•  What drew the individual to this line of work – why did they choose to do it, how did they get into it

Our lives, my life, changed the day of the tsunami hit the shores of my hometown, Batticaloa in the east of Sri Lanka. It was just after Christmas, 26 December 2004, to be exact. My country was in the middle of a brutal civil war when the tsunami took the lives, our homes and schools, and reshaped our future in the blink of an eye.

Immediately after the tsunami, the school that I used to play basketball at was turned into a center for people who had lost a roof over their head. I was in my late teens, just out of high school and looking to study further and work in ICT. The tsunami changed everything. Together with my friends, we pulled our resources, and bought basic items, such as clothes, food, and toiletries, to provide some relief to our communities and friends. A local NGO stepped up and we signed up as volunteers. We organised distributions, accompanied people to the hospitals to find their loved ones, helped with search and identification of the deceased, and started major cleaning operations of our towns. Those first weeks after the tsunami were horrific.

Eventually, I joined ‘Eastern Humanitarian Economic Development’, a local NGO under umbrella of Caritas and worked with them for four years. I started in Communications and Reporting. It was important to me to be able to share the stories of those affected by the tsunami.

I worked with local NGOs and INGOs in my own country for years, supporting tsunami recovery and war-affected communities, before moving to South Sudan and eventually joining NRC in Yemen, moving on to Mosul, Iraq and now Afghanistan.

•  What ‘enemy’ were they battling (the spread of COVID-19, COVID-19 deaths, malnutrition, lack of clean water, etc.)

My enemy was and remains insecurity – across Afghanistan. I learned from a young age to live with and in insecurity. We suffer the most when we least expect it. Most of the places I have worked in, NRC enjoys a degree of acceptance and we are often not directly the target, but that does not provide us with a security blanket. 

Managing insecurity became even more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, which has come with a different kind of insecurity – one that is compounded by disbelief, stigmatisation, and misinformation. This required real creative thinking and operational adjustments to ensure staff is able to safely stay and deliver. 

So much of NRC’s work, its acceptance to operate safely in areas that are dangerous at the best of time, has had to incorporate trust-building with communities, local governance structures, and armed actors around how to best keep safe during a pandemic. COVID-19 spread across Afghanistan like wildfire, often as a direct result of misinformation, disbelief, and people’s inabilities to keep themselves safe in the face of the pandemic. For many Afghans, social distancing is a luxury they cannot afford. Working from home for those that depend on a daily wage is simply not possible.

•  Deeper issues that humanitarians and first responders face in their daily lives – stigmatisation, access difficulties, dangers, lack of support etc. 

It is often hard to imagine what Afghanistan could look like again when peace comes. The country is a perpetual state of strife and conflict, communities torn apart by violence and insecurity. A family’s primary focus is on making ends meet in a time where insecurity and economic hardship as a result of conflict are the main drivers of displacement and poverty. 

Much like the tsunami that hit my own war-torn country, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across communities already struggling to stay safe and put food on the table. Witnessing this is frankly heartrending and affects humanitarians deeply. Yet, in the face of this daily reality, I have seen some amazing acts of kindness between people, who have opened their doors and shared their resources with those most in need – from the smallest initiatives between neighbours to country-wide campaigns in support of the plight of Afghans. I am profoundly humbled by the level of dedication from my Afghan colleagues, who despite their own struggles and the risks associated with the spread of COVID-19, continued to provide food, cash, shelter, and protection to their fellow Afghans. Their commitment brought me back to the shores of my own country and reminded me that humanity ultimately prevails in the face of adversity. 

•  What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles they have to overcome in this response?

Mid-March arrived with the threat of international flight suspensions and border closures, which meant that many of our international staff would be trapped in Afghanistan without safe and adequate access to medical care. The decision to evacuate the vast majority of our expat staff came at a critical time where I was asked to step into the role of Acting Country-Director, leading a team of five remaining expats and almost 1.400 national staff through the first weeks of the outbreak. 

I won’t lie, it was scary to take on such a level of responsibility. Across the country operation, the mantra was clearly endorsed by all staff: NRC stays and delivers. But to honour our commitment as humanitarians meant striking a careful balance between acceptable levels of risks to our staff, beneficiaries and operations with the need to stay and deliver.

