She leapt from helicopters before they’d fully landed. She sped along in 4X4s, tossing sacks of food to crowds of eager families. She swam through raging, piranha-filled rivers to reach villagers in need of medicine. Always, she wore khakis and Ray-Bans.
“She” was the imaginary aid worker of my childhood. And she was an absolute wonder. Somehow, this light-skinned Canadian knew all the world’s customs and dialects. She was tireless, fearless and relentless in her quest to save people from their struggles.
As World Humanitarian Day approaches, I want to publicly declare how far off I was in my understanding. My imaginary aid worker was nowhere near as impressive as the real-life humanitarians I’ve been so privileged to meet. My vision fell far short of reality.
Busting the humanitarian myth
In my years with World Vision, I’ve learned that real humanitarian workers’ lives are far from glamorous. Their humbling, grueling work too often goes unrecognized. Although you might see them on the nightly news, debriefing from a war zone or earthquake aftermath, there’s plenty you never witness.
Real-life aid workers do far more than distribute aid to “people in other countries.” To be effective at long-term development, you have to be trusted. And you need to stick around.
Many of the world’s humanitarians hail from the very countries, or communities they serve. They’re skilled communicators, devoted teachers and exceptional listeners.
These real-life heroes are rarely the stuff of movies or video games. Yet make no mistake, they do fight villains. They help people stand up to the enemies of poverty, injustice and hopelessness.
Experience a day in the life
I invite you to join me for a day in the life of a humanitarian worker in India. “Luna”, as he’s affectionately known, lives and serves in North West India. Are you ready to work?
Luna’s days begin when the roosters crow – or even earlier. His work often demands that he rise as early as 4 a.m. Luna rents a room in one of the villages he serves. His home town and parents are 250 kilometres away. Luna’s given name is Thanglunpaua Guite, and he’s a humanitarian worker with World Vision.
Luna serves people in five different villages, spread across 120 kilometres. He often travels on his motorbike for two to four hours, from one village to another. The terrain is hilly, and roads can be rough and bumpy. “In rainy season, the roads are so bad, that villages are five to six hours apart,” says Luna. “Those are the days I work for 18 hours.”
In every village, Luna identifies and partners with a local volunteer. He teaches them how to gather information and updates. Today, they’re talking about a new children’s program to be developed in the village. The volunteer also alerts Luna to the specific needs of local villagers – some of which are urgent.
Luna heads immediately to see a mother who’s dealing with a financial crisis. She had taken her young child to a nearby private hospital for care, and it was expensive. Luna helps meet immediate needs and empowers families to make the most of available local facilities and programs. He talks with the mother about the local government hospital and other free medical help she can access.
In the next village, Luna meets with farmers World Vision India is supporting through economic development assistance, providing machinery to improve their yields. Working on hilly countryside can be tough – and the farmers share their agricultural challenges. They also update Luna on the ways they’ve been helping their families as a result of the program.
“In my role, it’s really important for me to listen to their problems and successes,” says Luna. “It gets hard sometimes, because they come to me with very high expectations for immediate help. I’ve learned not only to help them, but also to inform them what’s good for sustainable development and what’s not.”
In between his travels, Luna stops by a local tea shop and picks up a glass of tea. His work allows little time for breaks, however. When he receives a call from another community, Luna quickly responds. It’s time to get going again.
Helping children means equipping and empowering their parents. Luna counsels a mother who’s running a small shop with World Vision’s support. She can care for her children and earn income while her husband works long hours in the fields.
Luna loves children and stops to help at every opportunity. He was just about to leave this neighborhood, when he noticed a group of kids trying to fix a broken bicycle. He immediately gave them a hand, much to their joy.
Next stop is one of those challenging hillside farms. Luna helped this farmer access economic assistance to improve his yield – but he doesn’t stop there. Since his own dad was a farmer, Luna goes out of his way to visit, encourage and teach.
Then, Luna visits a family who lost their beloved mother in a road accident. He listens, while everyone shares how they’re feeling and coping. Comforting and counselling people – especially children – is a critical part of his humanitarian work.
It’s now 8:30 p.m., and the rationed electricity in this village has been switched off. Luna stays behind to help a child supported through World Vision finish writing a letter to his sponsor. The family asked for his assistance. Many parents are unable to read and write.
Back in his one-room home, Luna cooks supper for himself and washes up his dishes. But he can’t rest yet. He often has hours of work to complete before sleeping.
For every visit, there’s a field report to write up. Everything must be carefully documented. This is the best way to track progress over time. Luna’s learnings are combined with those of other World Vision workers around the country. In this way, workers learn from one another and programs are continuously improved.
Better than I ever imagined
I want to salute the Lunas of the world. Each one is unique, and many are beloved by the people they serve. They are the real-life heros who are tirelessly helping their own people to a sustainable future. Thank you for being stronger, more devoted, and infinitely more caring than the cartoon-character I imagined as a child.