A terrorist attack on the UN Headquarters in Baghdad left 22 dead on August 19, 2003. Five years later, the UN General Assembly officially established the date as World Humanitarian Day which according to UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, “is an annual reminder of the need to act to alleviate the suffering. It is also an occasion to honor the humanitarian workers and volunteers toiling on the front-lines of crises. I pay tribute to these dedicated women and men who brave danger to help others at far greater risk.”
There are approximately 130 million people around the world that need humanitarian assistance to survive right now. This is just to survive, not to be comfortable and is happening through no fault of their own. Millions in Ethiopia are struggling to survive in the worst drought and subsequent famine in 50 years. Millions in Syria flea or are trapped in the crossfire of a brutal civil war dropping bombs in their living rooms. Violence and food insecurity are not only claiming lives, but they are destroying entire cultures all around the world.
These are people, just like you and I, who only want to have a safe and peaceful life. They want their children to grow up in a place where they don’t have to fear airstrikes on their walk to school or if food will ever materialize to save them from starvation. Everyday this increasingly vulnerable and marginalized population are forced to make impossible decisions.
The UN’s website for World Humanitarian Day has a number of resources that help provide perspective for problems that certainly transcend those I face. My biggest dilemmas in the last year have ranged from the trivial “Should I respond back to that abrasive email from my boss?” to the trite “Can I afford to take that next vacation?” Following the lines of a popular leisure game I often play while laughing with friends, this version of Would You Rather offers a small glimpse into the impossible choices people around the world face daily.
If you can handle the weight of what that link represents, I urge you to Walk in the Shoes of a Refugee. After volunteering in Kara Tepe Refugee Camp for almost two months and hearing people’s personal stories in the many layers of pain they are built upon, I couldn’t get through this one without crying. With every click of the mouse, I was able to picture a face next to each option, people who had told me while they themselves were in tears of that exact decision they were forced to make.
The United Nations is using this day to promote their Agenda for Humanity to provide hope for a better world.
As noted in a previous article, How to Save the World, all it takes to be a hero and put a stop to the evil we are currently seeing around the globe is action. World Humanitarian Day celebrates those who commits to any of the five steps shown above.
Today I celebrate the dozens of volunteers I have sweat beside in the summer heat trying to pitch in however possible to serve families with dignity and respect who have fled the unimaginable. These volunteers compelled to action have paid for their own airfare, accommodations and food to get to a little island in Greece. They remain dedicated despite medical issues, illness, relationship strains and breakups, financial hardships, and fatigue. Some days rocks have been thrown at them or they’ve cut their leg completing a thankless task no one will ever know about like moving a pile of moldy canvas tents to increase storage space. Still with each new morning, they rise to the call of service.
“Humanitarian” is not a title exclusively reserved for those who interact with human suffering directly. Anyone that seeks to promote the general welfare of others is a humanitarian worthy of celebration. It could mean financial contributions like those from my best friend, Ryan Pierson who has biceps the size of Texas and donated money to fund the purchase of 70 tank tops for men saying, “Because every day is arm day, even in Kara Tepe.”
“Humanitarian” is a term that also applies to people who spread awareness instead of turning a blind eye. I think of my friends Susan and Sal Lepore who continue to share articles and dialogue with me about issues that matter, even though we only met randomly on a boat ride in Peru two years ago. I celebrate people like my girlfriend, Brittany Dunn of The Mind Body Project who helps me stay centered and who shares every article I write with her audience to ensure people’s stories don’t slip through the cracks.
Telling people’s stories is a vital component to spreading awareness and providing hope for a better world, according to the UN. I think to Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax and the line that says “I speak for the trees.” Those who provide a voice for the voiceless and amplify their plight despite risk, repercussions, or condemnation deserve hearty applause. I cheer for the people who intervene in a coffee shop as two baristas exchange a look when I say I’m working at a refugee camp and they tell me “They are all terrorists!” Fighting the evil of ignorance at this level is just as worthy of a humanitarian effort as actually working in a refugee camp.
I personally revere those who go into the most difficult situations so the harsh realities of human suffering aren’t silently lost behind a blinding wall of ignorance. Like the firefighters who ran toward the burning and collapsing twin towers on September 11, there are many who exemplify that same courage to bring us pictures and stories that galvanize the pain and suffering in an urgent call to action from the places of most danger.In Syria, Assad’s regime along with the help of Russia, continuously commit crimes against humanity by specifically targeting hospitals and civilians. Despite this known danger, many medical professionals working with Doctors Without Borders continue to station themselves where they are needed most: in the center of where bombs are exploding. The few doctors who remain have seen children and patients they stabilized killed by explosions that also claim the lives of their colleagues. Yet, there they remain, knowing they serve a vital need. A popular story swept across the internet at the end of April about The Last Pediatrician in Aleppo.
Things like this should be hard to read about and see, but that shouldn’t stop you from noting the reality of the situation. While I fear for the world so satiated by violence that teenagers can show me videos of beheadings that commonly appear in their newsfeed without flinching, I fear even more for those who pretend these things don’t exist. This is the pivotal place where we as a society of consumers have a choice to make. Will you quickly scroll through the articles and pictures on your Facebook feed that make you feel sad and uncomfortable, or will you take further steps?
In July, 44 attacks on hospitals were reported in Syria. Just last week a hospital specializing in pediatrics in the north was attacked by two airstrikes in broad daylight which left 13 dead, including 5 children. The ICU was destroyed, along with the operating theater, pediatric department, ambulances and generator. There is no safe haven or place of refuge inside the borders of this country-wide warzone. Still, doctors devoted to their mission remain.
All around the world, humanitarian aid workers face risks to deliver lifesaving services and care. They fall victim to violence, kidnapping, and murder along with the people they have devoted their existence to helping.
If you are appalled by the atrocities happening across this pale blue dot we call home, don’t stew in silence, do something about it. It may sound like a Kennedy pitch, but ask what you can do to make a difference in the world. Research some of the most vulnerable people who need immediate help, encourage your political representatives to take some form of action, volunteer with a charitable organization at home or abroad, make a small donation that can fund something essential for another, recognize those in your immediate community who also need help. Be creative with your kindness or as the UN advocates, “work differently to end need.” All it takes to be a humanitarian and hero is action.
The faces of human suffering may seem so far away, but they are real and they are all around you. Wherever you are, use whatever you have to do whatever you can. Don’t ignore the comments that seek to stereotype, degrade or demoralize others. Make it your job to care for your fellow man. Do it now and do it always, do not wait until a problem escalates to 450 volts, as explained in a previous post, to try to stop it.
Martin Niemöller who spent more than seven years in concentration camps under Nazi power, including Dachau, immortalized his guilt and responsibility in the well known provocative poem:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.