For our country operation, the biggest challenge lies in that careful balancing act – between staying and delivering, honouring our commitment as humanitarians, whilst constantly adjusting our operational modalities to ensure that we do not expose staff and the people we serve to unacceptable levels of risk. There is no science to this, there is no magical formula that allows you to arrive at a logical conclusion. It comes down to leadership, teamwork, integrity, and commitment. 

•  What lessons did they learn along the way?

What I have learned from swimming in the deep end so to speak is that it is an ongoing process where the stakes are high and mistakes are costly. Transparency in decision-making and inclusive leadership proved to be everything. 

The outbreak of the pandemic sadly highlighted that we were somewhat ill-prepared. We have all sorts of protocols and procedures established and practiced for many different scenarios – from mass displacement, to surges in conflict, complex attacks and the like, but we were ill-prepared to deal with a medical emergency of this nature. We are prepared to live with and around war, but when the pandemic hit, we had to develop strategies for operational realities where the threat is invisible, indiscriminate, and so much is still unknown.  

I am proud of how the Afghanistan team used the challenge to equip the organisation at large to respond. We developed a strategic partnership with WHO to support risk communication and community engagement around the spread of the virus, developed programming and attracted funding to tackle the secondary effects of the outbreak, such as food security and water and sanitation-related needs, and mobilised across the country to ensure cash could be distributed in a safe manner to people who lost their livelihoods and access to services. 

And amidst all of the programmatic priorities we managed to keep sight of the needs of our colleagues, equally affected by the sudden onset of the pandemic, by setting up a dedicated a Staff Care Unit, tasked with contact tracing in case of anyone contracted COVID-19. This speaks to the constant balancing act between NRC’s mantra to stay and deliver, and the need to do so safely.

•  Has this work or this emergency response changed them in any ways and if so, how?

During this pandemic, Afghanistan really became home for me. It became an indefinite mission, a place where I knew I would be for while – without the luxury of a break. I learned to make Afghanistan home, appreciating the little things that give comfort in an insecure environment in uncertain times. The morning greetings from the colleagues, the familiarity of the call to prayer, the kindness showed by our colleagues who knew that, as a Sri Lankan, staying to deliver meant giving up being able to return to my home country indefinitely, gave me a profound sense of gratitude. This, in turn, kept me grounded and motivated to carry on the important work NRC is doing for the people in Afghanistan. 
Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC
Afghanistan

“We suffer the most when we least expect it”

“My life changed the day the tsunami hit the shores of my hometown. It was just after Christmas – 26 December 2004 to be exact,” recalls Ajanth. That was the day that inspired him to become a humanitarian worker.

Ajanth David Fernando is from Batticaloa, a town on the east coast of Sri Lanka. His country was in the middle of a brutal civil war when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami wiped away many of the lives, homes and schools of his hometown.

“The tsunami changed everything. The school where I used to play basketball was turned into a centre for people who had lost their homes. I was in my late teens, just out of high school, looking to study further and work in ICT,” Ajanth says.

The tsunami changed everything

Together with his friends, Ajanth decided to join the local relief effort. When a local NGO stepped in, they immediately signed up as volunteers.

Together they organised distributions, accompanied people to hospital to find their loved ones, helped with the search and identification of the deceased, and started clean-up operations. Thus began Ajanth’s lifelong commitment to humanitarian work.


The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) works to support refugees and displaced people in over 30 countries around the world. Support our work today


 

•  What drew the individual to this line of work – why did they choose to do it, how did they get into it

Our lives, my life, changed the day of the tsunami hit the shores of my hometown, Batticaloa in the east of Sri Lanka. It was just after Christmas, 26 December 2004, to be exact. My country was in the middle of a brutal civil war when the tsunami took the lives, our homes and schools, and reshaped our future in the blink of an eye.

