World Humanitarian Day

United Nations Office at Vienna - Scott #56 (1985)
United Nations Office at Vienna – Scott #56 (1985)

August 19 is designated by the United Nations as World Humanitarian Day, a day dedicated to recognize humanitarian personnel and those who have lost their lives working for humanitarian causes. It was observed for the first time on this date in 2009, resulting as part of the Swedish-sponsored UN General Assembly Resolution A/63/L.49 on the Strengthening of the Coordination of Emergency Assistance of the United Nations.. It marks the day on which the then Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, and 21 of his colleagues were killed in the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad.

The special day is the outcome of the relentless efforts of the Sérgio Vieira de Mello Foundation and his family working closely with the Ambassadors of France, Switzerland, Japan and Brazil in both Geneva and New York to table and steer the draft Resolution through the General Assembly. The Foundation conveyed its deep gratitude to the United Nations General Assembly and all Member States for the worthy gesture of recognition that has ensured that the tragic loss of Vieira de Mello and his colleagues and all humanitarian personnel who have made the ultimate sacrifices in relieving the suffering of victims of humanitarian crises have not been in vain.

An aid worker of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) distributes blankets to the survivors displaced by the cyclone
An aid worker of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) distributes blankets to the survivors displaced by the cyclone “Nargis.” Photo taken on May 16, 2008.

The ideology of humanitarianism is an active belief in the value of human life, whereby humans practice benevolent treatment and provide assistance to other humans, in order to better humanity for moral, altruistic and logical reasons. It is the philosophical belief in movement toward the improvement of the human race in a variety of areas, used to describe a wide number of activities relating specifically to human welfare. A practitioner is known as a humanitarian.

Humanitarianism is based on a view that all human beings deserve respect and dignity and should be treated as such. Therefore, humanitarians work towards advancing the well-being of humanity as a whole. It is the antithesis of the “us vs. them” mentality that characterizes tribalism and ethnic nationalism. Humanitarians abhor slavery, violation of basic and human rights, and discrimination on the basis of features such as skin color, religion, ancestry, or place of birth. Humanitarianism drives people to save lives, alleviate suffering, and promote human dignity in the middle of man-made or natural disasters. Humanitarianism is embraced by movements and people across the political spectrum. The informal ideology can be summed up by a quote from Albert Schweitzer: “Humanitarianism consists in never sacrificing a human being to a purpose.”

Pallets holding humanitarian aid ready for deploying at the UNICEF world warehouse in Copenhagen. This can be food like Plumpy'nuts or water purification tablets. Photo taken on March 3, 2011.
Pallets holding humanitarian aid ready for deploying at the UNICEF world warehouse in Copenhagen. This can be food like Plumpy’nuts or water purification tablets. Photo taken on March 3, 2011.

Historically, humanitarianism was publicly seen in the social reforms of the late 1800s and early 1900s, following the economic turmoil of the Industrial Revolution in England. Many of the women in Great Britain who were involved with feminism during the 1900s also pushed humanitarianism. The atrocious hours and working conditions of children and unskilled laborers were made illegal by pressure on Parliament by humanitarians. The Factory Act of 1833 and the Factory Act of 1844 were some of the most significant humanitarian bills passed in Parliament following the Industrial Revolution.

In the middle of the 19th century, humanitarianism was central to the work of Florence Nightingale and Henry Dunant in emergency response and in the latter case led to the founding of the Red Cross.

United Nations Peacekeeping Forces (UNPKF) from Thailand hold their guns up during a ceremony to mark the handover responsibility between UN peacekeeping troops and East Timor armed forces in Los Palos, East Timor, July 23, 2002. East Timor's army replaced UN peacekeepers in one district of the new nation -- the first step in a 20-month handover which will see the blue berrets bow out. (FILM) AFP PHOTO/Antonio DASIPARU
United Nations Peacekeeping Forces (UNPKF) from Thailand hold their guns up during a ceremony to mark the handover responsibility between UN peacekeeping troops and East Timor armed forces in Los Palos, East Timor, July 23, 2002. East Timor’s army replaced UN peacekeepers in one district of the new nation — the first step in a 20-month handover process. AFP photo by Antonio Dasiparu.

