•  What drew the individual to this line of work – why did they choose to do it, how did they get into it

Our lives, my life, changed the day of the tsunami hit the shores of my hometown, Batticaloa in the east of Sri Lanka. It was just after Christmas, 26 December 2004, to be exact. My country was in the middle of a brutal civil war when the tsunami took the lives, our homes and schools, and reshaped our future in the blink of an eye.

Immediately after the tsunami, the school that I used to play basketball at was turned into a center for people who had lost a roof over their head. I was in my late teens, just out of high school and looking to study further and work in ICT. The tsunami changed everything. Together with my friends, we pulled our resources, and bought basic items, such as clothes, food, and toiletries, to provide some relief to our communities and friends. A local NGO stepped up and we signed up as volunteers. We organised distributions, accompanied people to the hospitals to find their loved ones, helped with search and identification of the deceased, and started major cleaning operations of our towns. Those first weeks after the tsunami were horrific.

Eventually, I joined ‘Eastern Humanitarian Economic Development’, a local NGO under umbrella of Caritas and worked with them for four years. I started in Communications and Reporting. It was important to me to be able to share the stories of those affected by the tsunami.

I worked with local NGOs and INGOs in my own country for years, supporting tsunami recovery and war-affected communities, before moving to South Sudan and eventually joining NRC in Yemen, moving on to Mosul, Iraq and now Afghanistan.

•  What ‘enemy’ were they battling (the spread of COVID-19, COVID-19 deaths, malnutrition, lack of clean water, etc.)

My enemy was and remains insecurity – across Afghanistan. I learned from a young age to live with and in insecurity. We suffer the most when we least expect it. Most of the places I have worked in, NRC enjoys a degree of acceptance and we are often not directly the target, but that does not provide us with a security blanket. 

Managing insecurity became even more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, which has come with a different kind of insecurity – one that is compounded by disbelief, stigmatisation, and misinformation. This required real creative thinking and operational adjustments to ensure staff is able to safely stay and deliver. 

So much of NRC’s work, its acceptance to operate safely in areas that are dangerous at the best of time, has had to incorporate trust-building with communities, local governance structures, and armed actors around how to best keep safe during a pandemic. COVID-19 spread across Afghanistan like wildfire, often as a direct result of misinformation, disbelief, and people’s inabilities to keep themselves safe in the face of the pandemic. For many Afghans, social distancing is a luxury they cannot afford. Working from home for those that depend on a daily wage is simply not possible.

•  Deeper issues that humanitarians and first responders face in their daily lives – stigmatisation, access difficulties, dangers, lack of support etc. 

It is often hard to imagine what Afghanistan could look like again when peace comes. The country is a perpetual state of strife and conflict, communities torn apart by violence and insecurity. A family’s primary focus is on making ends meet in a time where insecurity and economic hardship as a result of conflict are the main drivers of displacement and poverty. 

Much like the tsunami that hit my own war-torn country, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across communities already struggling to stay safe and put food on the table. Witnessing this is frankly heartrending and affects humanitarians deeply. Yet, in the face of this daily reality, I have seen some amazing acts of kindness between people, who have opened their doors and shared their resources with those most in need – from the smallest initiatives between neighbours to country-wide campaigns in support of the plight of Afghans. I am profoundly humbled by the level of dedication from my Afghan colleagues, who despite their own struggles and the risks associated with the spread of COVID-19, continued to provide food, cash, shelter, and protection to their fellow Afghans. Their commitment brought me back to the shores of my own country and reminded me that humanity ultimately prevails in the face of adversity. 

•  What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles they have to overcome in this response?

Mid-March arrived with the threat of international flight suspensions and border closures, which meant that many of our international staff would be trapped in Afghanistan without safe and adequate access to medical care. The decision to evacuate the vast majority of our expat staff came at a critical time where I was asked to step into the role of Acting Country-Director, leading a team of five remaining expats and almost 1.400 national staff through the first weeks of the outbreak. 