Immediately after the tsunami, the school that I used to play basketball at was turned into a center for people who had lost a roof over their head. I was in my late teens, just out of high school and looking to study further and work in ICT. The tsunami changed everything. Together with my friends, we pulled our resources, and bought basic items, such as clothes, food, and toiletries, to provide some relief to our communities and friends. A local NGO stepped up and we signed up as volunteers. We organised distributions, accompanied people to the hospitals to find their loved ones, helped with search and identification of the deceased, and started major cleaning operations of our towns. Those first weeks after the tsunami were horrific.

Eventually, I joined ‘Eastern Humanitarian Economic Development’, a local NGO under umbrella of Caritas and worked with them for four years. I started in Communications and Reporting. It was important to me to be able to share the stories of those affected by the tsunami.

I worked with local NGOs and INGOs in my own country for years, supporting tsunami recovery and war-affected communities, before moving to South Sudan and eventually joining NRC in Yemen, moving on to Mosul, Iraq and now Afghanistan.

•  What ‘enemy’ were they battling (the spread of COVID-19, COVID-19 deaths, malnutrition, lack of clean water, etc.)

My enemy was and remains insecurity – across Afghanistan. I learned from a young age to live with and in insecurity. We suffer the most when we least expect it. Most of the places I have worked in, NRC enjoys a degree of acceptance and we are often not directly the target, but that does not provide us with a security blanket. 

Managing insecurity became even more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, which has come with a different kind of insecurity – one that is compounded by disbelief, stigmatisation, and misinformation. This required real creative thinking and operational adjustments to ensure staff is able to safely stay and deliver. 

So much of NRC’s work, its acceptance to operate safely in areas that are dangerous at the best of time, has had to incorporate trust-building with communities, local governance structures, and armed actors around how to best keep safe during a pandemic. COVID-19 spread across Afghanistan like wildfire, often as a direct result of misinformation, disbelief, and people’s inabilities to keep themselves safe in the face of the pandemic. For many Afghans, social distancing is a luxury they cannot afford. Working from home for those that depend on a daily wage is simply not possible.

•  Deeper issues that humanitarians and first responders face in their daily lives – stigmatisation, access difficulties, dangers, lack of support etc. 

It is often hard to imagine what Afghanistan could look like again when peace comes. The country is a perpetual state of strife and conflict, communities torn apart by violence and insecurity. A family’s primary focus is on making ends meet in a time where insecurity and economic hardship as a result of conflict are the main drivers of displacement and poverty. 

Much like the tsunami that hit my own war-torn country, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across communities already struggling to stay safe and put food on the table. Witnessing this is frankly heartrending and affects humanitarians deeply. Yet, in the face of this daily reality, I have seen some amazing acts of kindness between people, who have opened their doors and shared their resources with those most in need – from the smallest initiatives between neighbours to country-wide campaigns in support of the plight of Afghans. I am profoundly humbled by the level of dedication from my Afghan colleagues, who despite their own struggles and the risks associated with the spread of COVID-19, continued to provide food, cash, shelter, and protection to their fellow Afghans. Their commitment brought me back to the shores of my own country and reminded me that humanity ultimately prevails in the face of adversity. 

•  What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles they have to overcome in this response?

Mid-March arrived with the threat of international flight suspensions and border closures, which meant that many of our international staff would be trapped in Afghanistan without safe and adequate access to medical care. The decision to evacuate the vast majority of our expat staff came at a critical time where I was asked to step into the role of Acting Country-Director, leading a team of five remaining expats and almost 1.400 national staff through the first weeks of the outbreak. 

I won’t lie, it was scary to take on such a level of responsibility. Across the country operation, the mantra was clearly endorsed by all staff: NRC stays and delivers. But to honour our commitment as humanitarians meant striking a careful balance between acceptable levels of risks to our staff, beneficiaries and operations with the need to stay and deliver.

For our country operation, the biggest challenge lies in that careful balancing act – between staying and delivering, honouring our commitment as humanitarians, whilst constantly adjusting our operational modalities to ensure that we do not expose staff and the people we serve to unacceptable levels of risk. There is no science to this, there is no magical formula that allows you to arrive at a logical conclusion. It comes down to leadership, teamwork, integrity, and commitment. 

•  What lessons did they learn along the way?