Today, humanitarianism is particularly used to describe the thinking and doctrines behind the emergency response to humanitarian crises. In such cases it argues for a humanitarian response based on humanitarian principles, particularly the principle of humanity. Nicholas de Torrente, Executive Director of MSF-USA writes:

The most important principles of humanitarian action are humanity, neutrality, independence and impartiality, which posits the conviction that all people have equal dignity by virtue of their being human based solely on need, without discrimination among recipients. Humanitarian organizations must refrain from taking part in hostilities or taking actions that advantage one side of the conflict over another, the §action serves the interests of political, religious, or other agendas.

These fundamental principles serve two essential purposes. They embody humanitarian action’s single-minded purpose of alleviating suffering, unconditionally and without any ulterior motive. They also serve as background document to develop operational tools that help in obtaining both the consent of communities for the presence and activities of humanitarian organizations, particularly in highly volatile contexts.

Humanitarian aid is usually short-term help until the long-term help by government and other institutions replaces it. Among the people in need are homeless, refugees, and victims of natural disasters, wars and famines. The primary purpose of humanitarian aid is to save lives, reduce suffering and respect to human dignity coming in the form of material or logistical assistance provided for humanitarian purposes, typically in response crises including natural disasters and man-made disaster.

Henry Dunant at the Battle of Solferino, June 24, 1859.
Henry Dunant at the Battle of Solferino, June 24, 1859.

The beginnings of organized international humanitarian aid can be traced to the late 19th century. The most well known origin story of formalized humanitarian aid is that of Henri Dunant, a Swiss business man and social activist, who upon seeing the sheer destruction and inhumane abandonment of wounded soldiers from the Battle of Solferino in June 1859, cancelled his plans and began a relief response. Despite little to no experience as a medical physician, Dunant worked alongside local volunteers to assist the wounded soldiers from all warring parties, including Austrian, Italian and French casualties, in any way he could including the provision of food, water and medical supplies. His graphic account of the immense suffering he witnessed, written in his book A Memory of Solferino became a foundational text to modern humanitarianism.

In his two-week experience attending to the wounded soldiers of all nationalities, Dunant inadvertently established the vital conceptual pillars of what would later become the International Committee of the Red Cross and International Humanitarian Law: impartiality and neutrality. Dunant took these ideas and came up with two more ingenious concepts that would profoundly alter the practice of war; first Dunant envisioned a creation of permanent volunteer relief societies, much like the ad hoc relief group he coordinated in Solferino, to assist wounded soldiers; next Dunant began an effort to call for the adoption of a treaty which would guarantee the protection of wounded soldiers and any who attempted to come to their aid.

A Red Cross field hospital in Duppel during the 1864 Schleswig-Holstein War. Published in 'Grundzüge der Geschichte, Bd. 3: Vom Westfälischen Frieden bis zum Jahre 1890' by Hans Herbert Deißler, Herbert Krieger und Alfred Makatsch, 9. Aufl. (Frankfurt a.m.: Moritz Diesterweg, 1974), S. 257
A Red Cross field hospital in Duppel during the 1864 Schleswig-Holstein War. Published in ‘Grundzüge der Geschichte, Bd. 3: Vom Westfälischen Frieden bis zum Jahre 1890’ by Hans Herbert Deißler, Herbert Krieger und Alfred Makatsch, 9. Aufl. (Frankfurt a.m.: Moritz Diesterweg, 1974), S. 257

The first of the renowned Geneva Conventions was signed on August 22, 1864; never before in history has a treaty so greatly impacted how warring parties engage with one another. The basic tenants of the convention outlined the neutrality of medical services, including hospitals, ambulances and related personnel, the requirement to care for and protect the sick and wounded during conflict and something of particular symbolic importance to the International Committee of the Red Cross: the Red Cross emblem. For the first time in contemporary history, it was acknowledged by a representative selection of states that war had limits. The significance only grew with time in the revision and adaptation of the Geneva Convention in 1906, 1929 and 1949; additionally supplementary treaties granted protection to hospital ships, prisoners of war and most importantly to civilians in wartime.

Another example of early international humanitarian aid occurred in response to the Northern Chinese Famine of 1876–1879, brought about by a drought that began in northern China in 1875 and lead to crop failures in the following years. As many as 10 million people may have died in the famine. British missionary Timothy Richard first called international attention to the famine in the summer of 1876 and appealed to the foreign community in Shanghai for money to help the victims. The Shandong Famine Relief Committee was soon established with the participation of diplomats, businessmen, and Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries. To combat the famine, an international network was set up to solicit donations. These efforts brought in 204,000 silver taels, the equivalent of $7–10 million in 2012 silver prices.

