“On this World Humanitarian Day, I urge everyone to show solidarity as global citizens by signing up to the #ShareHumanity campaign,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, at a special event on the eve of World Humanitarian Day. “By donating your social media feeds for just one day you can promote humanitarian action and help to give a voice to the voiceless by sharing their stories of crisis, hope and resilience.”
Meet three humanitarian workers based in the Pacific, and learn about their challenges and fulfillment arising from their work responding to the cyclone that hit Vanuatu in March.
Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, UNICEF, Port Vila, Vanuatu
I was working in Port Vila when Tropical Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu on 13 March 2015. Vanuatu is my family’s home. Cyclone Pam was the biggest cyclone I have ever experienced. There was a point during the cyclone when I thought, “This is it! My house will not be able to make it”, as I cuddled my sons to sleep. The next morning, I remember waking up and going out of the house to see the damage. I could see from one end of my neighborhood to the other. The trees that had not been felled stood bare and naked. Large signboards and power poles were down.
I was part of the Rapid Assessment Team that flew to Tanna in the southern Vanuatu province of Tafea. I went with colleagues from the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team and a medivac team to bring back a little girl who had been injured during the cyclone and lost two of her family members. I remember looking down from the plane and simply crying – the island looked like it had been scorched by a massive fire.
I travelled to many provinces in the weeks and months that followed as part of UNICEF’s support to the Government of Vanuatu. It was logistically difficult to get to some of the affected islands and it often meant several hours of boat travel in perilous conditions. One day stood out for me. Baby Pam was born during the cyclone to her kindergarten-teacher mother. The mother’s school was damaged by the cyclone and she is currently teaching 16 children temporarily in her ‘bush’ kitchen. This is the kind of resilience I have come to expect and admire in the people of Vanuatu.
I am very proud when I go into the field now to see the children going to school in temporary learning spaces in the tents provided by UNICEF while their schools are being rebuilt. By the end of July, more than 6,000 children had been provided with access to learning in tents.
To me to be a humanitarian means working with and protecting people at a time of their greatest need, when the structures that normally protect them are no longer there. After the cyclone, I saw my colleagues, who were themselves devastated, returning to work to lend a hand. For some of these colleagues it meant their attention was diverted from their own home for weeks. It was a humbling experience to have been part of this.
World Humanitarian Day on 19 August is a day to commemorate all the people who have lost their lives in humanitarian service but also to celebrate the spirit that inspires humanitarian work around the world. I am proud to be part of a global community that stands up for humanity.
Vanuatu Red Cross, Port Vila, Vanuatu
The 13th of March 2015 was the scariest night of my life. I’ve never experienced such cyclone as this. It was so frightening. When you listened, you heard a noise like someone was whistling and breaking down everything around us. At around 11pm, all communications went out and we were in total darkness. It made us worry about our families as we could not reach them. During that period, almost everyone in Vanuatu was kneeling down before God to pray for safety and protection. The gale-force winds produced massive destruction, uprooting trees and damaging many houses. The sea level rose, destroying seashore areas and many nearby homes were swept away. It destroyed all the root crops in our garden, as well as other projects which we hoped would give us a secure income to sustain us into the future.
I work for the Vanuatu Red Cross and after the cyclone struck, I put my humanitarian training into action to help my local community as best I could. My first concern was making my village accessible to responders.
I hired a chainsaw to clear the debris from the main road which is about 20 minutes’ walk from our village. Without this we would have been cut off, unable to get help from authorities in town or get any information. A few of us managed to clear the road in one day. I also helped with assessments so the authorities knew what help my village needed.
It was a very tough time which we survived with faith and courage. I never gave up and was determined to do what I could to help my community and others around the twenty two islands in Vanuatu at the time of this disaster.
I am still living in Port Vila while my destroyed house is rebuilt. I desperately want to go home and move into my new safe house. I long for it to be completed in time for the next cyclone season but it is difficult in terms of finance. I have been unable to rebuild my house as fast as I expected. It is so hard and expensive, everything in port Vila costs a fortune.
On World Humanitarian Day my message is one of thanks for all those who have pulled together over recent months to help my country recover. On behalf of all the affected communities, a big thank you to God and all of you who have such generous hearts. Recently I travelled to New Zealand to attend the World Humanitarian Summit Pacific Regional Consultation meeting. I was there to represent communities affected by TC Pam and ensure their voices are heard on the international stage. The message that we gave out, loud and clear is that affected communities must be at the centre of humanitarian action. I hope I have played my part in driving that humanitarian message home on behalf of the people of Vanuatu who are still working to rebuild. We must keep on working together to get the structure right and re-shape aid.
Shelter and Settlement Program Manager, IOM, Vanuatu
I was deployed with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Port Vila after Tropical Cyclone Pam hit to support the Vanuatu Government’s relief and recovery efforts and help Ni-Vans displaced from their homes. I joined many other aid workers from NGOs, international organizations and UN agencies who had arrived to co-ordinate the multi-national relief effort but I was equally impressed by the humanitarian attitude of the local people of Vanuatu in the face of disaster.
The response to Tropical Cyclone Pam has been unique for many different reasons not least because of the people’s commitment to helping each other. From the moment I stepped out of the airport, I was surprised by the huge self-recovery capacity of the Ni-Van. Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam affected 188,000 people and killed 11 in one of the worst disasters ever to strike the Pacific.
Over the days following the cyclone I was also very impressed by our Government counterparts. They showed strong leadership and commitment as they worked alongside the international humanitarian community to help get people back on the road to recovery as quickly as possible. The logistics were difficult but we got through it. It was evidence of the humanitarian spirit at its best.
I worked extensively with the National Disaster Management Office to assist the residents of Vanuatu’s Mataso Island who were evacuated to Port Vila after their homes were pummeled by the full force of TC Pam. The cyclone was a terrifying experience for the island’s 120 residents who hid their children between rocks and in small caves, before using their own bodies to protect their hiding places. Evacuation after the storm was a traumatic experience for the women, children, the sick and the elderly who were sent to safety in Port Vila. Many of the women told me that the hardest thing was to be apart from their husbands and older sons who had stayed behind. The Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office and IOM helped manage the evacuation and over the weeks that followed, the two agencies monitored the well-being of affected families in Port Vila and Mataso through regular visits.
For me, this is one of many operations during the TC Pam response that exemplified what it means to be a humanitarian.
To me, being a humanitarian means to ‘get involved’, to take action and to be at the service of those in need. It also means working together both with the national and international colleagues to provide support to the Ni-Vans. The Vanuatu response has also been quite amazing because of the very strong community participation. It’s something I will never forget.
The theme for this year’s World Humanitarian Day is ‘Inspire the world’s Humanity’ and my main inspiration comes from people I have worked with over the past few years.
My message from Vanuatu on World Humanitarian Day 2015 is a simple one: We have got to keep going and move forward regardless of the challenges. We have to keep taking care of each other.
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