Humanitarian heroes of the 21st century

This week, on 19 August, we celebrate World Humanitarian Day. The day commemorates our UN colleagues who died in a brutal attack on the UN offices in Baghdad in 2003. It also marks the efforts of other humanitarian workers who have risked their lives – and in some case lost them – in an effort bring relief and assistance to people whose lives are thrown into turmoil because of man-made conflicts and natural disasters. Every year, disasters cause immense suffering to millions of people, and those who suffer most tend to be the poorest, the most marginalized and the most vulnerable.

As a humanitarian worker, it is with pride that I remember and celebrate the work of my colleagues. I also remember with pride the advances we have made, both in coordinating disaster relief – so that more people get what they need – and in recognizing the need to build resilience so that people are better able to survive and recover when disasters strike.


A young boy stands amid rubble from homes destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan
© UNICEF/NYHQ2013-1098/Dean


Our region, East Asia and the Pacific, is host to nearly two-thirds of the world’s natural disasters. Typhoons, earthquakes, floods and other extreme weather phenomena will continue – we cannot stop them. So we must do more to equip vulnerable people to protect themselves and their loved ones. With the help and support of governments, donors and local schools and communities, building resilience will, in the long run, save as many lives as emergency relief.

World Humanitarian Day must be not simply be a day to remember our humanitarian heroes. It must also inspire us to think about the needs of victims. In the last year that includes the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, of floods in the DPR Korea, of civil conflict in Syria and Gaza, and of the many disasters that regularly disrupt the lives and livelihoods of the people of the Pacific Islands.

In fact, in my years working to help bring relief when disaster strikes, I have come to realize that those who suffer the impact of disasters are not just victims: they are often heroes too. So the heroes we need to celebrate on World Humanitarian Day are not just my colleagues, who risk their lives for others, or even the donors and supporters – people who reach into their hearts and into their pockets to help ensure that those in desperate need are not forgotten.


Typhoon survivor Cherlyn Bohol, 9, gets water from a tap stand
set up by UNICEF in the typhoon-hit village of Rawis Anibong
© UNICEF/PFPG2013P-0508/Maitem


In the East Asia and Pacific region, more often than not the real heroes when disaster strikes are local people: children who overcome the total disruption to their lives, and their parents who pick up the pieces and take a lead in rebuilding their communities and reinventing their livelihoods after disaster strikes.

The spirit of these local heroes was very evident in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Handmade signs posted in small villages across the devastated central islands of the Philippines made the point that people’s lives were damaged but their spirits were not broken. There are so many unsung heroes among them!

Perhaps the greatest heroes of all are the many brave children who, with essential help and support, overcome enormous difficulties. As we work with these children to build back better – to reopen schools, restore access to clean water and sanitation, and build spaces where children can rediscover play and other essential elements of childhood development – it is very easy to see that they are both today’s heroes and perhaps tomorrow’s leaders.

As a humanitarian worker, I am both proud and privileged to be able to say that I have played a small part in their journey.

The author
Carmen van Heese is Regional Emergency Adviser for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

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