What I have learned from swimming in the deep end so to speak is that it is an ongoing process where the stakes are high and mistakes are costly. Transparency in decision-making and inclusive leadership proved to be everything. 

The outbreak of the pandemic sadly highlighted that we were somewhat ill-prepared. We have all sorts of protocols and procedures established and practiced for many different scenarios – from mass displacement, to surges in conflict, complex attacks and the like, but we were ill-prepared to deal with a medical emergency of this nature. We are prepared to live with and around war, but when the pandemic hit, we had to develop strategies for operational realities where the threat is invisible, indiscriminate, and so much is still unknown.  

I am proud of how the Afghanistan team used the challenge to equip the organisation at large to respond. We developed a strategic partnership with WHO to support risk communication and community engagement around the spread of the virus, developed programming and attracted funding to tackle the secondary effects of the outbreak, such as food security and water and sanitation-related needs, and mobilised across the country to ensure cash could be distributed in a safe manner to people who lost their livelihoods and access to services. 

And amidst all of the programmatic priorities we managed to keep sight of the needs of our colleagues, equally affected by the sudden onset of the pandemic, by setting up a dedicated a Staff Care Unit, tasked with contact tracing in case of anyone contracted COVID-19. This speaks to the constant balancing act between NRC’s mantra to stay and deliver, and the need to do so safely.

•  Has this work or this emergency response changed them in any ways and if so, how?

During this pandemic, Afghanistan really became home for me. It became an indefinite mission, a place where I knew I would be for while – without the luxury of a break. I learned to make Afghanistan home, appreciating the little things that give comfort in an insecure environment in uncertain times. The morning greetings from the colleagues, the familiarity of the call to prayer, the kindness showed by our colleagues who knew that, as a Sri Lankan, staying to deliver meant giving up being able to return to my home country indefinitely, gave me a profound sense of gratitude. This, in turn, kept me grounded and motivated to carry on the important work NRC is doing for the people in Afghanistan. 
Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC
Read caption When the tsunami hit his hometown, Ajanth decided to join the relief effort in his community. Today, more than 15 years later, Ajanth works as a humanitarian worker in Afghanistan, supporting displaced people in hard-to-reach areas. Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC

Learning to live with insecurity

Now, 16 years on, Ajanth works for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). His career has not always followed an easy path. He is currently based in Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous places for aid workers, helping communities torn apart by violence and insecurity.

“I learned from a young age to live with and in insecurity,” he explains. “We suffer the most when we least expect it.”

“Compared to other organisations I have worked for, the Norwegian Refugee Council enjoys a degree of acceptance and the staff are often not directly the target. But this does not provide us with a security blanket.”

For many Afghans, social distancing is a luxury they cannot afford

Ajanth explains that managing insecurity has become even more difficult since the outbreak of Covid-19: “Covid-19 spread across Afghanistan like wildfire, often as a direct result of misinformation, disbelief, and people’s inability to keep themselves safe in the face of the pandemic.”

“For many Afghans, social distancing is a luxury they cannot afford. Working from home for those that depend on a daily wage is simply not possible.”

Much like the tsunami that hit Ajanth’s own war-torn country in 2004, the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across communities already struggling to stay safe and put food on their tables.

“Witnessing this is frankly heartrending and affects humanitarians deeply,” he says.

Deciding to stay

Yet when mid-March arrived, with the threat of international flight suspensions and border closures, and many expat staff were evacuated, Ajanth decided to stay.

He was asked to step into the role of Acting Country Director and to lead a team of almost 1,400 staff through the first weeks of the outbreak.

“I won’t lie, it was scary to take on such a difficult responsibility,” he says. “Across our operation, the mantra was clearly endorsed by all staff: NRC stays and delivers.”

“But to honour our commitment as humanitarians meant striking a careful balance between acceptable levels of risk to our staff and the displaced people that we support, and maintaining operations with the mission to stay and deliver.”

•  What drew the individual to this line of work – why did they choose to do it, how did they get into it

Our lives, my life, changed the day of the tsunami hit the shores of my hometown, Batticaloa in the east of Sri Lanka. It was just after Christmas, 26 December 2004, to be exact. My country was in the middle of a brutal civil war when the tsunami took the lives, our homes and schools, and reshaped our future in the blink of an eye.