A contemporary print showing the distribution of relief in Bellary, Madras Presidency. From The Illustrated London News, May 26,1877.
A contemporary print showing the distribution of relief in Bellary, Madras Presidency. From The Illustrated London News, May 26,1877.

A simultaneous campaign was launched in response to the Great Famine of 1876–78 in India. Although the authorities have been criticized for their laissez-faire attitude during the famine, relief measures were introduced towards the end. A Famine Relief Fund was set up in the United Kingdom and had raised £426,000 within the first few months.

It was only in the 1980s, that global news coverage and celebrity endorsement were mobilized to galvanize large-scale government-led famine (and other forms of) relief in response to disasters around the world. The 1983–85 famine in Ethiopia caused upwards of 1 million deaths and was documented by a BBC news crew, with Michael Buerk describing “a biblical famine in the 20th Century” and “the closest thing to hell on Earth”. Live Aid, a 1985 fund-raising effort headed by Bob Geldof induced millions of people in the West to donate money and to urge their governments to participate in the relief effort in Ethiopia. Some of the proceeds also went to the famine hit areas of Eritrea.

The first global summit on humanitarian aid was held on May 23 and 24, 2016, in Istanbul, Turkey. An initiative of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the World Humanitarian Summit included participants from governments, civil society organizations, private organizations, and groups affected by humanitarian need. Issues that were discussed included: preventing and ending conflict, managing crises, and aid financing.

Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCAC) vehicles attached to USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) and Expeditionary Strike Group 5 deliver much need materials and supplies to the inhabitants of Meuloboh, Sumatra following the December 26, 2004, tsunami.. The LCACs are capable of delivering much more supplies than helicopters in a single trip. USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) and Expeditionary Strike Group 5 participated in Operation Unified Assistance a multinational relief effort to bring food water and medical care to victims of the tsunami disaster. U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Bart A. Bauer on January 10, 2005.
Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCAC) vehicles attached to USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) and Expeditionary Strike Group 5 deliver much need materials and supplies to the inhabitants of Meuloboh, Sumatra following the December 26, 2004, tsunami.. The LCACs are capable of delivering much more supplies than helicopters in a single trip. USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) and Expeditionary Strike Group 5 participated in Operation Unified Assistance a multinational relief effort to bring food water and medical care to victims of the tsunami disaster. U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Bart A. Bauer on January 10, 2005.

Aid is funded by donations from individuals, corporations, governments and other organizations. The funding and delivery of humanitarian aid is increasingly international, making it much faster, more responsive, and more effective in coping to major emergencies affecting large numbers of people. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) coordinates the international humanitarian response to a crisis or emergency pursuant to Resolution 46/182 of the United Nations General Assembly. The need for aid is ever-increasing and has long outstripped the financial resources available.

Patrick Meier, first started using the term ‘digital humanitarianism’ after crowdmapping for the 2010 Haiti earthquake. In 2011, Paul Conneally gave a TED talk on digital humanitarianism in which he states that humanitarianism’s “origins are firmly routed in the analogue age” with “a major shift coming”. In 2015, he authored the book Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data Is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response.

Vincent Fevrier notes that “social media can benefit the humanitarian sector […] by providing information to give better situational awareness to organizations for broad strategic planning and logistics” and that “crisis mapping really emerged in 2010 during the Haiti earthquake” with “software and digital humanitarian platforms such as Standby Task Force, OpenStreetMap, and many others” being active during many disasters since then.

In fact, the role of social media in digital humanitarian efforts is a considerable one. During the summer of 2010, when open fires raged across Russia, causing many to die from smog inhalation, the use of social media allowed digital humanitarians to map the areas in need of support. This is because Russians who were hoping to be evacuated were posting online about the conditions they were in which prompted thousands of Russian bloggers to coordinate relief efforts online. The digital humanitarian efforts in Russia were crucial to responding to the fires in 2010 considering the Russian government was vastly unprepared to deal with such a large-scale disaster.