I won’t lie, it was scary to take on such a level of responsibility. Across the country operation, the mantra was clearly endorsed by all staff: NRC stays and delivers. But to honour our commitment as humanitarians meant striking a careful balance between acceptable levels of risks to our staff, beneficiaries and operations with the need to stay and deliver.

For our country operation, the biggest challenge lies in that careful balancing act – between staying and delivering, honouring our commitment as humanitarians, whilst constantly adjusting our operational modalities to ensure that we do not expose staff and the people we serve to unacceptable levels of risk. There is no science to this, there is no magical formula that allows you to arrive at a logical conclusion. It comes down to leadership, teamwork, integrity, and commitment. 

•  What lessons did they learn along the way?

What I have learned from swimming in the deep end so to speak is that it is an ongoing process where the stakes are high and mistakes are costly. Transparency in decision-making and inclusive leadership proved to be everything. 

The outbreak of the pandemic sadly highlighted that we were somewhat ill-prepared. We have all sorts of protocols and procedures established and practiced for many different scenarios – from mass displacement, to surges in conflict, complex attacks and the like, but we were ill-prepared to deal with a medical emergency of this nature. We are prepared to live with and around war, but when the pandemic hit, we had to develop strategies for operational realities where the threat is invisible, indiscriminate, and so much is still unknown.  

I am proud of how the Afghanistan team used the challenge to equip the organisation at large to respond. We developed a strategic partnership with WHO to support risk communication and community engagement around the spread of the virus, developed programming and attracted funding to tackle the secondary effects of the outbreak, such as food security and water and sanitation-related needs, and mobilised across the country to ensure cash could be distributed in a safe manner to people who lost their livelihoods and access to services. 

And amidst all of the programmatic priorities we managed to keep sight of the needs of our colleagues, equally affected by the sudden onset of the pandemic, by setting up a dedicated a Staff Care Unit, tasked with contact tracing in case of anyone contracted COVID-19. This speaks to the constant balancing act between NRC’s mantra to stay and deliver, and the need to do so safely.

•  Has this work or this emergency response changed them in any ways and if so, how?

During this pandemic, Afghanistan really became home for me. It became an indefinite mission, a place where I knew I would be for while – without the luxury of a break. I learned to make Afghanistan home, appreciating the little things that give comfort in an insecure environment in uncertain times. The morning greetings from the colleagues, the familiarity of the call to prayer, the kindness showed by our colleagues who knew that, as a Sri Lankan, staying to deliver meant giving up being able to return to my home country indefinitely, gave me a profound sense of gratitude. This, in turn, kept me grounded and motivated to carry on the important work NRC is doing for the people in Afghanistan. 
Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC
Afghanistan

– Vi rammes hardest når vi minst forventer det

– Livet mitt forandret seg den dagen tsunamien traff kysten ved hjembyen min. Det var like etter jul - 26. desember 2004, for å være nøyaktig, sier Ajanth og tenker tilbake på den dagen som inspirerte ham til å bli hjelpearbeider.

Ajanth David Fernando kommer fra Batticaloa, en by på østkysten av Sri Lanka. Landet befant seg midt i en brutal borgerkrig da tsunamien i Indiahavet slo inn over hjembyen hans i 2004 og tok med seg menneskeliv, hjem og skoler.

 – Tsunamien forandret alt. Skolen der jeg pleide å spille basketball ble omgjort til et senter for folk som hadde mistet hjemmene sine. Jeg var i slutten av tenårene, var akkurat ferdig på videregående, og ønsket å studere videre og jobbe innen IKT, sier Ajanth.

Tsunamien forandret alt

Sammen med vennene sine bestemte Ajanth seg for å bli med på den lokale hjelpeinnsatsen. Da en lokal organisasjon rykket inn, meldte de seg umiddelbart som frivillige.

Sammen organiserte de distribusjoner, fulgte folk til sykehus for å finne sine nærmeste, hjalp til med å lete etter og identifisere døde og startet oppryddingen. Dermed begynte Ajanths livslange humanitære innsats.


Flyktninghjelpen gir hjelp og beskyttelse til flyktninger og internt fordrevne over hele verden. Støtt vårt arbeid i dag.