Immediately after the tsunami, the school that I used to play basketball at was turned into a center for people who had lost a roof over their head. I was in my late teens, just out of high school and looking to study further and work in ICT. The tsunami changed everything. Together with my friends, we pulled our resources, and bought basic items, such as clothes, food, and toiletries, to provide some relief to our communities and friends. A local NGO stepped up and we signed up as volunteers. We organised distributions, accompanied people to the hospitals to find their loved ones, helped with search and identification of the deceased, and started major cleaning operations of our towns. Those first weeks after the tsunami were horrific.

Eventually, I joined ‘Eastern Humanitarian Economic Development’, a local NGO under umbrella of Caritas and worked with them for four years. I started in Communications and Reporting. It was important to me to be able to share the stories of those affected by the tsunami.

I worked with local NGOs and INGOs in my own country for years, supporting tsunami recovery and war-affected communities, before moving to South Sudan and eventually joining NRC in Yemen, moving on to Mosul, Iraq and now Afghanistan.

•  What ‘enemy’ were they battling (the spread of COVID-19, COVID-19 deaths, malnutrition, lack of clean water, etc.)

My enemy was and remains insecurity – across Afghanistan. I learned from a young age to live with and in insecurity. We suffer the most when we least expect it. Most of the places I have worked in, NRC enjoys a degree of acceptance and we are often not directly the target, but that does not provide us with a security blanket. 

Managing insecurity became even more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, which has come with a different kind of insecurity – one that is compounded by disbelief, stigmatisation, and misinformation. This required real creative thinking and operational adjustments to ensure staff is able to safely stay and deliver. 

So much of NRC’s work, its acceptance to operate safely in areas that are dangerous at the best of time, has had to incorporate trust-building with communities, local governance structures, and armed actors around how to best keep safe during a pandemic. COVID-19 spread across Afghanistan like wildfire, often as a direct result of misinformation, disbelief, and people’s inabilities to keep themselves safe in the face of the pandemic. For many Afghans, social distancing is a luxury they cannot afford. Working from home for those that depend on a daily wage is simply not possible.

•  Deeper issues that humanitarians and first responders face in their daily lives – stigmatisation, access difficulties, dangers, lack of support etc. 

It is often hard to imagine what Afghanistan could look like again when peace comes. The country is a perpetual state of strife and conflict, communities torn apart by violence and insecurity. A family’s primary focus is on making ends meet in a time where insecurity and economic hardship as a result of conflict are the main drivers of displacement and poverty. 

Much like the tsunami that hit my own war-torn country, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across communities already struggling to stay safe and put food on the table. Witnessing this is frankly heartrending and affects humanitarians deeply. Yet, in the face of this daily reality, I have seen some amazing acts of kindness between people, who have opened their doors and shared their resources with those most in need – from the smallest initiatives between neighbours to country-wide campaigns in support of the plight of Afghans. I am profoundly humbled by the level of dedication from my Afghan colleagues, who despite their own struggles and the risks associated with the spread of COVID-19, continued to provide food, cash, shelter, and protection to their fellow Afghans. Their commitment brought me back to the shores of my own country and reminded me that humanity ultimately prevails in the face of adversity. 

•  What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles they have to overcome in this response?

Mid-March arrived with the threat of international flight suspensions and border closures, which meant that many of our international staff would be trapped in Afghanistan without safe and adequate access to medical care. The decision to evacuate the vast majority of our expat staff came at a critical time where I was asked to step into the role of Acting Country-Director, leading a team of five remaining expats and almost 1.400 national staff through the first weeks of the outbreak. 

I won’t lie, it was scary to take on such a level of responsibility. Across the country operation, the mantra was clearly endorsed by all staff: NRC stays and delivers. But to honour our commitment as humanitarians meant striking a careful balance between acceptable levels of risks to our staff, beneficiaries and operations with the need to stay and deliver.