Sérgio Vieira de Melo (March 15, 1948 – August 19, 2003). Photo taken circa 2002.
Sérgio Vieira de Melo (March 15, 1948 – August 19, 2003). Photo taken circa 2002.

A national of Brazil, Sérgio Vieira de Mello dedicated a lifetime spanning over thirty years in the United Nations, serving in some of the most challenging humanitarian situations in the world to reach the voiceless victims of armed conflict, alleviate their suffering and draw attention to their plight. Before his death, he was considered a likely candidate for UN Secretary-General. He was killed in the Canal Hotel bombing in Iraq along with 20 other members of his staff on August 19, 2003, while working as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Iraq.

Abu Musab Zarqawi, a leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, claimed responsibility for the blast. A communiqué from al-Qaida said that de Mello was assassinated because he was a crusader that extracted a part of the Islamic land (East Timor) after the Indonesian regime committed genocide on the small country with Christian majority. His death was widely mourned, largely on account of his reputation for effective work to promote peace. Vieira de Mello was buried at the Cimetière des Rois in Geneva, Switzerland.

US Army (USA) Colonel (COL) Richard Dillon, Head of USA Mortuary Affairs, and US Air Force (USAF) COL Dennis Ployer, Commander, 447th Air Expeditionary Group (AEG), secure a United Nations (UN) flag over the casket of UN Chief Ambassador to Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, prior to a memorial service at the Baghdad International Airport. Sérgio Vieira de Mello was a victim of a homicide truck bombing at the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad, Iraq, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM on August 19, 2003.
US Army (USA) Colonel (COL) Richard Dillon, Head of USA Mortuary Affairs, and US Air Force (USAF) COL Dennis Ployer, Commander, 447th Air Expeditionary Group (AEG), secure a United Nations (UN) flag over the casket of UN Chief Ambassador to Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, prior to a memorial service at the Baghdad International Airport. Sérgio Vieira de Mello was a victim of a homicide truck bombing at the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad, Iraq, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM on August 19, 2003.

Mindful of this legacy, in 2006 the Vieira de Mello family and a group of close friends founded the Sérgio Vieira de Mello Foundation dedicated to continue his unfinished mission of encouraging dialogue between communities and relieving the plight of victims of humanitarian crises. The Foundation is dedicated to supporting initiatives and efforts to promote dialogue for peaceful reconciliation and co-existence between peoples and communities divided by conflict through an annual Sérgio Vieira Mello Award, an Annual Sérgio Vieira Mello Memorial Lecture, a Sérgio Vieira de Mello Fellowship and advocating for the security and independence of humanitarian actors, wherever they may be operating and whomever they may be operating for.

The Foundation views the World Humanitarian Day as a befitting tribute to all humanitarian personnel who have made the ultimate sacrifices to make the world a better place for all victims of humanitarian crises and an encouragement to all their serving colleagues to aspire to even greater heights in accomplishing that laudable goal. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs leads efforts to plan and guide the observance of the Day that is commemorated worldwide by governments, the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations and NGOs.

World Humanitarian Day was observed for the first time on August 19, 2009. Subsequent years have focused on a particular theme. In 2010, the focus was on the actual work and achievements of humanitarian workers in the field, with the theme, “We are Humanitarian Workers.” The 2011 campaign, “People Helping People” was about inspiring the spirit of aid work in everyone. The 2012 campaign, “I Was Here” was about making your mark by doing something good, somewhere, for someone else. The campaign had a social reach of more than 1 billion people around the world. It was supported by the American singer Beyoncé, whose music video for the song “I Was Here” has been viewed more than 50 million times.

U.S. Army Sergeant Kornelia Rachwal gives a young Pakistani girl a drink of water as they are airlifted from Muzaffarabad to Islamabad, Pakistan, aboard a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter on October 19, 2005.
U.S. Army Sergeant Kornelia Rachwal gives a young Pakistani girl a drink of water as they are airlifted from Muzaffarabad to Islamabad, Pakistan, aboard a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter on October 19, 2005.

