Keeping the promise
HERVE VERHOOSELA few weeks ago, as part of the delegation travelling with United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien, I visited Assaga, a camp of the Diffa region in Niger. Here, violence at the hands of Boko Haram has forced over 240,000 people out of their homes to seek refuge elsewhere in the region.
Assaga alone has served as home to over 15,000 people including refugees, returnees and internally displaced people (IDPs). Upon meeting them, I was welcomed with stories of their perilous journeys and sacrifices and of the impossible choices they had to make as they fled for safety. From seeing the makeshift dwellings where they sleep to hearing that they receive only one meal in a day, I recognized how much suffering continues after they left their homes.
Despite the persistent humanitarian effort, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou highlighted the immense strain of tirelessly trying to quash Boko Haram whilst addressing the overwhelming needs of those internally displaced and seeking refuge; there isn’t enough support.
Following our visit to Niger, we made our way to a satellite camp hosting refugees in the Konduga Local Government Area in Nigeria, where over 1,600 internally displaced people are currently given shelter. For them, a simple trip to collect firewood puts them at risk of attack or abduction by Boko Haram. Some cannot even access humanitarian assistance, and these dilemmas are compounded by the challenges brought about by environmental degradation, poverty and under-development.
I spoke with many of those people, sometimes in English, sometimes using a mix of signs and words, and they responded with warm smiles. The kids wanted to give me high-fives or shake my hand, some of them proud of their Barcelona or Chelsea football club T-shirts. The women enthusiastically wanted to share with me what little they had prepared for lunch, while the men showed me where they live and sleep.
And there, sitting in a corner, a little girl caught my attention. She was maybe 11 or 12 years old, it was difficult to tell. But something was clear: She was pregnant. I wanted to speak to her. I wanted to know. But I was hesitant to ask, thinking it would be inappropriate. Then she looked at me. She smiled. With both hands, she gestured “hello.”
These people have lost so much, and they need help. Vulnerable, they wait, hoping for their government and the international community to take more action.
I did not need a report on news channel or an article in a newspaper to inform me about the refugee situation. It was there in front of me and around me. I was there in the middle of it to witness it first-hand.
With this experience still fresh in my mind, I flew back to Istanbul, where the World Humanitarian Summit was set to take place at the end of May. It was an enthusiastic gathering of over 9,000 people from all sectors of the humanitarian system, including heads of states and governments, CEOs, youth and community leaders.
Overnight, not only did I travel between countries and continents but also, more significantly, between the opposite ends of the humanitarian spectrum: On one end, the people I met in Niger and Nigeria affected by circumstances beyond their control and in desperate need of support; while on the other, a summit in Turkey attended by people who have the capacity to help and deliver urgently needed resources.
Seeing this juxtaposition catalyzed a quiet turmoil within me, yet it also allowed me to truly understand the life-changing possibilities of reconciling need with generous commitments to put our shared humanity first. The need for solidarity is glaringly obvious, so how can we foster this crucial link? How can we ensure that the voices of those in need are heard by those who have the power to help them and that aid is effectively given?
Throughout the Summit, she was there. In my mind and my heart were that little girl from Nigeria and her smile. I don’t even know her name or her story, but she was there with me. Her resilient spirit and those of the people in the refugee camps give me the inspiration and motivation to serve and give back as much as I can in my daily work with the United Nations.
At this specific moment, I am in New York and you are probably in Turkey. But in many places, around and between us, 130 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. The stark truth is that we are facing the highest level of humanitarian needs since the Second World War. For some of us, this may seem far-fetched, a figure that does not necessarily affect our everyday lives. Yet as she lingers and as their realities remain, one thing is very clear: It is time for all of us to wake up and act.
* Herve Verhoosel was the spokesperson for the United Nations’ first ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on May 23-24. Follow him on Twitter.