We honour and celebrate humanitarian workers on the front lines doing extraordinary things at an extraordinary time. Aid workers are stretched like never before. They are fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and helping people affected by it, continuing ongoing lifesaving work, while facing the largest funding shortfall and worst access restrictions in our history.
Nurse and Vaccinator from Niger
Born 39 years ago in Niamey, Abdou has been committed to helping communities in Niger remain healthy and safe throughout his entire career. Abdou decided to become a volunteer for the Niger Red Cross after his best friend became partially paralyzed after contracting polio.
Now, Abdou is involved in the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI), the management of malnutrition and in all vaccination campaigns, including the polio campaign, as an informant, vaccinator and supervisor. A main part of his job is working to convince families to vaccinate their children against polio despite resistance from community leaders.
In 2004 Abdou trained as a nurse’s aide. He then began working as a first-aid worker and stretcher-bearer in Niamey’s national hospital. In 2007, he volunteered in the malnutrition management programme at an Integrated Health Centre in Niamey’s Lamordé neighbourhood. In 2014, he moved to the Zarmagandeye Integrated Health Centre, also in Niamey, where he continues to serve.
On top of working on immunization campaigns, including for the polio campaign, as a vaccinator and supervisor, he also works in the malnutrition management programme.
Abdou says the biggest challenge in his work is building trust with communities to get them to understand that vaccinations save lives.
Dr. Marie Belizaire
Epidemiologist from Haiti, now in the Central African Republic
Marie is an epidemiologist, and public health specialist from Haiti who has responded to disease outbreaks including Yellow Fever, Dengue, Ebola and now COVID-19 all over Africa. She joined the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to fight the Ebola Virus Disease epidemic there and is now working amid violence and insecurity in the Central African Republic to contain COVID-19.
“What keeps me awake at night is thinking about how we would respond if a new disease emerges in the war zones of CAR at the same time as we are dealing with this pandemic. Also, keeping my team safe from both the virus and the violence, while we try to reach the most vulnerable…. And all of those who die in ambulances because we reach them too late.”
Marie trained in medicine in Cuba, specializing in community medicine, and then went to Spain to study epidemiology. She then pursued a Master’s Degree in Public health and is now also pursuing a PhD.
Marie started working on HIV prevention and treatment in remote areas of Haiti. She then went on to work for Epicentre in Europe, a health project spanning 27 Mediterranean countries to coordinate public health interventions.
What keeps me awake at night is thinking about how we would respond if a new disease emerges in the war zones of CAR at the same time as we are dealing with this pandemic. Also, keeping my team safe from both the virus and the violence, while we try to reach the most vulnerable…. And all of those who die in ambulances because we reach them too late.
In 2015, Marie joined WHO to work on Ebola preparedness in West Africa, training WHO staff across the region. Since then, she has responded to several disease outbreaks with WHO, including yellow fever in Angola, Rift Valley fever and dengue in Mauritania, and then Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
For the Ebola response in DRC, as the Field Coordinator and Incident Manager, Marie worked in North Kivu to set up contact tracing and coordinate response. She went on to do the same all around the country, including in hotspots Butembo, Bunia and Manguine.
Building trust in DRC was very hard at the beginning. Marie explained: “They don’t trust foreigners. I asked colleagues to stratify the community to identify who has influence and which groups we should work with. We worked with motorcycle drivers, women’s associations, drivers’ associations, travel associations, patients’ associations, women’s groups and sex workers. We left no one behind.”
Marie went to villages and sat down with militia groups and ate with them to build trust. “If you eat with them, they will trust you,” she says.
This year, WHO sent Marie to the Central African Republic (CAR) to help set up the COVID-19 response. There are many lessons to apply from Ebola to the COVID-19 response in CAR, she says.
First, the community has to be at the centre of any epidemic response – from the early stages right to the end. Second, you need to take a win-win strategy that goes beyond the disease response. “You need to focus on what you leave behind after the disease is over, including responding to people’s basic needs,” she explains. Third, it’s vital to get contact-tracing right. This can be complicated with COVID-19, as people can be exposed multiple times, so it’s hard to know who the source is.
“We trained 16,000 contact tracers in North Kivu and we now have a chance to build a system like that here in CAR,” she says.
Marie loves working in community medicine. “I chose community medicine because I want to be with and work with the community. I grew up in a big family. I used to go to the village – I love being and working in those places. The best thing we can do is prevent communities from having to be healed by keeping them healthy. Everything can be prevented at the basic level. I went to Cuba and saw how medicine is developed at the family and community level. Doctors live in their communities, and they know every single thing about their people’s health and illnesses. When you are with the community, you are sitting down while you are listening to them tell you how they feel.”