In 2013, the UN and its partners launched a ground-breaking project called “The World Needs More…”. In collaboration with global advertising firm Leo Burnett, the campaign aimed to turn words into aid for people affected by humanitarian crises. Private sector companies and philanthropists words that they believed the world could use more of, e.g. “action”. As it was the tenth anniversary of World Humanitarian Day, the United Nations Postal Administration issued a personalized sheet of 10 stamps denominated $1.10 and 10 labels at the New York office to commemorate the event (Scott #1071). The languages used on the sheet are Somali, Arabic, Russian, Swahili, Urdu, Thai, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese and English. Earlier that year (March 31, 2013), the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu released four stamps and a souvenir sheet in honor of World Humanitarian Day (StampWorld #1901-1905).

The 2014 Day focused on the humanitarian workers with the theme entitled “Let’s Honour Those Kidnapped While Doing Their Job” with a special commitment by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) is to promoting global respect for and compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL). The ECHO produced a poster campaign which ran for two weeks in airports and metro stations of nine major EU cities. The posters bore messages paying tribute to aid workers victims and calling for more respect for humanitarian professionals.

That year, the Brazilian Post Office (ECT) partnered with the United Nations in Brazil and the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a single stamp in honor of Sérgio Vieira de Mello (Michel #4171). The stamp  was issued in a ceremony in the UN House in Brasilia on August 19, 2014, as part of the America Special Issue Series — Personalities and Leaders of ECT.

The 2018 theme recognizes the suffering of millions of civilians caught in conflict. As humanitarian workers deliver aid, and medical workers help the wounded and sick, they are directly targeted, treated as threats, and prevented from bringing relief and care to those in desperate need. The #NotATarget movement has been initiated to demand that world leaders take action to protect all civilians caught in conflict.

United Nations in Thailand. Bangkok, Thailand, May 12, 2017
United Nations in Thailand. Bangkok, Thailand, May 12, 2017

The United Nations has a strong presence in Thailand, having worked together with the Royal Thai Government for over fifty years to support inclusive and sustainable development, based on national priorities and plans. There are currently 18 UN agencies who have specific programmes and activities being carried out in Thailand. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific (ESCAP) is one of the most prominent of these. The UN Headquarters in Bangkok does have a post office and, apparently has a special postmark that is rather difficult to obtain.

In July 2017, the United Nations Country Team in Thailand signed the UN Partnership Framework 2017-2021 (UNPAF) with the Thai government. The document describes the collective response of the UN system to national development priorities and articulates results to be achieved for the ensuing five years as well as the responsibilities of the various UN agencies, The outcomes in the UNPAF are linked to the 12th National Economic and Social Development Plan (NESDP) for 2017-2021.

Earlier this year, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the Royal Thai Government at the resumption of the death penalty in Thailand. Theerasak Longji, aged 26, had been executed by lethal injection on June 17, six years after being convicted of aggravated murder for stabbing a 17-year-old 24 times in order to steal his mobile phone. The last executions to take place in Thailand had been of two drug traffickers in August 2009. Cynthia Veliko, the Representative of OHCHR South-East Asia Regional Office, said that “The resumption of death penalty runs contrary to Thailand’s human rights commitments at national and international levels. During the Universal Periodic Review in 2016, Thailand expressed its commitment to take measures to abolish the death penalty. This pledge was reaffirmed in Thailand’s Third National Human Rights Action Plan.” December 10, 2018, marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

United Nations Office at Vienna - Scott #55-56 (1985) in the UNOV year pack
United Nations Office at Vienna – Scott #55-56 (1985) in the 1985 Annual Collection folder.

While I don’t have any of the stamps released specifically in commemoration of World Humanitarian Day, I felt that the 1985 stamps issued by the United Nations to bring awareness to “Child Survival” fit the humanitarian theme appropriately. The set was released on November 22, 1985, with two designs each denominated in United States, Swiss and Austrian currency. A souvenir card reproducing all six stamps was also issued at the same time. Scott #56 of the United Nations Office at Vienna is a 6-schilling stamp designed by Vreni Wyss-Fischer of Geneva, Switzerland, portraying a mother hugging an infant with the German inscription ALLE KINDER SOLLEN LEBEN (“all children should live”). It was printed by the I=Government Printing Bureau in Japan using the photogravure and recess processes. It is perforated in a gauge of 13½ with a quantity of 852,958 copies issued.