 

•  What drew the individual to this line of work – why did they choose to do it, how did they get into it

Our lives, my life, changed the day of the tsunami hit the shores of my hometown, Batticaloa in the east of Sri Lanka. It was just after Christmas, 26 December 2004, to be exact. My country was in the middle of a brutal civil war when the tsunami took the lives, our homes and schools, and reshaped our future in the blink of an eye.

Immediately after the tsunami, the school that I used to play basketball at was turned into a center for people who had lost a roof over their head. I was in my late teens, just out of high school and looking to study further and work in ICT. The tsunami changed everything. Together with my friends, we pulled our resources, and bought basic items, such as clothes, food, and toiletries, to provide some relief to our communities and friends. A local NGO stepped up and we signed up as volunteers. We organised distributions, accompanied people to the hospitals to find their loved ones, helped with search and identification of the deceased, and started major cleaning operations of our towns. Those first weeks after the tsunami were horrific.

Eventually, I joined ‘Eastern Humanitarian Economic Development’, a local NGO under umbrella of Caritas and worked with them for four years. I started in Communications and Reporting. It was important to me to be able to share the stories of those affected by the tsunami.

I worked with local NGOs and INGOs in my own country for years, supporting tsunami recovery and war-affected communities, before moving to South Sudan and eventually joining NRC in Yemen, moving on to Mosul, Iraq and now Afghanistan.

•  What ‘enemy’ were they battling (the spread of COVID-19, COVID-19 deaths, malnutrition, lack of clean water, etc.)

My enemy was and remains insecurity – across Afghanistan. I learned from a young age to live with and in insecurity. We suffer the most when we least expect it. Most of the places I have worked in, NRC enjoys a degree of acceptance and we are often not directly the target, but that does not provide us with a security blanket. 

Managing insecurity became even more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, which has come with a different kind of insecurity – one that is compounded by disbelief, stigmatisation, and misinformation. This required real creative thinking and operational adjustments to ensure staff is able to safely stay and deliver. 

So much of NRC’s work, its acceptance to operate safely in areas that are dangerous at the best of time, has had to incorporate trust-building with communities, local governance structures, and armed actors around how to best keep safe during a pandemic. COVID-19 spread across Afghanistan like wildfire, often as a direct result of misinformation, disbelief, and people’s inabilities to keep themselves safe in the face of the pandemic. For many Afghans, social distancing is a luxury they cannot afford. Working from home for those that depend on a daily wage is simply not possible.

•  Deeper issues that humanitarians and first responders face in their daily lives – stigmatisation, access difficulties, dangers, lack of support etc. 

It is often hard to imagine what Afghanistan could look like again when peace comes. The country is a perpetual state of strife and conflict, communities torn apart by violence and insecurity. A family’s primary focus is on making ends meet in a time where insecurity and economic hardship as a result of conflict are the main drivers of displacement and poverty. 

Much like the tsunami that hit my own war-torn country, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across communities already struggling to stay safe and put food on the table. Witnessing this is frankly heartrending and affects humanitarians deeply. Yet, in the face of this daily reality, I have seen some amazing acts of kindness between people, who have opened their doors and shared their resources with those most in need – from the smallest initiatives between neighbours to country-wide campaigns in support of the plight of Afghans. I am profoundly humbled by the level of dedication from my Afghan colleagues, who despite their own struggles and the risks associated with the spread of COVID-19, continued to provide food, cash, shelter, and protection to their fellow Afghans. Their commitment brought me back to the shores of my own country and reminded me that humanity ultimately prevails in the face of adversity. 

•  What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles they have to overcome in this response?

Mid-March arrived with the threat of international flight suspensions and border closures, which meant that many of our international staff would be trapped in Afghanistan without safe and adequate access to medical care. The decision to evacuate the vast majority of our expat staff came at a critical time where I was asked to step into the role of Acting Country-Director, leading a team of five remaining expats and almost 1.400 national staff through the first weeks of the outbreak. 

I won’t lie, it was scary to take on such a level of responsibility. Across the country operation, the mantra was clearly endorsed by all staff: NRC stays and delivers. But to honour our commitment as humanitarians meant striking a careful balance between acceptable levels of risks to our staff, beneficiaries and operations with the need to stay and deliver.

