Frayed rope about to break concept for stress, problem, fragility or precarious business situation

In the summer of 2016, I left South Sudan forever. I remember staying at a tent in the airport and it was pouring down. The check-in with nothing but a counter when you walked over wooden pallets on a muddy floor. Someone would write: baggage to Germany with a few numbers on it. I knew that this bag might never arrive in Germany but what to do.

When we were about to board the Ethiopian flight, we had to run to the plane, across the airfield because it was still raining. I asked the military official on the runaway if I could take a picture but he said this is not possible. I stopped for a moment, to soak in the last moment before I left. I saw the UN helicopters flying humanitarians out in the deep field to provide assistance. Black clouds were hanging deep. It felt as if they really hung over a country wrecked by civil war with no end in sight. A tent was the airport, symbolic of a country that only had 50 kilometers of paved roads. The majority of passengers on this flight were fellow humanitarians. As Gutierrez, United Nations Secretary General once said: the United Nations should not be asked to pick up the pieces when countries go to war and displace millions of people, who will become refugees and internally displaced for generations to come. But it was a reality. The United Nations stepped in and might have saved millions of people’s life because no one else cared. Humanitarians, no matter if South Sudanese or internationals left their homes, went across enemy lines, knowing their tribes were fighting and killing each other, risked their lives, to provide assistance in remote areas to populations who survived on grass and water lilies.

When I now think back, it was the most rewarding experience, because you see the impact you can have to save someone’s life. But there was something deeper that I only understood years later that would fundamentally transform my life. I was addicted. Addicted to the fast pace of my life, to solve the most complex problems, only to forget myself until a breaking point. This is what many researchers refer to as the helper syndrome but the debate has not truly helped humanitarians because it puts the spot light on us, addicted to help others, afraid to feel the void within us. Humanitarians are no different to anyone else. We all have trauma, painful experiences and childhood events that made us wary, and impacted us as adults and how we live our lives.

Humanitarians are a rare breed of people, no matter if they are nationals or internationals. Whatever the complex motives are  to join the sector, to help and care for other people, putting their lives at risk, to work overtime and constantly be exposed to poverty and war, to feel needed, to fill the inner void, to run away from problems and not feel the inner pain, humanitarians need extra care and attention beyond psychosocial support. Evidence suggests that people not only bring their own trauma and childhood issues to work, but being exposed to constant trauma and traumatized individuals increases the risks of burnout and depression of humanitarians. What happens to a workforce whose job it is to care for others when they are at risk of burnout?

I know this from my own journey. Almost a decade into my humanitarian career, where I was evacuated out of war zones twice, saw dead bodies, women’s bellies cut open, children drugged, in prison and forcefully recruited, where closing a German trash can would trigger memories of gun shots, where holidays always included responding to work emails, where I burned through the pages of two passports in two years, where work on weekends was normal and not able to read a single book for three years didn’t astonish me, the breaking point was of course to come. It took me by surprise because I loved my life on the fast line. Since the age of 16, I never wanted to do anything differently only to realize it overwhelmed me. I questioned myself, the sector and everything it stands for, ready to call it quits.

When life pulls the rug underneath you, believe me, it’s the best thing that can happen to all of us, particularly humanitarians, if we have a system around us that supports and even wants this process. When our nervous system is on alert, on survival mode, it uses all our body energy to fight or flight. What this means is that we cannot deliver, focus and are unable to express empathy for the very people we care for. But it is not our fault. We don’t know better and its part of the job description. In my future world, we would not talk about ourselves as heroes, pretending to be strong every day, or being okay to live in war zones for years. We would say I am breaking down, I feel disconnected with my work. I miss my family and friends. I cannot do this anymore. I need help to feel my passion again to make this world a better place. I want to connect with the people I serve in an equal manner, not from a place of victimhood, but in partnership, side by side. I can let go of things that are out of my control. I can speak my truth because I am honest with myself where I stand. I stand for values of respect, integrity and humanity because I embody them myself. At the end of every day, you need to ask yourself the most unselfish and strange question: have you been loving to yourself? As Ghandi famously said: You have to be the change you want to see in this world. You cannot ask the world to be at peace, if you bring conflict. We need to start creating a world where power comes from being vulnerable, where the connection and the relationships between us as humans, eye to eye, is more important than numbers and objectives, because only this will get us to our goals. It feels contradictory but how do you push people to go beyond their limits? Not because they forget themselves, and are at risk of burnout. Because their glass is full, overflowingly full, ready to give everything they have, out of love, not out of a void, stress and fear.








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