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Dublin: 4 °C Tuesday 15 October, 2019
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Opinion: Humanitarian work is intense and all-consuming, but I believe in what I do

Aid work is very full on – you work, live and socialise with your colleagues. But, cheesy as it sounds, I do really believe in what we’re doing here.

Ciara O'Malley

Today there are over 28 million people who need humanitarian aid in the Middle East according to Oxfam Ireland. The figures drawn from Iraq, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen show the scale of the humanitarian crisis in the region. Today is World Humanitarian Day: a day dedicated to recognising humanitarian personnel and those who have lost their lives working for humanitarian causes.

I DIDN’T ALWAYS know that it would be specifically humanitarian work but I always knew that I would be employed somewhere with the international sector – so it’s funny to think that I grew up not far from the Oxfam shop in Rathfarnham, and now I’m working for them thousands of miles away in South Sudan. I moved here from Pakistan, where I spent nearly three years working with Trócaire in communities affected by natural disasters such as floods.

You face a number of the same challenges in going to Pakistan or South Sudan as you would going to any other country, be it Australia or Canada, in terms of trying to find your feet. It’s a new job and team you’re working with, you’re also trying to make new friends, and you have to figure it all out, from working out the currency to where to do your food shop.

I was really interested in working in South Sudan for a number of years. Being a new country that is now just three years old, it has great potential but it has been wrecked by a decades-long civil war, and now that conflict is being divided along ethnic lines. What’s unfolding here is a complex emergency where there’s ongoing conflict but also a severe food crisis. It’s a very challenging environment to work in.

You work, live and socialise with your colleagues

In South Sudan, I live with 19 of my colleagues in a shared Oxfam house. My colleagues come from Portugal, Spain, the UK, the United States- it’s quite a mix. We each have our own bedroom and bathroom but we share a kitchen and living space so it can be quite crazy. Aid work is very full on. You work, live and socialise with your colleagues; it’s a very intensive and definitely not a ‘9 to 5’ job.

During a typical day, I get up around 7ish and I arrive to the office at 8.10am. I spend the first few hours catching up on office work, such as signing off on financial requests and budgets, looking at team plans, recruitment, logistics, funding, and working on our programme strategy.

Then I usually head to the camps at around 12.30pm, which are around a 30 minute drive away. I manage Oxfam’s humanitarian response in a place called UN House in Juba, which is a UN base and has three big camps in it with 25,000 people who have fled the conflict. As I am the external representative for Oxfam’s response in UN House, I attend coordination meetings with other aid agencies, the UN police and peace-keepers in order to represent Oxfam’s work.

Then I pop in to the camps, check on the activities the team are doing and troubleshoot issues on the spot. This can be anything from supply issues, to queries from the community leaders about our work and selection of beneficiaries.

At around 5pm it could be back to the office where I would be working with the finance and logistics teams making sure we have our supplies in and everyone is being paid, working with the funding team to make sure we are up-to-date with our donor reporting, and the policy team on any messages that we need to advocate certain stakeholders on.

Since December, we have reached 261,000 people at several locations across South Sudan with food, clean water, sanitation, hygiene materials and other essentials from fuel to solar lamps. However around four million people need urgent humanitarian support now – including 200,000 children suffering severe acute malnutrition. The conflict meant that people couldn’t plant crops earlier this summer and the country is on the brink of a massive food crisis, with a total of 7 million people facing hunger in the months ahead.

I try to finish up in the office at around 7pm. I then grab a bite to eat back at the house and then it’s back onto the laptop for more emails in the evening. One of the main dominating factors for expats here is the 9pm curfew which is pretty standard among the NGOs. If we do get time to go out after work, we usually have to down our drink and get our food to go as we are always rushing to leave to make sure we are home in time for 9pm.

All-consuming work

The majority of Oxfam staff are locals and all of us working here have security training, access to equipment such as satellite phones, and follow a number of security procedures. When we’re working in the camps we have to be clearly identifiable as working for Oxfam and have our car on standby during distributions in case we have to evacuate from the camps if an incident broke out.

The work here is very intense and all-consuming, but at the end of the day that’s also why I’m here. As cheesy as it sounds, I do really believe in what we’re doing here and I believe in the team doing it. I work with some amazing people who are also equally passionate about what we do. It can be quite an inspiring environment to work in.

So where to next? At the moment if I could pick anywhere, I would love to work in Palestine – a place I’ve always been interested in and I’m watching what’s going on in Gaza there at the moment; it is something we talk about a lot here in the Oxfam house in South Sudan. Otherwise I love East Africa, so ideally I’d like to stay working somewhere near here. But if I do end up in London next for the next few years I’d be very happy with that before venturing back out overseas again.

Ciara O’Malley, 28, from Rathfarnham in Dublin is a member of Oxfam’s emergency response teams in South Sudan.

Read: “There are so many emergencies to respond to, there aren’t enough people”

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Ciara O'Malley

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