For our country operation, the biggest challenge lies in that careful balancing act – between staying and delivering, honouring our commitment as humanitarians, whilst constantly adjusting our operational modalities to ensure that we do not expose staff and the people we serve to unacceptable levels of risk. There is no science to this, there is no magical formula that allows you to arrive at a logical conclusion. It comes down to leadership, teamwork, integrity, and commitment. 

•  What lessons did they learn along the way?

What I have learned from swimming in the deep end so to speak is that it is an ongoing process where the stakes are high and mistakes are costly. Transparency in decision-making and inclusive leadership proved to be everything. 

The outbreak of the pandemic sadly highlighted that we were somewhat ill-prepared. We have all sorts of protocols and procedures established and practiced for many different scenarios – from mass displacement, to surges in conflict, complex attacks and the like, but we were ill-prepared to deal with a medical emergency of this nature. We are prepared to live with and around war, but when the pandemic hit, we had to develop strategies for operational realities where the threat is invisible, indiscriminate, and so much is still unknown.  

I am proud of how the Afghanistan team used the challenge to equip the organisation at large to respond. We developed a strategic partnership with WHO to support risk communication and community engagement around the spread of the virus, developed programming and attracted funding to tackle the secondary effects of the outbreak, such as food security and water and sanitation-related needs, and mobilised across the country to ensure cash could be distributed in a safe manner to people who lost their livelihoods and access to services. 

And amidst all of the programmatic priorities we managed to keep sight of the needs of our colleagues, equally affected by the sudden onset of the pandemic, by setting up a dedicated a Staff Care Unit, tasked with contact tracing in case of anyone contracted COVID-19. This speaks to the constant balancing act between NRC’s mantra to stay and deliver, and the need to do so safely.

•  Has this work or this emergency response changed them in any ways and if so, how?

During this pandemic, Afghanistan really became home for me. It became an indefinite mission, a place where I knew I would be for while – without the luxury of a break. I learned to make Afghanistan home, appreciating the little things that give comfort in an insecure environment in uncertain times. The morning greetings from the colleagues, the familiarity of the call to prayer, the kindness showed by our colleagues who knew that, as a Sri Lankan, staying to deliver meant giving up being able to return to my home country indefinitely, gave me a profound sense of gratitude. This, in turn, kept me grounded and motivated to carry on the important work NRC is doing for the people in Afghanistan. 
Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC
Les billedteksten Da tsunamien traff hjembyen hans, bestemte Ajanth seg for å bli med på hjelpeinnsatsen. I dag, 16 år senere, jobber Ajanth som hjelpearbeider i Afghanistan, og hjelper mennesker som er på flukt i vanskelig tilgjengelige områder. Foto: Enayatullah Azad/Flyktninghjelpen

Lærer å leve med usikkerhet

Nå, 16 år senere, jobber Ajanth for Flyktninghjelpen. Han har ikke valgt en enkel karrierevei. For tiden jobber han i Afghanistan, et av de farligste stedene for hjelpearbeidere, og hjelper lokalsamfunn som har blitt revet fra hverandre av vold og usikkerhet.

– Fra ung alder lærte jeg å leve med og i usikkerhet. Vi rammes hardest når vi minst forventer det, forklarer han.

– Sammenlignet med andre organisasjoner jeg har jobbet for, har Flyktninghjelpen en viss aksept og de ansatte er ofte ikke det direkte målet. Men dette gir oss likevel ingen følelse av trygghet.

For mange afghanere er det å holde sosial avstand en luksus de ikke har råd til

Ajanth forklarer at det å håndtere usikkerhet har blitt enda vanskeligere etter utbruddet av korona:

– Covid-19 spredte seg over Afghanistan som ild i tørt gress, ofte som et direkte resultat av feilinformasjon, fornektelse og folks manglende evne til å holde seg trygge i møte med pandemien.

– For mange afghanere er det å holde sosial avstand en luksus de ikke har råd til. Det er ganske enkelt ikke mulig å jobbe hjemmefra for de som er avhengige av å gå ut hver dag for å tjene penger.

