Haroon Altaf is a humanitarian programme and policy manager for Islamic Relief based in Birmingham, UK, and has 15 years of experience in the aid sector working for both faith-based and secular organizations.
After 15 years of working in the humanitarian sector, I no longer dwell on broad questions such as how we can solve the never-ending crises and conflicts of the world and whether there is any hope in humanity. Human suffering is very real and very personal, and I learnt and experienced from a young age that if you focus on the individual—including yourself, your colleagues, and those who we serve in the sector—that this is what gives people hope, dignity, and contributes towards reducing suffering in the world—even if it is one small step at a time.
In February 2005, I joined Islamic Relief’s (IR) orphans and widows support program, which provided cash transfers and social support (guidance, follow-up on children’s education, health, and care) to widows across many countries. This doesn’t fit the traditional understanding of “humanitarian” work, but it set up my career in this field and shaped my views.
On October 8, 2005, a powerful, 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Pakistan and Kashmir, killing at least 80,000 people and leaving over 4 million homeless. The whole experience was overwhelming, nothing more so than the sense of responsibility that I had. I visited many families where children had lost either one or both of their parents, and I was helpless to say or do anything. I visited Balakot and stood at the site of high schools where hundreds of children had died, where the town had been completely destroyed with many bodies still under the rubble. There was no turning back for me in this line of work after this.
In July 2008, I visited Bosnia to evaluate the performance of the sponsorship program there which had been operating since the mid-1990s where IR had been working during and after the brutal war from 1992 to 1995. This was no longer a humanitarian response in 2008, but the long-term effects of war were very clear and long-lasting. This was most apparent when myself and a local staff member met with a young widow in Sarajevo who was very appreciative of IR’s sponsorship over the years but suffered from long-lasting PTSD. She was crying about the effect of her life on her only son, a 14-year-old boy who had gone off the rails and was regularly drinking alcohol and being anti-social, getting into trouble. Her son was born out of rape, one of many in Bosnia where Serb forces systematically, by design, used rape as a weapon of war.
The sponsorship programs IR had in the Balkans (Albania, Bosnia, and Kosovo) had a long-lasting positive impact on the mental health of a generation of children who had been orphaned. Over the years IR had organized summer camps and other extra-curricular activities for children to build their social skills and improve relations between those who were isolated and often stigmatized. Many older children and widows expressed that this gave them a level of dignity, self-respect, and confidence; it gave them the chance to have some semblance of a normal childhood.
One 19-year-old female who had received a scholarship to attend university in Tirana, Albania, said to me regarding the IR support that it “made us feel as if we had both parents.” Further, a 22-year-old female teacher further explained how she had been one of those children and that the impact on her life had not only given her the means to go into this career but also the motivation to support others in the best way she could.
In 2011, a famine in Somalia resulted in the deaths of 258,000 people, of which 133,000 were children under the age of 5. My role in support of the response was to secure funding. I was not on the front lines delivering food aid to 30,000 families a month as my colleagues from IR Somalia were under constant threat of violence from armed groups. I encountered a glimpse of the huge suffering in the IDP camps around the capital and Benadir Hospital, which was overwhelmed with malnourished children. That so many people unnecessarily died from hunger not bullets or shells due to a combination of restrictive counter-terrorism government policies and inaction by the international community is something to this day I cannot comprehend.
Today, we see in countries like Yemen, Syria, and South Sudan that great avoidable human suffering continues, yet hostility towards humanitarian aid has increased substantially with regulations, threats, and direct targeting of aid workers, the majority of whom are local and national staff who continue to work on the frontlines risking their lives on a daily basis. In February 2020 alone, two Oxfam staff members were killed in southern Syria and 90% of Islamic Relief staffers were displaced in the northwest in some of the worst violence since the conflict began.
Faith is what spurs me on. Faith in the ability of an individual to make change in peoples’ lives, faith in the abilities and drive of staff on the frontlines of humanitarian responses, and faith in people affected by war and hunger to have a level of resilience and desire to keep going on, making the best out of their situation with hope for their future. Having the belief that our actions in this life are not inconsequential and that those who suffer now will have better outcomes is central to this. As Muslims, we are taught this and that “with every hardship comes ease,” meaning that ultimately the suffering of people will not be in vain.
As humanitarians, we must think long-term and not treat those we receive as passive receivers of aid. Immediate food, water, and health support is necessary, but people are not sheep. They have a lot more in their lives and each person has the potential to contribute toward making this world better. We should bring the lives of the individuals into focus and put them at the heart of what we do as aid workers, whether we are on the frontlines or engaging in so-called “high-level” policy discussions in the global north.
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