Humanitarians never think of themselves as heroes. Most of the humanitarians I’ve met consider themselves lucky to be to able help provide relief to people in need. Many humanitarians working in conflicts put their own lives at risk to support people – sometimes entire communities or cities – who are in urgent need of assistance.
While they are all heroic, humanitarians come in all shapes and sizes. In Syria I met Omar, a softly-spoken engineer who remained calm during the chaos – even when a mortar fell close to where we sat, he did not flinch, but carried on working. In South Sudan I met Marine, a French woman who doesn’t walk but runs everywhere, often holding two phones and having two different conversations. While they are both in the business of saving lives, they save them with very different approaches.
There is one humanitarian who will always stand out in my mind. It was in South Sudan, the world’s most violent place to be a humanitarian (according to the Norwegian Refugee Council), that I met Josaphat. Josaphat is a WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) Specialist with UNICEF; he works tirelessly to make sure families have access to clean, safe water. Most days, you can find him climbing along the top of water trucks to test the quality of the water, or sitting and chatting with community members to understand their needs, or putting in place a cholera-prevention strategy.
When communities gain access to clean water, and children no longer have to walk for hours every day to collect it, they can start to have a sense of a childhood
While the work is challenging, the situation often devastating and the dangers very real, Josaphat approaches every day with a smile. His laughter can be heard from the other side of the office, and when he is in the community, children always flock to him.
On a bumpy car ride to a remote community, Josaphat told me that he has wanted to work in water and sanitation since he was a child. He remembered the long hours he and his brother would walk every day to collect water. While he didn’t always mind missing school, he really missed having a chance to play with his friends. Now, when he goes to communities and sets up water points, he sees how happy the children are.
Many of these children are too young to remember a time when South Sudan was not in conflict. For too many children, life is only about survival. For 5.3 million people across the country in urgent need of safe water, Josaphat’s work is a lifeline. When communities gain access to clean water, and children no longer have to walk for hours every day to collect it, they can start to have a sense of a childhood.
Today, we remember all the humanitarians who lost their lives in the line of duty, and all those – like Josaphat – who continue to risk their own lives to save others. On World Humanitarian Day, and on every other day of the year, I am eternally grateful for the heroes without capes.
Philippa Lysaght works in advocacy for UNICEF’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene team.