inspiration. Here goes.

"You must remember that humanitarians are not saints."

What exactly does it mean to be a humanitarian?

According to Dictionary.com, being humanitarian means “having concern for or helping to improve the welfare and happiness of people”.

But who are they IRL and as a profession? This is what S told me…

Basically, what is considered humanitarian assistance or humanitarian aid is immediate assistance in case of natural or man-made disasters. There is immediate attention to be given to victims, that’s one, and part of it is also prevention — for example, prevention of population to disasters, put protocols in place and equip people with tools to prevent and reduce damage. And there is what happens after a disaster, such as conflicts that lead to disenfranchised people.

There isn’t just one way of being a humanitarian. They are people from a wide scope of professions — they can be doctor, engineers, journalists, researchers, administrators, and marketers and fundraisers for NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders and Save The Children. The list isn’t exhaustive.”

How did you become one?

S: “For me, I’ve always wanted to help since I was little, but of course, I never quite figured out how. So there was a time when I thought, “OK, I’ll be a doctor!’ But it wasn’t my cup of humanitarian. In the end, I chose to study business administration as a ‘key’ to enter the humanitarian field. I chose that because you can’t go wrong with business management, right? Everyone needs it. Many people think you have to be a medical personnel to be a humanitarian. That’s not true.

So, I started working with a Spanish NGO when I was 22. I worked as a regional administrator for southern caucuses. We were covering Georgia, Passia and Armenia, three different countries with four different bases. I stayed there for one-and-a-half years. I remember it to be a powerful experience. Until then, I had not witnessed for myself the dire situations becauseI wasn’t on the front line. You see, when the former Soviet Union collapsed, you see the vulnerability of the people — they went from having a quality of life that was comparable to a developed country to suddenly having nothing. We had soup kitchens set up and distributed food. It was powerful.

Another experience I had was in Eastern Europe. There, it was the whole thing of war, and a massive displacement of people, and we were there to escort these people back to their country and re-settle, to get the first tools for their economical and social recovery in place. That experience was a bit shorter, but very intense as well.”

You’ll need the stomach for it.

S: The job is not easy. Being on the ground, we had to witness many heart-wrenching situations. We had to learn to build ourselves emotional shields. That doesn’t mean that we desensitise ourselves from feeling, but you have to draw a line in order to maintain a strong and professional front for the people who need help. We try not crumble under our emotions because we are supposed to be there for them, not the other way around.

It’s difficult. You don’t always succeed. I’ve seen people who looked so strong while dealing with dead bodies, but they break down in private, in their rooms. You need to have the ‘stomach’ for it.

Another thing is, you’ll often find yourself in the face of questions and dilemmas you don’t always have answers to, like, ‘Am I making things better or worse?’, ‘Should I really be doing this?’, ‘Am I doing something wrong?’, or even as extreme as ‘why would you be paid to do your work, if you are a humanitarian worker who’s here to do go for others?’ 

There are ethical paradoxes that make this job special, but they also

make you second-guess so much of what you do and your decisions. To give you another example: Very often, we are in conflict areas and the problems there are very real, so you need to make sure that by your intervention, you don’t make things worse. If one of your staff is threatened by the community, and you find out that the problem is not your staff, what do you do? Do you withdraw and lose any credibility you have built in the community, or do you take the risk by staying? You see, it’s not so black and white, so it’s crucial to anticipate the consequences of your actions.

Let’s not forget there is also the political dimension to add to the list of paradoxes. What I mean by that is, in principle, humanitarian aid is impartial, non-political, not based on raced, etc, but unfortunately, politics often do get involved and you need to be prepared for that.”

But humanitarians are humans, not saints.

S: “You must remember that humanitarian workers are humans, they are not saints. As you can tell by now, it can be a very stressful and intense job. That means people have all manner of coping mechanisms — some of which you don’t approve but you just have to understand and accept it. For example, some people turn to parties, and they were the wildest parties. If an outsider were to see it, they might not get it and say, ‘come on, what are they doing, drinking and dancing?’. But it’s how people cope.”

Purpose will keep you going.

When all’s said and done, it boils down to one thing: A sense of purpose. Why do you want to do this?

S: “There were so many times that I wanted to call it quits. But the sense of purpose was still there in me. It was what pushed me forward. In the end, I stopped working as a humanitarian to take care of my family, but I went, I did what I wanted to do, I did what I had to do, and I did it fully and whole-heartedly, no regrets.”

Know your own little things that make you happy.

If words like “purpose”, “calling” and “grit” sound too big and scary at the moment, focus on the little things that bring you joy in the moment, and know that that is enough. 

S: “I loved meeting people from different cultures in very different circumstances and context — the time and place, their age, background, religion and race — and trying to find a common ground among us. Despite such stark differences, I find we could always share a similar vision and passion in what we were doing and why we were doing it. That was special to me.

I remember this one funny moment when I was invited to a wedding by a local minister. He spoke only Russian, a language I obviously don’t know. But we ended up dancing together anyway, and we had a translator dancing and tailing behind us the whole time to facilitate our conversation. That’s something I won’t ever forget.”

Any other advice?

S: “Opportunities to enter the field used to be easier. Now, I can see how it’s harder to land a job — there’s an increasing demand for the professionalisation of aid workers, which means not everyone can do it, and there’s also a larger pool of people applying for it, because more people are aware of it. You can see organisations training and recruiting more locals, too, as they are the ones who know the community well.

That said, if it is what you are sure you want to do, go for it, and be prepared.” 

There were so many times that I wanted to call it quits. But the sense of purpose was still there in me. It was what pushed me forward.

To be honest, my chat with S lasted almost two hours. Like I said, there is so much I wanted to know, that I don’t know. But these are the main takeaways from our conversation. Like any other job, it sounds like the good, bad and heart-wrenching await me. But none of it disheartened me at all. In fact, I welcome the challenge even more now.

Right now, my goal is to get accepted into one of the university programmes I applied to: Anthropology or Geography. There are still so many pages and chapters of my life to fill before I embark on my career — possibly as a humanitarian. But as I listened to S, a real-life humanitarian sitting right in front of me (it’s one significant step closer than I had ever been to my dream job), my heart beat a little faster, and my adrenaline doing flips like a cheerleader, I feel alive. “I’ve got to do this,” I heard my own thoughts. And fingers crossed, I will do it. I don’t know what life has in store, but something in my gut tells me that all the universe will conspire to help me achieve it. What I seek is seeking me, too.

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