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Chasing Misery: Women in Humanitarian Work

24 April 2014

Chasing MiseryWhen Kelsey Hoppe, the head of Chasing Misery’s editorial team is asked to describe humanitarian aid and why she decided to produce Chasing Misery, a new anthology, which collects the stories and experiences of women working in humanitarian aid she laughs and says, “It’s complicated. Both humanitarian aid and why we produced the book.”

The name for the anthology comes from a conversation that the lead editor, Kelsey Hoppe, had while in Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami in which hundreds of thousands of people died and so many more lost their homes, families and livelihoods. After a long day, she was sitting on the roof of a house with a friend, tired, sad and thought, ‘what a strange life this is, what a strange profession – ‘chasing human misery’ around the world as we go from one emergency response to the next’.

Chasing Misery is an anthology of essays and photographs contributed by women working in humanitarian responses over the past ten years. Launched on 08 March 2014, International Women’s Day, contributions in the book are drawn from a variety of disasters around the world.

One essay on the Hurricane Katrina disaster in the U.S., From New Orleans to South Sudan: How I Healed by Moving to a War-Torn Country, by contributor Miranda Bryant, recounts the surreal experience of responding to a disaster at home. Millions of New Orleanians were left homeless and displaced, many to FEMA trailer parks or neighbouring states, never to return to New Orleans. Miranda shares her experience of working in New Orleans, “I moved to New Orleans to study international public health with a specific focus on complex emergencies and natural disasters. Never did I imagine that I’d get my boots dirty doing so in the town in which I resided. How surreal to see the streets I drove every day strewn with debris, wreaking of death. My heart ached for my adopted city’s pain, as palpable as the humidity was high.”

Baker, Louisiana is home to thousands of displaced Katrina victims from New Orleans.  Living in five FEMA sites, residents are far from job opportunities, anxious about their futures, and with few to speak on their behalf.

Baker, Louisiana is home to thousands of displaced Katrina victims from New Orleans. Living in five FEMA sites, residents are far from job opportunities, anxious about their futures, and with few to speak on their behalf. [Update: residents of the FEMA trailer parks have since been relocated to safer accommodation after residents were complaining of increased cases of asthma and cancer. Toxic fumes, including formaldehyde, were found in the trailers.] © Jenn Warren

Through the essays and photos, different women reflect on their time and experiences in Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malawi and other troubled areas of the world. The essays are incredibly personal and, at times, difficult to read. Police beating protesting refugees in the street, children describing the cannibalism of a rebel group, guilt experienced after hiring a colleague who was executed, being able to accept thanks for simply doing your job.

While there are no good statistics on how many women are currently doing aid work there are some amazing, strong, talented, vulnerable, sophisticated, and intelligent women who have fascinating stories to tell. Not the stories you get on CNN, or BBC, or Al Jazeera – where you are only given a minute’s glimpse into some of the most difficult places on earth – but rather complex stories with a very human face and whole lot of heart. This book is a platform for those stories.

“If I had to pick a reason why I wanted to bring Chasing Misery together it would be because humanitarian aid is so complicated. Globally, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent over the past ten years on humanitarian aid but the general public knows so little about what it’s like to do the work – on the ground – with people who are in the middle of these wars and disasters. I wanted to unravel the complicated nature of the work and the best way to do that seemed to be through stories and images.”

UNHCR trucks transport Congolese refugees and their possessions to the newly created UNHCR site in Makpandu, South Sudan. The journey from Gangura, 6 miles from the northern border of DRC, to Makpandu, is only 56 kilometers but takes 3 hours due to the condition of roads.  The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have increased attacks on civilians following the beginning of a joint military operation "Operation Lightning Thunder" on December 14, led by the Ugandan army with support from the Congolese, South Sudanese, and Central African Republic armies. Most attacks are taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with at least 620 people killed and 160 children abducted since Christmas Eve, says Human Rights Watch. The latest attack took place on January 17, during a prayer vigil in a church outside of Dungu, DRC.  Over 5,000 Congolese people have fled into South Sudan seeking refuge from the LRA, where UNHCR is leading a number of humanitarian organizations in the relief effort. With Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement just signed in 2005, this is the first time in over 20 years that the country has hosted refugees from neighboring countries.

Congolese refugees fleeing the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) are transported in UNHCR trucks to a refugee camp in Makpandu, South Sudan. The journey from Gangura, 6 miles from the northern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Makpandu, is only 56 kilometers but takes 3 hours due to the condition of roads. Thousands of Congolese men, women and children have fled into South Sudan seeking refuge from the LRA. © Jenn Warren

Each of the essays is a first person reflection either on the nature of aid work itself or a specific event in that woman’s life. Some of them are amusing, like Helen Seeger’s essay about attempting to find this elusive place known as, ‘The Field’. Some are touching, like Alison Hayes’ experience of seeing a dead child in Haiti and not actually processing that moment until she is having a child of her own. Despite their differences, all of the women and their essays aim to demystify aid work.

“One of my hopes for the book is that those who don’t work in humanitarian aid, but know someone who does or are interested in getting involved, will learn more about what it is truly like,” Kelsey continues. “And those who do work in humanitarian aid will read and laugh, or cry, but they will know that they’re not alone. Other people feel the way they do. Other women struggle with the same challenges they struggle with.”

Chasing Misery’s photo editor and one of the book’s photographers, CC&DW Communications Manager Jenn Warren, shares her insight to the world of humanitarian work from a visual perspective, “It’s not easy to reconcile what you see in a disaster, who you meet and the often traumatizing experiences you document, with life back at home – or with life back on the secure NGO compound. People open up, share their pain and their joy, and it is easy to feel like you are taking what little they have and leaving them behind. You question what good it is doing, and how the work is helping. As a contributor, Chasing Misery has brought us together to share these often unsaid, shared, feelings with one another and with those interested in this work.”

Rwandans gather at the Songore Transit Camp in Ngozi Province, northern Burundi.  Seeking asylum, the over 4,500 people cramped into Songore are dealing with 4-year-old shelters, only 30 working latrines, inadequate water supply, with many sleeping outside.

Rwandans gather at the Songore Transit Camp in Ngozi Province, northern Burundi. Seeking asylum, over 4,500 people are cramped into Songore’s disintegrating shelters made of plastic tarps. The camp has only 30 working latrines and an inadequate water supply, with many people sleeping outside. © Jenn Warren

Contributors to Chasing Misery are all committed to making sure humanitarian aid workers receive proper care and have the tools and resources they need to do the work they do. To that end, 10% of the book’s royalties go to the Headington Institute, which provides these resources for women in aid work. The Chasing Misery website also offers advice and links to the Headington Institute here.

Buy your copy of Chasing Misery

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