By Masumi Honda, Class XVI
My Applied Field Experience (AFE) took me back to Gaziantep, Turkey – where I spent a year prior to becoming a peace fellow working for an international NGO to deliver humanitarian aid into Syria. I went back to the same field, same location with a little different angle, armed with a year of academic learning about peace and conflict. My AFE was meaningful in a number of ways – applying classroom theories and methods to practice, catching up with the new development in Syria and Turkey, and reuniting with old friends. In a way, it allowed me to reconnect with the field by re-arousing this indescribable weariness about and anger towards all the violence that was happening and renewing my inquiry why it has to happen the way it does.
While I could continue sharing all the learnings I had during my AFE, I would like to dedicate this blog to a different kind of experience I had during the summer. I will share about a friend and former colleague, Naoe san, whose precious life was lost in Turkey. Naoe san died of multiple organ failure, complications caused by malaria. Among different types of malaria, he had a combination of the most fatal kind and a less fatal one. The transmission must have happened while he was still in his duty station in Zambia before traveling to Turkey on R&R. While in Turkey, he went missing. By the time he was found in a public hospital in Istanbul only a few days after he was last seen, his condition was critical. He was immediately transferred to a private hospital specialized in treating infectious diseases and received the best possible medical treatment. His communication ability, the little that was left, was gradually lost, so was his consciousness. When I flew to see him in the intensive care unit, he was in a coma, breathing heavily, tubed up everywhere, his body swollen…Despite the apparent danger his life was in, however, I was still hopeful. During the visitation hour, I kept talking to him, making jokes, admonishing his silliness for not seeking medical attention earlier, and how we all missed him. I promised him that I would come back with my little son next time, so he had to get better by then. My promise was not fulfilled. Next time I went back to Istanbul was to say my last farewell and to give moral support to his colleagues handling the extremely complex logistical issues of internationally transporting the body and negotiating the medical fees with the hospital administration.
I have mainly two points I want to share through this blog. The first one is the most obvious one about risk management. Naoe san was no amateur. He had lived in rural parts of Zambia for years and was well informed and trained about different field hazards. Even such an experienced aid worker could fall for such a well-known health risk like malaria. In a way, he was unlucky to have contracted the fatal disease right before going on vacation abroad. It is much more difficult to take swift action when one is abroad without knowing the local language or medical system.
For all those who travel, and particularly for those who work in the conflict-related fields, it is important to be aware of different kinds of risks that are present and to know how to prepare, prevent, and respond to these risks. I hate to sound like a cheap travel insurance message, but if it saves any life in the future, I’d be happy to repeat as many times as possible because, at some point, we’ve all assumed “it’s not gonna happen,” or at least “it’s not gonna be me,” haven’t we?
The medical cost for a month of intensive treatment was somewhere around 160,000 EUR, which was slightly more than the amount covered by the insurance policy. The excess amount was reasonable, so it was feasible for the employer NGO to cover it. But if it had been more, it would have been impossible for the organization to pay. It kills me to even imagine what it would have been like for anyone, any of Naoe san’s former colleagues or bosses, even the board members of the organization, to have to make a decision to downgrade or discontinue the treatment due to financial reasons. What kind of explanations can be made to his family, if it were to happen? To my relief, it wasn’t the case. Every possible effort was made to try to save Naoe san’s life. But this is the kind of consideration and decision we may have to face in the field, in the future.
The second point I want to share is about Naoe san’s life as an aid worker. Naoe san and I joined the same NGO in 2011 around the same time. We went through training together and worked on several tough projects together. It’s not like I was his best friend, but we had a good relationship and, from the little, I knew of him, Naoe san was literally one of the nicest people I knew. This feeling was widely shared by all his colleagues. His ‘niceness’ was not just a superficial social skill but deeply rooted in his character, which manifested in his work as an aid worker. He sincerely empathized with the beneficiaries of his programs, tried to get to know them personally, and was truly concerned with their lives.
It is difficult to convey the significance of what I just described because it sounds just like how every aid worker is supposed to be. But in reality, so many people I encountered in the aid world showed no interest in the lives of the beneficiaries, even worse some were full of uncaring pity and contempt disguised by hypocrisy. Most people were more concerned about themselves—their next move, salary and benefits, and career ambitions. Naoe san, to my knowledge, worked tirelessly, really trying to make a difference. The kind of projects in which he involved himself were for people who were normally outside the spotlight.
The last project Naoe san poured lots of efforts into planning, fundraising, and implementing supported ‘former’ refugees from Angola, who decided to remain in Zambia after the end of decades-long civil wars. While international media and their audience may be interested in stories of ‘refugees’ and ongoing conflicts, not much attention is paid to what happens afterwards. However, as is the case with Angolan ‘former’ refugees, many continue to struggle and sometimes face more difficulties, as the international attention subsides and so does aid in addition to losing all the protection and benefits only refugees are entitled to. Unfortunately, aid tends to follow the spotlights because it is easier to raise funds for the disasters—whether natural or manmade—that are still fresh and/or reported in major news outlets. Naoe san’s baby project was to empower these ‘forgotten’ people.
Lastly, Naoe san seemed, at least to me, content with and even to have preferred the very simple lifestyle he had. While many ‘expat’ aid workers live in mansions with maid services on top of the ‘competitive salary and benefits,’ I heard that Naoe san enjoyed driving rocky roads to fetch water for his office/residence because there was no running water in the building, not to mention the not so attractive salary and benefits our organization could offer. He always wore the same (or maybe identical two) pair(s) of jeans as far as I can remember. He lived in a tiny apartment before deploying to Zambia. When his deployment was finalized, he gave away most of the few belongings he had. I am NOT saying we should all give up mundane desires and live like monks, no. But his lifestyle was symbolic to me in a sense that Naoe san was not fulfilling his own materialistic needs by taking advantage of the global gap of wealth and security like many others do.
My memories of Naoe san, his attitude towards work and life are forever humbling and sobering. He also gives me hope, in the midst of confusing and disappointing realities about aid work, that there is a way to be a non-intrusive, local-oriented, non-colonialist expat.
His life was lost too early, too suddenly to rest in peace. I know he would want to return to work right away. So I say may his soul reincarnate soon, if he believed in it.