When you think of a humanitarian what comes to mind?
For many of us, it’s the image of a do-gooder from somewhere ‘better’ or ‘safer’ – risking it all for a dangerous, albeit worthy cause. But the reality of humanitarian aid work today is just as complex and diverse as the people who preform it.
For example, did you know that many aid workers are locals who are in the middle of crisis themselves? They work to free others from disastrous situations, embodying a unique blend of self-preservation and blatant disregard for personal safety. There is often no guarantee of relief for local humanitarians and they are often required to stay behind while international aid workers are pulled from crisis zones. Their work is intertwined with their own survival and the survival of those around them.
When I think of this kind of humanitarian, I think of the White Helmets – a group of Syrian men and women who have dedicated their lives to rescuing people trapped beneath bomb wreckage. Since beginning their rescue mission in 2013, the White Helmets have lost more than 200 members. During that time, they have saved 114,431 lives.
Sometimes, the White Helmets are successful in their recoveries. If you watch the documentary made about them you will see that in such moments they are overcome with joy and raw emotion, for no other reason than aiding in the rescue of a stranger. Other times they are met face to face with tragic loss, the death of someone’s loved one impacting them as though it were their own.
The story of the White Helmets reminds me that while a humanitarian is a lot of things, they are not a stock image for Western heroics.
Instead, a humanitarian is any person who displays selfless compassion for someone else irrespective of their race, religion or gender.
I believe that a humanitarian is the mother of three who has left everything behind to serve others in an unknown place. Or the family who opens their home to refugees fleeing their war-torn country. A humanitarian is a youth advocate raising her voice on behalf of those who have been silenced. It’s someone you least expected, like your neighbour or the person who serves you coffee in the morning. It’s anyone who prioritizes helping others in the midst of an emergency.
This could be all of us. This should be all of us, even here at home.
As I reflect on the terrible tragedy that occurred in the Danforth neighbourhood last month, I can’t help but think of those that rushed into the middle of the chaos to help the victims of the attack. As stories of heroic bravery began to emerge from the news of what took place, I saw how simple, yet incredibly selfless it was to do the work of a humanitarian – regardless of where you are.
We can and should encompass the selflessness, compassion and grace that so many humanitarians exercise by remembering the root and essence of humanitarianism is the word humanity. Humanity is something you can exercise in your life even if you don’t have the backing of an NGO, a degree in international development or special training.
Whether in our own backyard or across the world, we can all draw from our collective humanity and answer the call to serve those who are in need.
To borrow from the words of the late Mr. Rogers “we live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. This truth should be at the heart of who we are as a global community.
That’s why, this World Humanitarian Day I challenge all of us to rethink how we view humanitarian work, so that the next time someone asks you what a humanitarian is, you can point to your neighbour, your friend, even yourself.