When I signed up to be part of UNICEF’s Emergency Response Team, I felt a wave of excitement and euphoria to dedicate myself to a mandate I genuinely believe in: supporting women and children in conflict areas and emergencies.
Some of my close family and friends questioned such a career direction as it involved taking risks and putting my personal life on the back burner; in other words, not getting married or making babies: a stereotype that most Arab women are faced with on a daily basis. “Who would want to marry an Indiana Jones?,” my mum kept asking me. Yet, I chose to follow my gut and decided to go for it. As you can imagine, I have had an imperfectly perfect journey and I wouldn’t change it for the world. My path has had many highs but also some very low and tough moments; it has almost made me lose faith in humanity but also allowed me to witness divine and beautiful miracles of life. So, are you ready for a quick ride of what led me to be (and ‘own’ being) a humanitarian?
How did it all start? The awakening
I was born and raised in Lebanon, a country which has witnessed a wave of wars and so much political instability that it transformed me into an ardent peace activist. This then led me to a path of major self-discovery and introspection. I felt that I had a karmic responsibility to make a difference in the world. I later went on to realize that my most meaningful vocation was to first heal myself then take learnings from my traumatic past and spread the lessons of resilience and strength in every assignment that I undertook.
How did I manage? 101 basics of being a woman in a man’s world
I am not your typical Security Advisor. Instead of tactical pants and military outfits, I wear heels, follow fashion trends and coordinate outfits. I am assertive when I need to be and clearly define my boundaries, but I am unapologetic about my womanhood and use attributes such as empathy, intuition, and tact to be a valuable team player, one who brings ‘extra ingredients’ to the table.
“Who would want to marry an Indiana Jones?,” my mum kept asking me. Yet, I chose to follow my gut and decided to go for it
I am often the only woman working or leading a team composed of male colleagues, going to frontlines, or lobbying with authorities who have preconceived notions about my gender and what my role should actually be. It is not always easy, and at times, you have to work harder to prove yourself. But none of this has ever stopped me from achieving results; if anything such barriers inspire me to break them. I do owe a lot to my male colleagues who have supported me and remained loyal throughout the years and in the toughest emergencies like those in Mali, Venezuela, and DRC. We were ‘one’ in managing a crisis for a common cause regardless of age, gender and affiliation.
Is it worth it? A full spectrum, yin/yang of human connections
In this line of work, you think you are there to fix situations, set up systems, solve problems and heal pains but actually, these transform you and impact you for life. I always left a part of me (or was challenged in my own beliefs) in every country I was deployed to.
I have cried with a South Sudanese girl whose sister was massacred in front of her in the 2016 attacks, I have felt the pain and deprivation of the Yemeni woman waiting in line for a whole day to receive US$20 (from UNICEF’s Cash Transfer project) to buy food that can feed her family for a month. I have connected to the psyche of the emotionally and physically-abused women who were made to believe they had no voice in Afghanistan.
But like everything in life, there is goodness. I have also seen hope in the eyes of Yemeni children who dared to dream (like dear Othman who wanted to be an ophthalmologist to correct people’s vision so they could see how beautiful the world is). I have shared a sense of belonging with the South Sudanese women when we set up a Women’s Forum as a safe space to express our fears around the threat of rape. I have felt pride when I was able to encourage Middle Eastern and African women to think about owning their individuality and recognizing their inner power, through the WSAT (Women’s Security Training).
Lessons learned: How to be an agent of change
The life of a humanitarian is hard, it comes with a moral duty to be ‘an agent of change’ so that you can reflect it in your work. Here are some lessons learned:
- Appreciate and be grateful for the simple things in life and don’t take anything for granted
- Surrender to a greater power and nurture spiritual life (it gives me inner strength to manage the injustice I encounter)
- Don’t let the work take too much. Find space to celebrate hobbies, interests and invest in personal relationships
- Celebrate cultural diversity and human connections in all its forms
- Develop a strong support system (they are my reality-check in moments of self-doubt and uncertainty)
- Prioritize being disciplined about self-care through mindfulness and grounding practices, and be courageous enough to recognize signs of compassion fatigue, burnout, and act upon them.
Yes, I have chosen an unconventional path and broken the mold of my culture’s expectations. It took me on a major roller-coaster ride but it connected me to my true essence (or roots), the roots of humanity.
What we do as humanitarians is gratifying and rewarding. So keep working with your hearts and let inner validation be your drive. Do not use your ego or depend on external gratification. You will be free, you will be resilient, and you will celebrate being your own superhero and transcend the world out there.
Hind Ghorayeb is a Security Advisor for the Office of Emergency Programmes at UNICEF HQ.