For our country operation, the biggest challenge lies in that careful balancing act – between staying and delivering, honouring our commitment as humanitarians, whilst constantly adjusting our operational modalities to ensure that we do not expose staff and the people we serve to unacceptable levels of risk. There is no science to this, there is no magical formula that allows you to arrive at a logical conclusion. It comes down to leadership, teamwork, integrity, and commitment. 

•  What lessons did they learn along the way?

What I have learned from swimming in the deep end so to speak is that it is an ongoing process where the stakes are high and mistakes are costly. Transparency in decision-making and inclusive leadership proved to be everything. 

The outbreak of the pandemic sadly highlighted that we were somewhat ill-prepared. We have all sorts of protocols and procedures established and practiced for many different scenarios – from mass displacement, to surges in conflict, complex attacks and the like, but we were ill-prepared to deal with a medical emergency of this nature. We are prepared to live with and around war, but when the pandemic hit, we had to develop strategies for operational realities where the threat is invisible, indiscriminate, and so much is still unknown.  

I am proud of how the Afghanistan team used the challenge to equip the organisation at large to respond. We developed a strategic partnership with WHO to support risk communication and community engagement around the spread of the virus, developed programming and attracted funding to tackle the secondary effects of the outbreak, such as food security and water and sanitation-related needs, and mobilised across the country to ensure cash could be distributed in a safe manner to people who lost their livelihoods and access to services. 

And amidst all of the programmatic priorities we managed to keep sight of the needs of our colleagues, equally affected by the sudden onset of the pandemic, by setting up a dedicated a Staff Care Unit, tasked with contact tracing in case of anyone contracted COVID-19. This speaks to the constant balancing act between NRC’s mantra to stay and deliver, and the need to do so safely.

•  Has this work or this emergency response changed them in any ways and if so, how?

During this pandemic, Afghanistan really became home for me. It became an indefinite mission, a place where I knew I would be for while – without the luxury of a break. I learned to make Afghanistan home, appreciating the little things that give comfort in an insecure environment in uncertain times. The morning greetings from the colleagues, the familiarity of the call to prayer, the kindness showed by our colleagues who knew that, as a Sri Lankan, staying to deliver meant giving up being able to return to my home country indefinitely, gave me a profound sense of gratitude. This, in turn, kept me grounded and motivated to carry on the important work NRC is doing for the people in Afghanistan. 
Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC
Read caption Together with colleagues, Ajanth decided to stay in Afghanistan and continue to support the Afghan people. Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC

Ajanth explains how humbled he was when he saw the level of dedication from his Afghan colleagues. Despite their own struggles and the risks associated with the spread of Covid-19, they continued to provide food, cash, shelter and protection to their fellow Afghans.

“Their commitment brought me back to the shores of my own country and reminded me that humanity ultimately prevails in the face of adversity,” he says.

Making Afghanistan home

Despite being trapped in the country, Ajanth learned to make Afghanistan his home. Delivering relief to the Afghan people became his mission.

•  What drew the individual to this line of work – why did they choose to do it, how did they get into it

Our lives, my life, changed the day of the tsunami hit the shores of my hometown, Batticaloa in the east of Sri Lanka. It was just after Christmas, 26 December 2004, to be exact. My country was in the middle of a brutal civil war when the tsunami took the lives, our homes and schools, and reshaped our future in the blink of an eye.

Immediately after the tsunami, the school that I used to play basketball at was turned into a center for people who had lost a roof over their head. I was in my late teens, just out of high school and looking to study further and work in ICT. The tsunami changed everything. Together with my friends, we pulled our resources, and bought basic items, such as clothes, food, and toiletries, to provide some relief to our communities and friends. A local NGO stepped up and we signed up as volunteers. We organised distributions, accompanied people to the hospitals to find their loved ones, helped with search and identification of the deceased, and started major cleaning operations of our towns. Those first weeks after the tsunami were horrific.

Eventually, I joined ‘Eastern Humanitarian Economic Development’, a local NGO under umbrella of Caritas and worked with them for four years. I started in Communications and Reporting. It was important to me to be able to share the stories of those affected by the tsunami.

I worked with local NGOs and INGOs in my own country for years, supporting tsunami recovery and war-affected communities, before moving to South Sudan and eventually joining NRC in Yemen, moving on to Mosul, Iraq and now Afghanistan.

