Why I am a humanitarian aid worker

They ask "So what do you do for a living?", cocktail drink in hand. When I answer "I am an aid worker", there are two kinds of people: Those that roll their eyes and those that say "Really?".
For the first, I don't do an effort to go any further. Either they are not interested or it goes beyond their level of imagination.
For those that look me in the eye, I know I will have a hard time to explain what exactly I do. And why.

Over the years, luckily many people has asked me why I do the work I do, far fewer have rolled their eyes.. So what do I answer?

Well, let me tell you a story. Quite a time-appropriate story actually, as it is related to events that happened exactly ten years ago, in the Balkans.

It is a slightly reworked version of the shortstory "Scene of War", published in my eBook.

returning to kosovo

June 1999.

Richard, Alf and I are standing on a mountain pass, at the border crossing between Albania and Kosovo. The view is breathtaking. It is part of a movie, projected in 360 degrees around us. Better than a movie.

A long, slow moving stream starts from far behind us. We can hear it, the random noise. It passes right next to where we stand, and follows bends and curves for as far as we can see. A stream, a steady flow.

Kosovar refugees returning homeA stream not of water, but of people. Tens of thousands. Refugees returning home. Whole families on tractors and donkey pulled carts, with all their belongings stacked as high as they can. Mattresses, cupboards, tables, chairs, cardboard boxes… Mothers holding on to babies, brothers and sisters walking hand in hand. Elderly men with deep grooves in their faces, walking with a stick in their hand, or pushing a wheel barrel.
A massive flow of people. Each with their own horror story to tell, moving steadily back to their homes. Homes they fled a couple of months ago after militia and special forces wrecked their lives, burnt their crops, raped their mothers and daughters, killed their brothers, sons and fathers. As the stream of people tops the mountain pass, they see the same scenery as I do. I wonder what goes on inside them.

In between the mountains tops, capped with tree forests, scarred by cluster bombs which Nato blanketed over them, lay the valleys. Valleys with a fresh green colour of spring grass and young leaves on the trees. For as far as the eye reaches, we can see plumes of smoke coming from the valleys, like candles on a cake, which have just been blown out. Plumes of smoke, going up in the air and dissolving into the clear blue spring sky. Smoke of houses, cars and farm sheds burning, for as far as we can see, dotted over the valleys. The militia and break away paramilitary forces looted and burned everything as they retreated. It looks like the whole country is still burning. People's lives are burning. And yet the expression on the faces from all who pass us, is not one of desperation, but one of hope. They all smile. Sadly, but they smile. They look at the same scenery as I do, but they think of hope. Hope of starting afresh. They wave at us. They wave at the Nato military trucks and tanks maneuvering in between the stream. "The liberators and the liberated?".

It is yet another scene of war, another scene of misery and hope, another scene of destruction mixed with hope, of a past and a present. Will it ever end? Will we ever learn from our mistakes?

Two F16 fighter jets blast low over our heads. Instinctively, everyone pulls their heads down. The fighting is not over yet. We hear the remote muffled thunder of a bombing raid. Very far away. The misery is not over yet.

Kosovar refugees returning homeAs I get into the WFP car, my eyes cross those of a young girl, sitting on her mum’s lap, on the back of a tractor. She looks at me and I look at her. I smile and she smiles back, hesitantly raising her arm to wave to me. Her mum searches who the girl is waving to. She finds me. She whispers something in the girl’s ears. The girl looks up, kisses her mum on the cheek, and looks back at me. She throws a kiss at me. I throw one back and wave. She laughs. Her dad, driving the tractor looks back and waves at me too.

Would they know I am thinking of my daughters? Would they know she has the same eyes, the same hair. Would they know this is why I do this work? Because she could have been one of my daughters, sitting on my wife’s lap?

This could have been my family, my life. But destiny has put them there and me here. Sheer luck determined those who suffer and those who never realize enough how lucky they are. Sheer destiny determined those who need help and those that can help. I can help.

And that is why I am an aid worker.

Pictures courtesy Arben Celi (Reuters), Getty Images and Tom Haskell (WFP)


Voegtli 30 March, 2009 08:37  

A very nice story. I don't know really how I got into humanitarian work. I just know it is the thing that fits me the best.

Anonymous,  13 April, 2009 08:34  

Me too.

Anonymous,  19 September, 2009 23:13  

Hello, I am a college student looking to be a releif/aid worker. However I am not quite sure how to go about doing this as a career. any ideas? thank you

Peter 19 September, 2009 23:15  


I gathered all ideas and tips on "how to become an aidworker" in this post:




Tim 19 December, 2009 09:41  

Your story from the Balkans is inspiring, and it takes the reader to your experience. Good job.

For those who would like to make a difference, but perhaps can't see themselves going to other countries just yet, I would like to remind them that there is now a not-for=profit company that opened up for business in the US very recently (Oct 09) and is expected to create a large number of full time humanitarians.

Here's the website to learn more. http://businessintobenevolence.com

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