I likhet med tsunamien som rammet Ajanths eget krigsherjede land i 2004, har Covid-19-pandemien ført til kaos for mennesker som allerede sliter med å holde seg trygge og skaffe mat på bordet.

Bestemte seg for å bli værende

I midten av mars bestemte Ajanth seg for å bli værende, til tross for at flyvninger ville innstille, grenser bli stengt og mange andre utenlandske ansatte ble evakuert.

Han ble bedt om å bli fungerende landsdirektør og lede et team på nesten 1.400 ansatte gjennom de første ukene av koronautbruddet.

– Jeg vil ikke lyve, det var skummelt å påta meg et så stort ansvar. Mottoet blant oss ansatte var: Flyktninghjelpen blir værende og gjør jobben, sier han.

– Men for å gjøre jobben vår som hjelpearbeidere, måtte vi finne en nøye balanse for hva som var akseptabel risiko for våre ansatte og de vi er der for å hjelpe, og samtidig klare å holde arbeidet i gang og gi den hjelpen vi er der for.

•  What drew the individual to this line of work – why did they choose to do it, how did they get into it

Our lives, my life, changed the day of the tsunami hit the shores of my hometown, Batticaloa in the east of Sri Lanka. It was just after Christmas, 26 December 2004, to be exact. My country was in the middle of a brutal civil war when the tsunami took the lives, our homes and schools, and reshaped our future in the blink of an eye.

Immediately after the tsunami, the school that I used to play basketball at was turned into a center for people who had lost a roof over their head. I was in my late teens, just out of high school and looking to study further and work in ICT. The tsunami changed everything. Together with my friends, we pulled our resources, and bought basic items, such as clothes, food, and toiletries, to provide some relief to our communities and friends. A local NGO stepped up and we signed up as volunteers. We organised distributions, accompanied people to the hospitals to find their loved ones, helped with search and identification of the deceased, and started major cleaning operations of our towns. Those first weeks after the tsunami were horrific.

Eventually, I joined ‘Eastern Humanitarian Economic Development’, a local NGO under umbrella of Caritas and worked with them for four years. I started in Communications and Reporting. It was important to me to be able to share the stories of those affected by the tsunami.

I worked with local NGOs and INGOs in my own country for years, supporting tsunami recovery and war-affected communities, before moving to South Sudan and eventually joining NRC in Yemen, moving on to Mosul, Iraq and now Afghanistan.

•  What ‘enemy’ were they battling (the spread of COVID-19, COVID-19 deaths, malnutrition, lack of clean water, etc.)

My enemy was and remains insecurity – across Afghanistan. I learned from a young age to live with and in insecurity. We suffer the most when we least expect it. Most of the places I have worked in, NRC enjoys a degree of acceptance and we are often not directly the target, but that does not provide us with a security blanket. 

Managing insecurity became even more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, which has come with a different kind of insecurity – one that is compounded by disbelief, stigmatisation, and misinformation. This required real creative thinking and operational adjustments to ensure staff is able to safely stay and deliver. 

So much of NRC’s work, its acceptance to operate safely in areas that are dangerous at the best of time, has had to incorporate trust-building with communities, local governance structures, and armed actors around how to best keep safe during a pandemic. COVID-19 spread across Afghanistan like wildfire, often as a direct result of misinformation, disbelief, and people’s inabilities to keep themselves safe in the face of the pandemic. For many Afghans, social distancing is a luxury they cannot afford. Working from home for those that depend on a daily wage is simply not possible.

•  Deeper issues that humanitarians and first responders face in their daily lives – stigmatisation, access difficulties, dangers, lack of support etc. 

It is often hard to imagine what Afghanistan could look like again when peace comes. The country is a perpetual state of strife and conflict, communities torn apart by violence and insecurity. A family’s primary focus is on making ends meet in a time where insecurity and economic hardship as a result of conflict are the main drivers of displacement and poverty. 

