15 Minutes on Being a Humanitarian

Episode Transcript

Lama Alsafi: 00:01 Hello and welcome to 15 Minutes to Change the World, where in 15 minutes, you can learn a bit more about the world and how you can help change it. My name is Lama Alsafi, standing in for Kasia Souchen as host of this podcast.

In this episode of 15 Minutes to Change the World we’re looking at humanitarian aid work. What does it mean to be on the front lines in the fight against poverty, hunger, and inequality? What are the challenges and what are the benefits of this work? Our guest today is Ramzi Saliba, a program manager with CARE Canada since 2018 Ramzi works in our humanitarian programs division. Welcome Ramzi. Thank you for joining us today.

Ramzi Saliba: 01:07 Hi. Thank you.

Lama Alsafi: 01:08 So for some of our listeners who don’t work in the humanitarian sector, can you tell us what it means to be a humanitarian and what that work entails?

Ramzi Saliba: 01:15 Yes, sure. So being a humanitarian is mostly going against traffic when everybody is leaving an area where a disaster or crisis has happened. We’re actually going into that area to provide life-saving aid and support to the people who are affected by, whether conflict or natural disaster or public health emergency.

Lama Alsafi: 01:39 And can you tell us a bit more about your career? How did you end up working in the humanitarian field?

Ramzi Saliba: 01:44 So, so I had a, a bit of an untraditional trajectory in my career where I started in the science field, basic sciences and like cellular and molecular biology, and then I shifted from there. And disaster management and humanitarian aid was something that I was really interested in and fascinated with ever since I was uh young um. So it was always something like I kind of followed up on the side and then until finally I decided that I needed to make a career out of that. So I quit my job in, uh, 2012 and travelled to the UK, did a diploma in humanitarian assistance and, uh, eight or nine years later here I am.

Lama Alsafi: 02:31 Very good. Well, we’re very lucky to have you here at CARE. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges humanitarians like you face?

Ramzi Saliba: 02:37 So yeah, challenges can be divided into several areas maybe. Definitely the intensity of the work and because we work long hours, long days, extended periods of time and we’re always facing or exposed to trauma and you know, severe, horrible stories of survival but of also, you know, tragedy. So mentally it’s, it’s taxing. It takes its toll on us. If we don’t manage a work-life balance and physically as well because of the workload. Sometimes also we’re deployed in very hard places working conditions are hard, living conditions are hard. Safety and security is always the main concern. And then you also have, you know, the time away from home, time away from family and friends. Um, those are definitely some of the main challenges that we face.

Lama Alsafi: 03:36 What was your most recent deployment?

Ramzi Saliba: 03:38 The last trip I had was to Nepal where we are implementing a recovery project from the earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015. And so that I went there for a couple of weeks to check on the project progress and meet some of our beneficiaries there as well.

Lama Alsafi: 04:01 Ramzi, can you tell our listeners what are the biggest benefits you’ve experienced as a humanitarian?

Ramzi Saliba: 04:06 It’s a very rewarding job despite all the challenges that I just mentioned a couple minutes ago. It definitely is very rewarding because you can see immediately the impact of the work that you’re doing. And you also get to meet, you know, a lot of the people that you’re supporting and you, you build bonds with them and you also like meet with other people in the sector working in different countries and different situations and you get to share that. So definitely there’s a lot of gains there as opposed to the challenges.

Lama Alsafi: 04:43 What has been the most inspiring moment for you in your work with CARE Canada?

Ramzi Saliba: 04:47 Yeah, so actually I’m going to go back to that Nepal trip. And we were meeting with beneficiaries in very remote areas that were severely affected by the earthquake in one of the villages where, um, 90 to 95% of the houses were destroyed. And then so the project is to provide access to safe water and sanitation facilities in those villages.

Um, and then we were talking with, with a, with a mothers group and then one of the mothers took me aside and I was with my colleagues from Nepal, so they were doing the translation for me. And so this mother, very shy, very humble lady. She looked at me and she said, “I don’t have anything to give you back, but just know that you have changed our lives and this project has saved our lives. We will never be able to repay you. But know that we are very grateful” and that these are like these small moments that makes it all worth it.

Lama Alsafi: 05:46 So can you tell us what are the qualities that, that make a good humanitarian worker?

Ramzi Saliba: 05:52 So humanitarian workers need to be detached but not disassociated. Maybe you need to just put some distance to protect yourself, um, and not put yourself in people’s shoes, but you need to still be able to relate to what people are going through and not become a robot and not look at people as numbers and cases and just a piece of paper. So that’s the tricky balance that you need, that we need, that we need to maintain. A good humanitarian worker is someone who has compassion, who is able to work under difficult conditions and not complain.

And it’s someone who, you know, treats people based on our four main principles, basically based on humanity. And then who is able to maintain their neutrality, their impartiality and their independence. And any breach of those four principles can put, put the humanitarian worker and their whole team and the beneficiaries at risk. So just, you know, you have to care about those you’re helping and you shouldn’t be carried away by emotions. I would say.

Lama Alsafi: 07:10 Ramzi. Tell us about your experience on your very first trip as a humanitarian worker.

Ramzi Saliba: 07:14 So my first trip I ever did as a humanitarian was a bit of, it was a lot of excitement and at the same time a lot of, a lot of overwhelming feeling of a feeling of being small to the face of the scale of the emergency. And it was for the, it was a response to the influx of Syria refugees in 2012 so definitely like we were, we were working like machines working in across different sectors. We were establishing a new response, which, which is a huge undertaking. Um, and then the stories we heard and the cases we’ve seen and we were exposed, we were exposed to.

It was a lot of, a lot of, you know, a mixed bag of emotions where you want to be empathetic to the people you’re working with, but you also need to not get carried away with those feelings and maintain your objectivity and deliver your programming and make sure you’re doing things right. Um, because you know, in our work we have a lot of standards and principles that we need to maintain, otherwise we jeopardize our whole interventions. And building that or building that wall or being a little bit detached from the emotions that you’re feeling was a bit, uh, was a bit overwhelming and hard to deal with. But, um, but yeah, it doesn’t deter you like it, it just gives you more motivation to do more. So I think the first intervention always shapes your, your whole career in the sector and it has definitely shaped mine.

Lama Alsafi: 08:58 Ramzi we like to give practical tips to our listeners. So how can someone who is interested in building a career in humanitarian work gets started? Do you have any practical tips who for someone who might be listening at home right now or in their car on how they can get their foot in the door in humanitarian work?

Ramzi Saliba: 09:14 Definitely stay informed, That’s the first step. If it’s something that you think is uh, you can do for a career, there are small courses, courses that you can take you don’t need to go into two years masters programs or anything. There are some very short courses that you can take and then do some volunteer work, connect with the people already in the sector, find out more. And then through volunteering you can, you can test yourself whether this is something that you really like and that you could, that you really like for the long run, not just for one, for one month of volunteering. Because as much as it is rewarding, it is also not the easiest job in the world. So definitely get familiar, get a touch, and then just put yourself out there and try and do it.

Lama Alsafi: 10:02 Thank you so much, Ramzi, for taking the time to talk with us today. It was a pleasure speaking with you and we appreciate you sharing your story with us. Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. As always, you can stay up to date on our newest episode of 15 Minutes to Change the World on Spotify and iTunes.