What do you call a person who runs towards danger to save others? Who is undaunted by disease, famine, drought, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, locusts, conflict zones—and now the COVID-19 pandemic?
Would you call that person a hero? We would, too.
World Humanitarian Day is held every year on 19 August to pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service, and to rally support for people affected by crises around the world.
On 19 August 2003, a bomb attack on the Canal Hotel in Baghdad killed 22 humanitarian aid workers, including the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Five years later, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution designating 19 August as World Humanitarian Day. Each year, World Humanitarian Day focuses on a theme, bringing together partners from across the humanitarian system to advocate for the survival, well-being and dignity of people affected by crises, and for the safety and security of aid workers. This year, the already difficult work carried out by humanitarians has been made even more so by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
We wish to pay tribute and offer the most heartfelt thanks to these #RealLifeHeroes who put everything on the line to help others, no matter how daunting the odds. Our obsession with myths and legends has been with us since the dawn of culture. Their fictional fantastic feats, embodied enemies and arduous journeys teach us how to dream big and summon the courage needed to do what’s right.
But the experiences of humanitarians—who are providing food to vulnerable people in need, providing safe spaces for women and girls in lockdown; delivering babies; fighting locusts and running refugee camps, all amid the COVID-19 pandemic—these heroes of our world are perhaps more worthy of admiration and celebration, because they’re real. As real as the people they help. World Humanitarian Day is a campaign by OCHA, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Belitza is a lawyer working as a protection officer for UNHCR in Venezuela. She has been doing for the past 10 years and is motivated by the impact she has been able to have on the people she helps—including many women, children, and indigenous communities. She works in southern Venezuela in Guasdualito—a border town that has been receiving thousands of returnees since the onset of the COVID-19 emergency. Here she is providing assistance to those who are quarantined upon returning as a preventative measure against the pandemic.
“What I like most about what I do is the closeness with people that my work in the field allows me to have. It’s not a remote office, so I can see, know, feel people…and that has a greater impact on how we respond to the needs of people.”
Dr. Marie Roseline Darnycka Bélizaire, is a medical worker and Epidemiologist who helps fight #COVID19 in the Central African Republic. “This is what we do. We cannot leave people to die,” she says.
With her four degrees, @marieroselinebelizaire could have been any kind of doctor. But she chose community medicine to work at the grassroots level. “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.”
In the age of #COVID19, doctors and other health personnel are called front-line workers. But humanitarian doctors are often quite literally on the front lines of both war and disease. Epidemiologist Dr. Marie Roseline Darnycka Bélizaire has braved violent conflict in hotspot after hotspot as she’s risked everything to help communities fight outbreaks, from HIV to yellow fever to Ebola—and now 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.”
Umra Omar, 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.”