She adds: “I never say no to a mission when I see people in need of my help. When I am helpful, that makes me fulfil my life.”
Farming entrepreneur from Benin, now in northern Italy
Ismael came to Italy to join his uncle after economic hardship forced him out of Benin. He began fruit-picking to get by. In 2010, violent riots broke out in the south of the country sparked by the shooting of two migrants. Ismael and other migrants were evacuated from the region and taken to a migrants’ centre.
At the migrants’ centre Ismael met the future founder of Barikama, a farming cooperative run by African migrants in Italy. They remained in close contact until Ismael decided to join the cooperative in 2014.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Barikama members decided to help people in lockdown by delivering food packages.
“We were scared too, but we could not imagine letting people down,” he says.
Providing healthy food for the community’s most vulnerable, like elderly people wary of leaving the house, is what motivates Ismael and his business partners.
Barikama Cooperative grew busy — Ismael said he would work 16-hours a day. But he was motivated to do this work because of the ability “to be independent and make a decent living while empowering others to follow the same path.”
Their business is an important unifier in the community; they employ migrants as well as locals with disabilities.
Ismael says about the caring for his community at a time they needed it the most: “During the COVID-19 lockdown, we thought we needed to help people and make our contribution to this country — help our clients who trusted us and helped us build our business, but also others suffering during the pandemic.”
Dr. Umra Omar
Doctor & Founder, Safari Doctors from Kenya
Umra, from the Lamu archipelago in Kenya, is the founder of Safari Doctors, a mobile doctors’ unit that provides free basic medical care to hundreds of people every month from more than 17 villages in Lamu.
While modern healthcare is modeled on urban realities, 70% of Kenya's population lives in remote areas. A key perspective shift was not seeing healthcare as static, but something that could actually reach out to the people in need.
“I think humanitarian work needs to stop being a 'by the way' thing. It should be something that we are living as the norm,” says Umra.
Desert Field Coordinator and Entomologist from Somalia
Mohamud was always interested in agriculture. He used to live with his grandmother in Somalia, and he planted a garden so that she didn’t have to buy vegetables from the market.
But insects would destroy the garden, which made Mohamud want to learn more on how to deal with them.
“When I went to university, I was interested in two things: medicine and agriculture. In our introduction to medicine, I was in the emergency unit when they brought in a young girl with a broken leg and they had to amputate it. I decided then that medicine was too cruel, so I decided to work in agriculture – to study insects,” he says.
Mohamud joined the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in April to help fight the locust invasion in Somalia and neighbouring countries.
He explains: “We control locusts because they make people shed tears. Imagine a farmer who had a small pot of money to input into his farm – he used it to prepare the land, he hired people to plough for him, he bought water for the crops, and after he has done all of this then locusts come in the thousands of millions and destroy everything he had in one day. He will be very sad. That is what is driving me to do what I am doing.”
We control locusts because they make people shed tears. Imagine a farmer who had a small pot of money to input into his farm – he used it to prepare the land, he hired people to plough for him, he bought water for the crops, and after he has done all of this then locusts come in the thousands of millions and destroy everything he had in one day. He will be very sad. That is what is driving me to do what I am doing.
Locust invasions devastate entire local economies, breaking the whole supply chain, affecting farmers and herders, people who provide fertilizers and seeds and who transport food to market, as well as pushing up the price of food at the markets. “So, you can imagine how many people will lose their jobs when locusts destroy their crops,” says Mohamud.
Mohamud and the wider FAO team try to manage locusts with know-how, vehicles and bioinsecticides. “I am a scientist, so I calculate what to protect first. First, the cultivated land, then the animal grazing site. I am methodical.” Mohamud and his team locate where the locusts are. Then they try to control them in their early stages when they are in hopper bands and cannot yet fly. “If we locate them, we dig a big, deep hole and bury them. There is no need for any chemicals in these cases,” says Mohamud. But if locusts mature and the numbers get bigger, they use biopesticides harvested from microorganisms found on dying locusts – these are designed to kill only locusts, not other creatures. “We basically control one living organism with another one.”
The biggest difficulty is when locusts breed in neighbouring countries – Ethiopia, Yemen – and lay eggs in lots of different sites around Somalia. These are difficult to detect, and when they hatch, they will destroy everything green that exists. “If it’s green, it will turn white. When I see a crisis like this unfold, I am motivated to do everything I can.”
