Last week, LinkedIn invited me to congratulate a former colleague on her new job. I wanted to cry. I simply wrote “Respect,” a common term in her native Jamaica, as I reread that she is now the Health Specialist for Emergencies at UNICEF in Liberia.
On Facebook I stared at the profile picture of another former colleague – a photo of this Spanish man with his newborn daughter – before reading his extensive update about Ebola. Following 15 years of living in Africa and a specialization in public health, responding to this crisis is now his full-time job.
An email from my former boss, the only one who made me consider staying in my old job, read,
“Tough situation here but will do our best…I do also my best to stay safe.”
Two weeks ago she was assigned to head an international operations team to respond to Ebola in Sierra Leone, neighboring her own country, Guinea.
My heart hurts when I think of these friends. I would like them all to go work elsewhere, to be safe but they are not. I want this to all have been a bad dream and wake up and find the world a happier, safer place, but it is not.
In 2010 I spent some time in Liberia doing education among United Nations personnel on HIV and AIDS. What I found was similar to what I’d experienced in Cambodia. The staff certainly understood all of the information, but they resisted because they had already endured so much cruelty and suffering in recent decades (under Pol Pot in Cambodia and Charles Taylor in Liberia). The real challenge I faced was a collective pain overload.
It wasn’t that people couldn’t deal with, or think about preventing, HIV in Liberia. It was that they couldn’t handle the thought of another injustice befalling their population. Over the course of my stay, we did work through a lot of issues and I’ve been told that since my visit, the work had not only continued, but expanded and that staff were, indeed, coping a bit better in the face of the very real HIV epidemic that already exists in Liberia.
Despite the difficulties of the work, I have only fond memories of my time there. Of the people I worked with, of the natural beauty of the landscape, of the energy of a country rebuilding its infrastructure and identity.
When I now see the images or read the extensive reports about what is happening in Liberia, beautiful Liberia, my heart breaks. If there is one country that does not need another trauma, it is Liberia. Or Sierra Leone. Or Guinea. Or any country, for that matter, but this really feels like kicking someone back down when they’re trying so hard to get up.
So much of this could have been avoided and that is the part that makes me the most angry. Why have we, yet again, failed these nations?
I am extraordinarily blessed to know these people and to have worked in Liberia, and for that I am grateful. I once was the one who volunteered to go to Afghanistan, who traveled solo in Iran, who was happy to go to Darfur and absolutely loved Syria.
But my days of development work are behind me and all I can do now is honor and admire these individuals who continue the work: my friends, my former colleagues, and the people of these destabilized countries. Their courage inspires me to do better. Respect.