In more than 100 developing countries, hunger, poverty and illiteracy destroy the lives of approximately one billion children. The United Nations International Children’s Economic Fund (UNICEF) coordinates worldwide child survival activities. The 1985 stamp set focused attention on the plight of children who are fighting for survival and recognized four techniques that are saving millions of young lives: growth monitoring to detect early signs of malnutrition, oral rehydration therapy to save children starving from diarrheal dehydration, breast feeding to protect children from unsafe water and contaminated foodstuffs and immunization.

Young Afghan girl clenches her teddy bear that she received at the medicl clinic during her visit, Camp Clark, Khowst province, Afghanistan, December 22, 2009. The clinic gives support to local Afghan children in the area providing vitamins and winter clothing. .(U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Christopher Nicholas)
Young Afghan girl clenches her teddy bear that she received at the medicl clinic during her visit, Camp Clark, Khowst province, Afghanistan, December 22, 2009. The clinic gives support to local Afghan children in the area providing vitamins and winter clothing. .(U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Christopher Nicholas)

According to the 2018 World Humanitarian Day website,

When children are caught in conflict, their layers of protection are stripped away. Family is lost, essentials such as safety, food and water become inaccessible, and schools and playgrounds are destroyed. When this happens, children in conflict become vulnerable to recruitment into fighting and to dangers such as sex and labor trafficking.

The Bangkok office of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) offers a degree of support for educators. It’s most recent publication, published on August 10 of this year, is entitled Preparing Teachers for Global Citizenship Education: A Template. The booklet is a response to a demand from educators for practical information and tips on how they can embed Global Citizenship Education (GCED) into their teaching practices. It presents a conceptual framework for transformative education, illustrates the art of teaching GCED with examples of creative pedagogies, provides exemplars to demonstrate how GCED can be integrated into different subject areas, and refers readers to a rich list of resources. A copy can be downloaded from the UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education.

Children seated under a shady tree with activity kits in their laps laugh and respond to Vivi Soviani, a UNICEF programme coordinator and teacher for some 150 children, in a camp for people displaced by the December 26, 2004, tsunami, in the TVRI television station compound in Banda Aceh, capital of Aceh Province. UNICEF worked with local NGOs to help the children recover from trauma they experienced during the disaster. The children attended public school in the mornings and gathered every afternoon to play, sing, draw and dance at the camp's UNICEF-supported Children's Centre. Ms. Soviani, said at the time:
Children seated under a shady tree with activity kits in their laps laugh and respond to Vivi Soviani, a UNICEF programme coordinator and teacher for some 150 children, in a camp for people displaced by the December 26, 2004, tsunami, in the TVRI television station compound in Banda Aceh, capital of Aceh Province. UNICEF worked with local NGOs to help the children recover from trauma they experienced during the disaster. The children attended public school in the mornings and gathered every afternoon to play, sing, draw and dance at the camp’s UNICEF-supported Children’s Centre. Ms. Soviani, said at the time: “It helps the children forget about the tsunami. Many of them have lost everything.” Photo taken in February 2005.

One of the reasons I initially became certified to teach in Thailand came as a result of humanitarian relief efforts I witnessed following the December 26, 2004, tsunami. Some of my first experiences with children in the southern province of Phuket were simply playing games with young kids orphaned by the disaster. After an intensive course in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and the receipt of a teaching license, I worked at an international school in Phuket City in the center of the island for a number of years and even “acted” in an HBO movie about the tsunami. It wasn’t until I began teaching in a government-operated school (wanting more of a “native” experience) that I began to see some of the results of those earlier humanitarian experiences.

The first school I was assigned to was one of the poorest in the province with many tsunami orphans in attendance. Indeed, most lived in classrooms in the older, more dilapidated areas of the school itself. While I viewed myself as simply an educator at the international school, here I found that I became a replacement parent of sorts. It’s hard to explain but in many cases, I felt that the students’ comprehension of English was much less important than their becoming accepted and productive members of society and community. I truly felt I was preparing them for the remainder of their futures as well-adjusted boys and girls as they slowly forgot the tsunami and what their lives had been like before. I suppose what I was doing was some mild form of humanitarian aid. I spent two years at that school before the needs of my agency placed me elsewhere.

While I continue to care for each and every student that I come into contact with — adults as well as young children and teenagers — those two years at the “tsunami school” were definitely the most emotional and a large part of why I remain in the same small community nearly 14 years later.

Flag of the United Nations
Flag of the United Nations
UN OCHA logo
UN OCHA
Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation
Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation

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