Education Coordinator with NGO Nile Hope, from Kenyan now in South Sudan
Isaac has a Master’s degree in planning and research. He has worked for five years as an Education Coordinator for the NGO Nile Hope. He oversees the running of seven education programmes, which span promoting enrolment to school; improving quality education; providing psychosocial care through education; and an OCHA-funded school-feeding programme in food-insecure areas. He is also on the advisory group for national education response, playing a key role coordinating national NGOs, UNICEF, other UN agencies and the Government.
Isaac first went to South Sudan in 2015 as a consultant to do a programme assessment following an outbreak of conflict in 2013. “It was a very difficult time,” he said. “I returned to Kenya and realized I wanted to get involved in humanitarian work to do something for the most vulnerable. I wanted to focus on children, so I decided to use my planning and research degree to get involved in education.”
I returned to Kenya and realized I wanted to get involved in humanitarian work to do something for the most vulnerable. I wanted to focus on children, so I decided to use my planning and research degree to get involved in education.
One of the biggest challenges working in South Sudan is insecurity, as Isaac’s aid group works in very remote areas of the country with different factions controlling each location. Intercommunal tensions run high. Isaac explains: “Sometimes we’re in the midst of working and things can flare up. Cattle-stealing is a huge problem in some of the counties where we work. It destabilizes everything because it leads to revenge attacks and it can lead to terrible massacres.”
A staff member was killed in a revenge killing earlier this year. Access is also very difficult, particularly in areas with terrible roads. “In the rainy season you have to walk up to eight hours in knee-deep mud to reach our programme sites,” he said.
This year has been the hardest yet for Isaac. He has not seen his family in seven months because of the COVID-19 lockdown and schools are closed, with many children unable to access radio-learning services and fewer available teachers to draw on. “So many groups of children are getting out of touch,” says Isaac. Educators have a back-to-learning plan, but it lacks enough money to implement. But Isaac keeps going because of the impact of his work. He says: “What motivates me is the kind of change I see in the lives of vulnerable people. You see it in the eyes of the learners – and that is what keeps me going. South Sudanese are not dependent – they are leaders. They want to drive things forward.”
Isaac refers to a project in Twit County, next to Wau, where aid agencies were building a temporary learning space for children, but on a very small budget. They decided to build in mud, but when they consulted with the community, members said: “We don’t want mud classrooms, we want them in brick, and we will help make the bricks and build it. So, instead of making a semi-permanent classroom – we made a permanent one.” They then adopted and applied this model all over the country.
Nurse in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Kalkidan started working as a nurse in rural areas before moving to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to work in a district health centre as a junior nurse. Following several promotions, she now manages the Emergency Coordination Unit and loves her job.
“The working environment is so dynamic and burdened, which gives me a huge opportunity to learn,” she says.
I grew up in this community, and this community helped me to learn and excel in my profession. Serving them now, in response to COVID-19, makes me happy.
Kalkidan works on prenatal, neonatal and postnatal care, and runs a vaccination programme for infants and children. When COVID-19 hit, many mothers did not want to leave home to give birth, so Kalkidan established a team to spread awareness among pregnant women in the community to convince them to come in for check-ups and immunizations. “It was very challenging to convince them, but finally word started to spread and they’re starting to use our services again,” she said.
“I grew up in this community, and this community helped me to learn and excel in my profession. Serving them now, in response to COVID-19, makes me happy,” says Kalkidan.
Recently, she and her team had to convince a husband to let his pregnant wife go to the health centre after missing three months of check-ups and surpassing her delivery due date. She went into labour as soon as she arrived, and nurses helped her deliver twins after a long labour. Delivering twins at home would have been extremely risky, and they caught her just in time, says Kalkidan. “This was the happiest day of my life for my career so far.”
Dr. Narcisse Stéphane Ongtiga Biansere
Deputy Medical Director and COVID-19 Focal Point in Bangui, CAR
A doctor for 7 years, Dr Narcisse joined the humanitarian sector in 2014, a year after completing his medical studies in Bangui in CAR.
Community engagement is key to stopping COVID. People are questioning what doctors and health experts are saying, so the humanitarian community needs to continue their effort and speak to the communities.
Concerned with restoring peace in his country and improving access to basic services, he says he knew from a young age that he needed to be a doctor.
Working in the Central African Republic, and especially in remote areas, is difficult. Roads are damaged, it can take hours to go to a village. Some areas in the country are dangerous—insecurity makes it difficult to access vulnerable populations.
But what can be seen as a difficulty is a motivation for Dr. Biansere who feels even more compelled to go where his compatriots need help the most.
“Community engagement is key to stopping COVID. People are questioning what doctors and health experts are saying, so the humanitarian community needs to continue their effort and speak to the communities.”