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NEWS FEATURE: Relief workers are a breed apart

c. 1999 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ The tasks are beyond intimidating _ digging latrines, finding clean water, getting meals and tents and medical care to more than half a million severely traumatized refugees. Who would willingly go to the Kosovo border and do this work 20 hours a day, seven days a week? What […]

c. 1999 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ The tasks are beyond intimidating _ digging latrines, finding clean water, getting meals and tents and medical care to more than half a million severely traumatized refugees.

Who would willingly go to the Kosovo border and do this work 20 hours a day, seven days a week? What kind of person would do it over and over in the most distressed places in the world _ places where the odds of getting sick or injured are high, where you’ll encounter misery and death that will haunt you for the rest of your life?

The people who are willing do these jobs _ humanitarian relief workers _ are, as you might expect, dedicated, brave and altruistic. But they also tend to be high-spirited, funny and resilient.

They truly do not want to be thought of as saints. Sure, it’s hard, they say, but it’s not unrelievedly grim.

And they don’t mind describing themselves as a little crazy. Relief workers have a private joke about the “3Ms,” says Gerry Martone of the International Rescue Committee _ that they are martyrs, masochists and misfits.

But when you talk to workers like Martone, or Abby Maxman at CARE, it’s clear they have a normal interest in staying alive, that the work isn’t punishment, and that they get along easily with other people.

There are about 20,000 of these professional humanitarian relief workers in the world. They staff groups like the International Rescue Committee, CARE or Doctors of the World as well as religious relief agencies and official international agencies under the umbrella of the United Nations.

These thousands make up a tribe willing to up and go to Somalia in the middle of a civil war, Rwanda after genocide, North Korea in a famine, Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. Now, at the refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia, they’re bumping into each other again.

They’re people like Maxman, 33, or Martone, 42. Most are in their 30s and 40s, though many successful relief workers have come to the work after retiring from other jobs. Like many of their colleagues, Martone and Maxman thrive on confusion and uncertainty, the very things that cause suffering to the people they’re helping.

Where there’s chaos,“That’s where I kick into action,” Maxman said. “Unlike the refugees, I’m making a choice to be there.”

For all the drama of being on the frontlines, it is simply a job, they say.

“I get uncomfortable when people say, `you’re such a saint,”’ Maxman said. “I say, `No, I just care about what I do in the same way you care about what you do.”’

Similarly, Martone, who just returned from overseeing the expansion of International Rescue Committee operations in Albania, says, “It’s tempting to let people believe that you’re noble. But this is just something I do that I love and I happen to be good at it.”

Maxman is no longer one of the nomads, having risen to an administrative job at CARE’s Atlanta headquarters. But her life after growing up in Philadelphia and graduating from Colorado College was spent in relief work in Africa, including a 30-month tour of duty for CARE in Rwanda _ which relief workers agree was by far the toughest recent humanitarian disaster _ where at one point during a cholera epidemic thousands of people died every day.

Maxman supervises CARE’s work in East Africa and the Middle East, but she sorely misses field work. She was in Somalia last week for one of her frequent oversight visits. “When I’m there, I’m on,” she said a little wistfully. “I look at the field work there and it brings me alive.”

Watching the story on the Kosovo border unfold, her primary thought is, “I wish I was there.”

Many have seen the awful pictures and heard the awful stories and may have written a check to a relief agency. But being the person who wishes she was there, or who is there, has to require something more than sympathy. Maxman said she didn’t know of any formal psychological studies of her fellow humanitarian workers, “But, boy, would we be fodder,” she added with a laugh.

“We study criminals, we study managers, but we haven’t studied these people who make a really important elective choice,” said Frank Farley, psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia and past president of the American Psychological Association.

From informal observations, Farley concludes that relief workers fall into what he calls the T-type personality, a concept he has been studying for decades. T-types are people _ fire fighters, for example _ who are altruistic and willing to take risks.

“What really underlies human risk-taking like this is the thrill, thus the T,” Farley said. “I mean the classic sense of the thrill, an internal excitement, you’re doing something great and good.”

Freud might have said these people have a death wish, Farley observed. “But from what I’ve observed about humanitarian workers, they have a great love of life.”

Like many American relief workers, Maxman and Martone were Peace Corps volunteers. Fresh out of college and new to her assigned country, Lesotho, she recalls, “I was bitten by the bug of loving passionately what I was doing. I know this sounds like a cliche, but no matter how hard I worked, I was gaining more than I could possibly give.”

After his tour in the Peace Corps in Liberia, Martone, who grew up outside of Boston, worked as a psychiatric nurse before signing up with the International Rescue Committee.

Martone is familiar with severe stress; when he was a Peace Corps volunteer, he was abducted and held hostage by soldiers during a coup in Liberia. He thinks he may have chosen relief work as a way of facing the fear lingering from that experience.

Relief workers are surprisingly frank about having moments of fear and despair. They don’t shy away from words like “overwhelmed” or “burned-out.”

“In Rwanda,” Maxman said, “there were some days when you wanted to cry and shrivel up and go away.”

What kept her going was the people she was helping. “This woman had had the worst things that could possibly happen,” Maxman said. “Her husband was killed, she’d been raped. Still, she went on. People do get on.”

For his part, Martone prefers to say that relief workers “empty out” rather than `burn out.”’

“You can get emptied out and fill up again.” he said, “Burned-out sounds permanent.”

There’s a lot of beer consumed, Martone says, and a lot of escapist literature, mainly science fiction. And there is time off. Relief organization supervisors do give leave for R&R to their workers in Macedonia and Albania _ usually after three weeks.

For all the difficulty of the work, there is no shortage of people willing to sign up. Susan Barr, CARE’s director of staffing, gets an astonishing 100 applications every day, and more during well-publicized humanitarian disasters.

Barr, who is eminently practical, has to guard against the disastrous possibility of having a CARE worker break down in a crisis. First, she says, applicants must have worked internationally before. Next, she seeks people who have proven they can cope with enormous amounts of change and stress, and function without orders.

And, she looks for people with a sense of humor, with some constructive way to relieve stress. Barr, herself a former field worker in Zaire and Ethiopia, remembers her own stress relief system, which she admits was not very sophisticated.

“I’d go into the bathroom and shut the door and cry,” she said. “It’s better than yelling at the refugees, breaking down in public, or drinking too much.”

Relief workers in these stressful circumstances can get impatient, even ornery. Nothing makes them madder than a TV producer asking them to come up with a starving child or a traumatized victim. And, as Jim Bishop, director of humanitarian response at Interaction, a Washington-based consortium of international relief agencies, said, “You tend to get angry when you have people dying in front of you.”

At their worst, some relief workers are seen as “cowboys” by others, people who show off resumes with Chechnya and Rwanda and Somalia.

Maxman wants to be more than a cowboy. “I can give something. I can give it thoughtfully and appropriately. I don’t like boasting about myself, but I have it in me to do it in the most challenging environments.”


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