Much like the tsunami that hit my own war-torn country, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across communities already struggling to stay safe and put food on the table. Witnessing this is frankly heartrending and affects humanitarians deeply. Yet, in the face of this daily reality, I have seen some amazing acts of kindness between people, who have opened their doors and shared their resources with those most in need – from the smallest initiatives between neighbours to country-wide campaigns in support of the plight of Afghans. I am profoundly humbled by the level of dedication from my Afghan colleagues, who despite their own struggles and the risks associated with the spread of COVID-19, continued to provide food, cash, shelter, and protection to their fellow Afghans. Their commitment brought me back to the shores of my own country and reminded me that humanity ultimately prevails in the face of adversity. 

•  What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles they have to overcome in this response?

Mid-March arrived with the threat of international flight suspensions and border closures, which meant that many of our international staff would be trapped in Afghanistan without safe and adequate access to medical care. The decision to evacuate the vast majority of our expat staff came at a critical time where I was asked to step into the role of Acting Country-Director, leading a team of five remaining expats and almost 1.400 national staff through the first weeks of the outbreak. 

I won’t lie, it was scary to take on such a level of responsibility. Across the country operation, the mantra was clearly endorsed by all staff: NRC stays and delivers. But to honour our commitment as humanitarians meant striking a careful balance between acceptable levels of risks to our staff, beneficiaries and operations with the need to stay and deliver.

For our country operation, the biggest challenge lies in that careful balancing act – between staying and delivering, honouring our commitment as humanitarians, whilst constantly adjusting our operational modalities to ensure that we do not expose staff and the people we serve to unacceptable levels of risk. There is no science to this, there is no magical formula that allows you to arrive at a logical conclusion. It comes down to leadership, teamwork, integrity, and commitment. 

•  What lessons did they learn along the way?

What I have learned from swimming in the deep end so to speak is that it is an ongoing process where the stakes are high and mistakes are costly. Transparency in decision-making and inclusive leadership proved to be everything. 

The outbreak of the pandemic sadly highlighted that we were somewhat ill-prepared. We have all sorts of protocols and procedures established and practiced for many different scenarios – from mass displacement, to surges in conflict, complex attacks and the like, but we were ill-prepared to deal with a medical emergency of this nature. We are prepared to live with and around war, but when the pandemic hit, we had to develop strategies for operational realities where the threat is invisible, indiscriminate, and so much is still unknown.  

I am proud of how the Afghanistan team used the challenge to equip the organisation at large to respond. We developed a strategic partnership with WHO to support risk communication and community engagement around the spread of the virus, developed programming and attracted funding to tackle the secondary effects of the outbreak, such as food security and water and sanitation-related needs, and mobilised across the country to ensure cash could be distributed in a safe manner to people who lost their livelihoods and access to services. 

And amidst all of the programmatic priorities we managed to keep sight of the needs of our colleagues, equally affected by the sudden onset of the pandemic, by setting up a dedicated a Staff Care Unit, tasked with contact tracing in case of anyone contracted COVID-19. This speaks to the constant balancing act between NRC’s mantra to stay and deliver, and the need to do so safely.

•  Has this work or this emergency response changed them in any ways and if so, how?

During this pandemic, Afghanistan really became home for me. It became an indefinite mission, a place where I knew I would be for while – without the luxury of a break. I learned to make Afghanistan home, appreciating the little things that give comfort in an insecure environment in uncertain times. The morning greetings from the colleagues, the familiarity of the call to prayer, the kindness showed by our colleagues who knew that, as a Sri Lankan, staying to deliver meant giving up being able to return to my home country indefinitely, gave me a profound sense of gratitude. This, in turn, kept me grounded and motivated to carry on the important work NRC is doing for the people in Afghanistan. 
Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC
Les billedteksten Sammen med andre kolleger bestemte Ajanth seg for å bli værende i Afghanistan og fortsette å støtte det afghanske folket. Foto: Enayatullah Azad / Flyktninghjelpen

Ajanth forteller at han ble ydmyk da ha så hvilken innsats de afghanske kollegene hans viste. Til tross for sine egne utfordringer og risikoen knyttet til spredningen av Covid-19, fortsatte de å dele ut mat og kontanter, og skaffe husly og beskyttelse til den afghanske befolkningen.  

