Nothing is as fulfilling as doing humanitarian work; saving lives, alleviating suffering and restoring dignity and hope to people affected by disasters, either natural or man-made.
As we mark the World Humanitarian Day today, the 19th August 2016, my personal experiences working for or with older people before, during and after South Sudan crisis have been life-changing.
I have learned that not only do the older people need our routine relief items and services but they also need relationships; our time and friendship, even as we offer them services. Our appearing on the scene during disasters, when hope and support is needed, at times when none others care about them is an experience older people cherish. Those are refreshing moments. You can almost feel the weight of the glamour of hope well around the environment.
I have come to appreciate the simplicity with which older persons receive us, the trust, the hearty welcoming, and the endless pronouncement of blessings that follow every little thing shared or done for them. These have given me reasons for continuing with humanitarian work and energy to keep going even at times when I feel my personal safety is in danger.
I can still vividly recall the voice of one older woman during a follow up interview I conducted last year in UN House Protection of Civilian site in Juba saying, “Your visits always give me hope and respect and this gives me a strong belief in myself and the people around me”. I thank HelpAge International for giving me this opportunity to interact with such gracious souls.
Humanitarian work saves and transforms lives in South Sudan. For most of these older people, they have lived through tough times. They have fought for dignity and recognition under numerous former Sudan regimes. They have fought for the right to self-determination, wars that culminated in independence of South Sudan. Yet even in old age, opportunities to take full control of the happenings around them are still a mirage. Peace is still over the horizon. While the country gets lots of support in terms of one form of humanitarian aid or the other, yet for older persons, they suffer invisibility.
They are discriminated by institutionalized infrastructures that perpetuate abuse, isolations, violence and general lack of policies/guidelines to address their needs. Blanket humanitarian responses indicate that partners are either ignorant or deliberately turning a blind eye to the specific needs of older persons and persons with special needs. I also think that there is generally lack of awareness on the part of donors to support programmes intended to address the specific needs of the elderly.
For most of the older persons, our input together with the support from partners and like-minded organizations is all there is. Our humanitarian interventions are in most part what make the difference between putting something in their mouth or sleep hungry one more day or week. The difference between having a blanket over their bodies in chilly, wet nights or be exposed to the colds and mosquito bites. The difference of that older person with disabilities being able to maneuver the rough terrain with the support of a donated walking stick or be trampled over by strong-bodied individuals in rush to pick supplies at a camp. At times we go late, and a soul is famished to nether lands.
But I should not fail to mention that we do these at great risks. We still have to look over our shoulders or risk being victims. Many of my colleagues have ended up victims while in the line of duty.
Humanitarian workers go to great extremes and put their lives on the frontline in service of humanity.
To the humanitarian and donor family, as we celebrate this World Humanitarian Day, marked every other August 19, let us be mindful that since conflict/disaster does not discriminate, neither should our responses. Older women and men should be treated as right holders and not people who need our sympathy or charity.