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Pay it forward: confessions of a humanitarian worker

Fae Cheska Marie Esperas

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Pay it forward: confessions of a humanitarian worker
'Had I not been called to be part of this vocation, I guess I would still be wondering how it is like to be one'
They say humanitarian workers are heroes. They dedicate their heart and soul to save lives, may it be in a natural or a manmade disaster. I say we humanitarian workers, like everybody else, are just human beings, doing the best we can, in the ways we know, to help those in need rebuild their lives.
It was in 2013 when I became a humanitarian worker. To be honest, I do not want to tag myself as “humanitarian,” mainly because I still have a lot to do to live up to the name. But yes, I entered the field just a few weeks after surviving typhoon Yolanda. An old friend offered me a job in the organization he works for, and while at first I was clueless on what to do, I knew it was all about responding to the thousands of survivors struggling to stand up after the storm took away everything they had.

I suppose I was very lucky; not only did I find a job in a middle of a chaos, but the job I landed allowed me to utilize the skill I cherish the most: writing. It was like I struck gold. It’s not everyday you can find a job you like, and there I was, despite being in a disaster situation, falling in love at first sight with my newfound career.

I served as an information management assistant for the project our organization handled in the Yolanda-affected areas of the Visayas. I’d say it was a tough job-while I stayed within the confines of our office, it was my role to keep tabs on the data our field staff churned and interpret them into information that we can use. It can be an utterly boring job, but it also became more and more challenging as the days went by.

From a survivor to a humanitarian worker 

But the real toll that I experienced is not the sudden career change. The excitement of doing humanitarian work was being negated by my roots as a Yolanda survivor. It’s like this: transitioning from being a disaster survivor to becoming someone who extends a lending hand to others cannot be done in a snap. Sure, I had the home court advantage. As a Yolanda survivor, I had the better edge to understand the plight of the people our project serves.  But at the same time it was emotionally draining. The people we were serving looked up to us. They looked up to me, not only because I was there to help, more so because they thought I have recovered faster, and therefore I was stronger and more capable to help them rebuild.

I did not see it that way, though.  

How humanitarian work affected me

There were times when I cried at night in despair, for the trauma brought by Yolanda continued to haunt me. I carried this sort of survivor’s guilt since I could not mourn fully for those who lost more than I did. I could not even talk about my feelings in an honest manner in fear of being called ungrateful. Like, how can I complain about my life when I was in a rather comfortable position compared not only to my fellow survivors, but also to my colleagues. Many of them came all the way from Luzon, Mindanao, and even abroad, sacrificing their own comfortable lives, just to help. So yes, who was I to rant?

But while it took me time to realize how blessed I was, it soon dawned upon me that being a humanitarian worker is not a cross to bear, but rather a path to learning life in its crudest, harshest forms, and that it’s up to us on how to make the best of it.

I learned that it’s okay to cry, that I am entitled to my own feelings, just like everybody else who got past Yolanda. After all, those who survived lost their sense of normalcy, no matter how first-world these seemed, mine included.

I also came to see that even if we don’t speak much about the hard times, my colleagues were there for support, not only as co-workers, but as friends, as people who have had their own share of ups and downs for us to share, to overcome, and to celebrate.

I likewise witnessed how light can penetrate through the cracks of a seemingly dead-end tunnel by using your skills set right. I never thought that I would be using my writing skills to help. But the reports, the proposals, the news articles, all of them, in their own little ways, made me see that I have so much more to give.

Looking back, I can say that becoming a humanitarian worker made me stronger as a person. Had I not been called to be part of this vocation, I guess I would still be wondering how it is like to be one. And for sure, that kind of yearning will eat me alive later on.

I can still remember that breezy December afternoon when my supervisor asked me about joining a new project, since our Yolanda response was about to complete. He said I will be doing mostly the same tasks, but in a more diverse and exciting environment consisting of people bound together by a shared aspiration – of living life in peace and harmony, this time in a war-stricken land. The only catch is that I will be stationed in Zamboanga City, at least for a year.

Without batting an eyelash, I said yes. It’s not that I felt like my job in helping build Tacloban back better is done. It was more like I felt it was time to pay it forward, to share the best of humanity, to greater heights, to those who are most in need. –

Fae Cheska Marie Esperas, 29, currently works as a monitoring and evaluation assistant for the Zamboanga Recovery Project, a three-year partnership of Community and Family Services International and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which focuses on rebuilding the lives of internally displaced persons affected by the 2013 Zamboanga City Crisis.

August 19 is World Humanitarian Day. Are you a humanitarian? Share your story with us:


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