– Innsatsen deres gjorde at jeg tenkte tilbake på det som skjedde i mitt hjemland, og det minnet meg på at mennesker har en evne til å vokse når de møter motgang, sier han.

Afghanistan har blitt hjemme

Til tross for at han var «fanget» i landet, begynte Ajanth å tenke på Afghanistan som hjemme. Å hjelpe det afghanske folk hadde blitt oppdraget hans.

•  What drew the individual to this line of work – why did they choose to do it, how did they get into it

Our lives, my life, changed the day of the tsunami hit the shores of my hometown, Batticaloa in the east of Sri Lanka. It was just after Christmas, 26 December 2004, to be exact. My country was in the middle of a brutal civil war when the tsunami took the lives, our homes and schools, and reshaped our future in the blink of an eye.

Immediately after the tsunami, the school that I used to play basketball at was turned into a center for people who had lost a roof over their head. I was in my late teens, just out of high school and looking to study further and work in ICT. The tsunami changed everything. Together with my friends, we pulled our resources, and bought basic items, such as clothes, food, and toiletries, to provide some relief to our communities and friends. A local NGO stepped up and we signed up as volunteers. We organised distributions, accompanied people to the hospitals to find their loved ones, helped with search and identification of the deceased, and started major cleaning operations of our towns. Those first weeks after the tsunami were horrific.

Eventually, I joined ‘Eastern Humanitarian Economic Development’, a local NGO under umbrella of Caritas and worked with them for four years. I started in Communications and Reporting. It was important to me to be able to share the stories of those affected by the tsunami.

I worked with local NGOs and INGOs in my own country for years, supporting tsunami recovery and war-affected communities, before moving to South Sudan and eventually joining NRC in Yemen, moving on to Mosul, Iraq and now Afghanistan.

•  What ‘enemy’ were they battling (the spread of COVID-19, COVID-19 deaths, malnutrition, lack of clean water, etc.)

My enemy was and remains insecurity – across Afghanistan. I learned from a young age to live with and in insecurity. We suffer the most when we least expect it. Most of the places I have worked in, NRC enjoys a degree of acceptance and we are often not directly the target, but that does not provide us with a security blanket. 

Managing insecurity became even more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, which has come with a different kind of insecurity – one that is compounded by disbelief, stigmatisation, and misinformation. This required real creative thinking and operational adjustments to ensure staff is able to safely stay and deliver. 

So much of NRC’s work, its acceptance to operate safely in areas that are dangerous at the best of time, has had to incorporate trust-building with communities, local governance structures, and armed actors around how to best keep safe during a pandemic. COVID-19 spread across Afghanistan like wildfire, often as a direct result of misinformation, disbelief, and people’s inabilities to keep themselves safe in the face of the pandemic. For many Afghans, social distancing is a luxury they cannot afford. Working from home for those that depend on a daily wage is simply not possible.

•  Deeper issues that humanitarians and first responders face in their daily lives – stigmatisation, access difficulties, dangers, lack of support etc. 

It is often hard to imagine what Afghanistan could look like again when peace comes. The country is a perpetual state of strife and conflict, communities torn apart by violence and insecurity. A family’s primary focus is on making ends meet in a time where insecurity and economic hardship as a result of conflict are the main drivers of displacement and poverty. 

Much like the tsunami that hit my own war-torn country, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across communities already struggling to stay safe and put food on the table. Witnessing this is frankly heartrending and affects humanitarians deeply. Yet, in the face of this daily reality, I have seen some amazing acts of kindness between people, who have opened their doors and shared their resources with those most in need – from the smallest initiatives between neighbours to country-wide campaigns in support of the plight of Afghans. I am profoundly humbled by the level of dedication from my Afghan colleagues, who despite their own struggles and the risks associated with the spread of COVID-19, continued to provide food, cash, shelter, and protection to their fellow Afghans. Their commitment brought me back to the shores of my own country and reminded me that humanity ultimately prevails in the face of adversity. 

•  What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles they have to overcome in this response?

