It is not all adrenaline stuff: Conversation with Ali Al Mokdad

I did not set out to become a humanitarian worker. Like many others, I just fell into it, and it does not feel that long ago since I was a young man studying at university and saw some volunteers conducting an anti-drugs awareness session and decided to join them.

It took me more than four years of voluntary work to decide that I want to make this my daily job and future career, and It took me almost seven years as a national staff to take an overseas position.

For the past decade, I have been moving between sites and countries following displaced people and refugees in the Middle East, Africa, and South Aisa, delivering humanitarian assistance in different ways with different organizations.

My days, weeks, and months were never the same. There was always something new.  A new project, a new activity, a new task, a new challenge and a new situation that might take you back to zero to start again.

When I tell people what I do for living most people tell me they would love to be humanitarians – I mean who does not want to help people, learn about cultures, flying a helicopter with relief supplies and save the world– but before you go online searching for a job you should know that it is not an easy job and the humanitarian sector is not the happy land.

As humanitarian workers, people always recognize us for the courage and passion for serving despite being in a risky situation. However, the truth is, we are also vulnerable.

Sometimes, we are not only the responders but in some circumstances, we have also become one of the survivors.

Living as a humanitarian worker can mean long stints away from family and serve in some of the most high-risk contexts or remote areas, where resources are limited, and movement is restricted. It also means working long hours in a stressful environment with challenges and problems in every single day. We position ourselves in many dangerous places; we brave through the floods, and we work in an insecure conflict environment where a bomb, a bullet, or a mine is our worst nightmares, and in the bush where mosquitoes, scorpion, or snakes can do severe damages.

You never know what a new day will bring, and it is not all adrenaline stuff. Choosing this life is not for the faint of heart – at times, it will inspire you, and at times it will break your heart.

It’s emotional with a big dilemma between what your heart and brain tell you.

There are moments when our body wants to rest, but our heart would continue to go on. There is always this contradiction. They do not speak in unity, especially when you see that you can push your limits and do something meaningful. The heart usually prevails. The heart wins.

This job is like any other job, has positive and negative sides.

You witness a lot of exciting things and learn about communities, cultures, religions, countries, personalities, nationalities. You also change lives when you bring aid, educate children, empower youth, promote gender equality, and build peace. Still, you also might face death, take risks, deal with politics, be in a toxic work environment, feel burnout, even sometimes harassment and discrimination.

I have had my fair share of scrapes. My job has brought me near to death five times and put me in in stressful situation lead to burned-out. But I have been lucky.

Once you are a humanitarian, you are never entirely off work. You never know when you might be caught up in a disaster and need to call on all those skills you have developed under challenging environments around the world.

The job is tough and demanding, but the rewards are immense, and despite everything, I am still here, and I can’t see myself being in another field not related to humanitarian work.

Landing your first development job can be a challenging feat as just knowing where to begin may prove difficult. Here are my top tips for the new humanitarian workers

Transparency is key:

Before you start doing anything or following recommendations, be transparent with your self about the reason behind joining this sector.

Take your time to think and decide why you want to join this sector? You want to help others and help your self at the same time.

We are superheroes, we can help all people at all times, and we are ready and willing to help whoever and whenever comes our way. Unfortunately, this is a fantasy that many of us have, and it would be a good thing to keep in mind that you should be realistic and not to have high expectations that you can fix everything.

Get to know the sector:

Attend online events, training, webinars,  talk to humanitarian workers, and ask as many questions as you can to build up your understanding of the sector.

You will find many websites, articles, learning platforms, and documents that explain different topics related to this sector. It is essential to stay updated on the latest international development trends and news and connect online with other professionals.

Do voluntary work:

It is actually what we all should do at all levels (seniors or juniors). It is our social responsibility, and this is how this sector started.

Volunteering can also be helpful for those from other sectors or fresh graduates. It builds knowledge of the humanitarian context in addition to the experience.

Remember, volunteering does not have to mean going overseas; you can start within your community.

And if you are looking for your first job in this sector or oversee volunteering opportunities, make sure you check out NGOs’ websites, Relifeweb, DevalopmentAid, Devex, and many other famous humanitarian and development sites.

Focus on skills development:

As the humanitarian sector evolves with the engagement of new players and new technologies, you need to adapt and learn new skills to keep up and stay competitive. You will face many different situations that require different skills, so focus on skills development and take your time to practice.

While having a university degree is essential, I believe that it is not the most important thing. This job requires skills and experience, and these things will come from learning and practising.

Remember a degree with no relevant skills and work experience, with no practice, with no evidence of passion and commitment to the work, will not get you anywhere.

Always remember the StarFish

Sometimes your frustrations with the humanitarian system will be the main cause of your stress, and you will ask yourself, “Why am I doing this job? “

Many of us committed to this sector with the idea of saving the world, but we quickly have that idea crushed when we realized the enormity of the task at our hands and the little we can do.

Ali Mokdad

When that feeling comes to me -and it does sometimes- I try to remind myself of the fact that every little thing I do is one step closer to relief someone suffers and I remind myself of the StarFish Story it is about a young girl who was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You cannot save all these starfish. You cannot make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference for that one!”

As humanitarian workers, we have to remember that we cannot save the world alone, but we can save one individual at a time.

Focus on the positive things and the small victories instead of the big challenges.

 Ali Al Mokdad is a Program Management Specialist with extensive experience leading Protection, Gender-Based Violence, and Child Protection interventions working with refugees and IDP’s directly, remotely, and through partners. Ali has a strong track record of successful performance in both program management roles and as a technical expert with INGOs (NRC, CARE, IMC, ACF) UN Agencies (WHO, UNHCR), and Development Organizations (GIZ) in the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq), East Africa (Kenya), East-Central Africa (South Sudan) and South Asia (Bangladesh).

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