When you work as an international relief worker, it's only "a matter of time before you see something exceptional," as 36-year old aid worker Simon Hacker recently told AOL Jobs. Hacker is currently a logistics manager for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Syria, which means he oversees the delivery of food items for 4 million people in the troubled country. His work requires him to work with local trucking warehouses to coordinate deliveries to local charities like the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. He's worked on similar projects for the WFP in Djibouti, Haiti and Kenya, among other sites.
Hacker says for him the exceptional moment from his career was back in 2009 when he was working in Pakistan. He said he has a "vivid" memory of the events of Oct. 5 when a suicide bomber walked into the WFP office in Islamabad and detonated himself. He was standing only 15 feet away from the bomber, he recalled. Five of his some 50 colleagues in the office died in the blast.
"The government was on an offensive against the Taliban, and in response, the UN had yet to be targeted by the Taliban," Hacker told AOL Jobs. "I remember that summer day. The sun was shining brightly." He said he took immediate cover in the office after the blast, and then spent the next 20 minutes helping to remove survivors. He proceeded to spend the rest of the day at the hospital with his colleagues as "sheet-covered" faces got dropped off.
A calling from within
The brush with violence, he said, only deepened his resolve to work in the field of humanitarian relief work. "It solidified the importance of the work we were doing," he said. Like other relief workers interviewed for this article, he said that resolve is a response to a calling felt from within: "Any time there's problems around the world, civilians suffer. This is obviously not a field you enter into for money. You have to find it rewarding, and you probably have to thrive on stress," he said.
Pakistan and Syria are two of the numerous hotspots in the world to which aid workers currently flock. Relief work in Syria has drawn particular attention of late given the uptick in violence in the Middle East country. And to date, there have been more than 110,000 deaths in the Syrian Civil War. Millions more have been displaced. In response, the WFP has stationed 400 relief workers stationed in Syria, while another high-profile group, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has assigned another 300, as was reported by Fox News. The International Committee of the Red Cross has added 140 more.
In total, there are some 25,000 international relief workers on assignment throughout the world today, according to Humanitarian Outcomes, a UK-based humanitarian aid consultancy that maintains a widely-recognized count of relief workers. (Humanitarian Outcomes does not yet track the number of workers in each country, but says the majority of aid workers helping Syria are stationed in neighboring countries.)
Another 567,000 people are working for international agencies or local NGOs or Red Cross/Crescent societies in their native countries. Crucially, the field of relief work is a growing one, jumping six percent in workers from 1997-2007, with another two percent per year since then, according to Humanitarian Outcomes.
The heightened interest in the field comes as relief work has become far more dangerous in recent years, according to Susan Martin, the director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. The statement holds, she said, even though studies show that the world is becoming less violent and war is on the decline.
How is that possible? Crucially, the end of the Cold War meant the end of a world dominated by the two superpowers, the USA and the USSR. But in a world in which non-state actors are often at the center of international politics, as was acutely seen on Sept. 11, 2001, and for Hacker in Pakistan in 2009, there's no entity that holds the same sway in today's world. "No one has the power to rein in combatants," Martin said.
In a world populated with non-state groups, humanitarian workers have gone from being "collateral damage in a conflict to being the target," Martin added. "There's very little marcation with civilian workers, and there's motivation to make life a living hell for the civilian population. They're not seen as neutral bystanders."
Indeed, militant groups know they can hold power over their enemies by kidnapping aid workers. That very storyline has been playing out recently in Syria with the recent high-profile kidnapping of six members of the Red Cross and one volunteer from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers. Four of the workers have already been released, but the rise in kidnappings is already causing international organizations to pull back, as Al Jazeera reported. And that's exactly what militant groups want, Martin said. "They want to get rid of people who can report on what is happening," she added.
For their part, American aid workers today are targeted more than just for leverage in negotiations, according to Martin. After the attacks of Sept. 11, the increased presence of US Armed Forces in the Middle East has amplified suspicion that any US citizen in the region is present for the sole purpose of furthering US national interests. "People used to be welcomed because they brought food. But just try being a relief worker in Yemen and not getting some fallout from the drone attacks. It's very difficult to deal with the suspicion that you're not an instrument of the U.S. military," she said.
A 'surreal' lifestyle
Yet in spite of the constant overlap with the intrigue of international politics, aid work can often be far more tranquil than how it's portrayed in the movies. According to Adeyinka Badejo, a 36-year old Nigerian citizen who is currently stationed in Damascus for the WFP, life as an aid worker can feel "surreal." Why? Because everything "continues as normal in the capital. Streets and supermarkets are functioning. Restaurants are open. Capitals are often relatively safe zones," she said. Indeed, workers are usually kept away from the the middle of conflicts, and are stationed instead in surrounding areas.
Badejo, for her part, grew up wanting to work for the United Nations, as she always had an interest in providing humanitarian assistance, she said. After receiving degrees in economics and sociology from the Universities of Massachusetts and Toledo, she was hired to work for the WFP. She's now the Head of Programmes of the WFP for Syria office. Over her career, she has also been assigned to work in Afghanistan, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Even though her work requires her to constantly change her location, one thing all the locations have in common, she said, is a mandated curfew. In such global hotspots, civilian movement is usually restricted between 9 pm and 6 am. "You can't have a social life outside of your work environment," she said.
Commuting in this line of work is also hardly a normal affair. "We move around in armored vehicles and whenever we go somewhere we are supposed to go in pairs." The UN, for its part, provides security for relief workers. It's also common for workers to wear flap-jackets and helmets during their workday.
"You hear suicide bombers, you see the aftermath of burned out buildings," Badejo said, adding she's never come across a situation that has made her think of giving up the work. "If everyone gives up who would give the support to people who need it?"