Mid-March arrived with the threat of international flight suspensions and border closures, which meant that many of our international staff would be trapped in Afghanistan without safe and adequate access to medical care. The decision to evacuate the vast majority of our expat staff came at a critical time where I was asked to step into the role of Acting Country-Director, leading a team of five remaining expats and almost 1.400 national staff through the first weeks of the outbreak. 

I won’t lie, it was scary to take on such a level of responsibility. Across the country operation, the mantra was clearly endorsed by all staff: NRC stays and delivers. But to honour our commitment as humanitarians meant striking a careful balance between acceptable levels of risks to our staff, beneficiaries and operations with the need to stay and deliver.

For our country operation, the biggest challenge lies in that careful balancing act – between staying and delivering, honouring our commitment as humanitarians, whilst constantly adjusting our operational modalities to ensure that we do not expose staff and the people we serve to unacceptable levels of risk. There is no science to this, there is no magical formula that allows you to arrive at a logical conclusion. It comes down to leadership, teamwork, integrity, and commitment. 

•  What lessons did they learn along the way?

What I have learned from swimming in the deep end so to speak is that it is an ongoing process where the stakes are high and mistakes are costly. Transparency in decision-making and inclusive leadership proved to be everything. 

The outbreak of the pandemic sadly highlighted that we were somewhat ill-prepared. We have all sorts of protocols and procedures established and practiced for many different scenarios – from mass displacement, to surges in conflict, complex attacks and the like, but we were ill-prepared to deal with a medical emergency of this nature. We are prepared to live with and around war, but when the pandemic hit, we had to develop strategies for operational realities where the threat is invisible, indiscriminate, and so much is still unknown.  

I am proud of how the Afghanistan team used the challenge to equip the organisation at large to respond. We developed a strategic partnership with WHO to support risk communication and community engagement around the spread of the virus, developed programming and attracted funding to tackle the secondary effects of the outbreak, such as food security and water and sanitation-related needs, and mobilised across the country to ensure cash could be distributed in a safe manner to people who lost their livelihoods and access to services. 

And amidst all of the programmatic priorities we managed to keep sight of the needs of our colleagues, equally affected by the sudden onset of the pandemic, by setting up a dedicated a Staff Care Unit, tasked with contact tracing in case of anyone contracted COVID-19. This speaks to the constant balancing act between NRC’s mantra to stay and deliver, and the need to do so safely.

•  Has this work or this emergency response changed them in any ways and if so, how?

During this pandemic, Afghanistan really became home for me. It became an indefinite mission, a place where I knew I would be for while – without the luxury of a break. I learned to make Afghanistan home, appreciating the little things that give comfort in an insecure environment in uncertain times. The morning greetings from the colleagues, the familiarity of the call to prayer, the kindness showed by our colleagues who knew that, as a Sri Lankan, staying to deliver meant giving up being able to return to my home country indefinitely, gave me a profound sense of gratitude. This, in turn, kept me grounded and motivated to carry on the important work NRC is doing for the people in Afghanistan. 
Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC
Les billedteksten Ajanth ga fra seg muligheten til å reise tilbake til Sri Lanka, og gjorde Afghanistan til et hjem. Å hjelpe det afghanske folket ble oppdraget hans. Foto: Enayatullah Azad/Flyktninghjelpen

– I løpet av pandemien ble Afghanistan virkelig et hjem for meg. Det ble et oppdrag på ubestemt tid, et sted der jeg visste at jeg ville være en stund – uten den luksusen det er å kunne ta en pause. Jeg lærte å sette pris på de små tingene som gir trøst i et usikkert miljø i en usikker tid, forteller han.

– Morgenhilsener fra kolleger, den kjente lyden av bønnerop, den vennligheten som ble vist av kolleger som visste at jeg som kom fra Sri Lanka og ikke hadde mulighet til å returnere til hjemlandet på ubestemt tid – det gjorde meg dypt takknemlighet.

– Dette gjorde at jeg både beholdt roen og var motivert til å fortsette det viktige arbeidet Flyktninghjelpen gjør for folket i Afghanistan.

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