•  What ‘enemy’ were they battling (the spread of COVID-19, COVID-19 deaths, malnutrition, lack of clean water, etc.)

My enemy was and remains insecurity – across Afghanistan. I learned from a young age to live with and in insecurity. We suffer the most when we least expect it. Most of the places I have worked in, NRC enjoys a degree of acceptance and we are often not directly the target, but that does not provide us with a security blanket. 

Managing insecurity became even more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, which has come with a different kind of insecurity – one that is compounded by disbelief, stigmatisation, and misinformation. This required real creative thinking and operational adjustments to ensure staff is able to safely stay and deliver. 

So much of NRC’s work, its acceptance to operate safely in areas that are dangerous at the best of time, has had to incorporate trust-building with communities, local governance structures, and armed actors around how to best keep safe during a pandemic. COVID-19 spread across Afghanistan like wildfire, often as a direct result of misinformation, disbelief, and people’s inabilities to keep themselves safe in the face of the pandemic. For many Afghans, social distancing is a luxury they cannot afford. Working from home for those that depend on a daily wage is simply not possible.

•  Deeper issues that humanitarians and first responders face in their daily lives – stigmatisation, access difficulties, dangers, lack of support etc. 

It is often hard to imagine what Afghanistan could look like again when peace comes. The country is a perpetual state of strife and conflict, communities torn apart by violence and insecurity. A family’s primary focus is on making ends meet in a time where insecurity and economic hardship as a result of conflict are the main drivers of displacement and poverty. 

Much like the tsunami that hit my own war-torn country, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across communities already struggling to stay safe and put food on the table. Witnessing this is frankly heartrending and affects humanitarians deeply. Yet, in the face of this daily reality, I have seen some amazing acts of kindness between people, who have opened their doors and shared their resources with those most in need – from the smallest initiatives between neighbours to country-wide campaigns in support of the plight of Afghans. I am profoundly humbled by the level of dedication from my Afghan colleagues, who despite their own struggles and the risks associated with the spread of COVID-19, continued to provide food, cash, shelter, and protection to their fellow Afghans. Their commitment brought me back to the shores of my own country and reminded me that humanity ultimately prevails in the face of adversity. 

•  What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles they have to overcome in this response?

Mid-March arrived with the threat of international flight suspensions and border closures, which meant that many of our international staff would be trapped in Afghanistan without safe and adequate access to medical care. The decision to evacuate the vast majority of our expat staff came at a critical time where I was asked to step into the role of Acting Country-Director, leading a team of five remaining expats and almost 1.400 national staff through the first weeks of the outbreak. 

I won’t lie, it was scary to take on such a level of responsibility. Across the country operation, the mantra was clearly endorsed by all staff: NRC stays and delivers. But to honour our commitment as humanitarians meant striking a careful balance between acceptable levels of risks to our staff, beneficiaries and operations with the need to stay and deliver.

For our country operation, the biggest challenge lies in that careful balancing act – between staying and delivering, honouring our commitment as humanitarians, whilst constantly adjusting our operational modalities to ensure that we do not expose staff and the people we serve to unacceptable levels of risk. There is no science to this, there is no magical formula that allows you to arrive at a logical conclusion. It comes down to leadership, teamwork, integrity, and commitment. 

•  What lessons did they learn along the way?

What I have learned from swimming in the deep end so to speak is that it is an ongoing process where the stakes are high and mistakes are costly. Transparency in decision-making and inclusive leadership proved to be everything. 

The outbreak of the pandemic sadly highlighted that we were somewhat ill-prepared. We have all sorts of protocols and procedures established and practiced for many different scenarios – from mass displacement, to surges in conflict, complex attacks and the like, but we were ill-prepared to deal with a medical emergency of this nature. We are prepared to live with and around war, but when the pandemic hit, we had to develop strategies for operational realities where the threat is invisible, indiscriminate, and so much is still unknown.  

I am proud of how the Afghanistan team used the challenge to equip the organisation at large to respond. We developed a strategic partnership with WHO to support risk communication and community engagement around the spread of the virus, developed programming and attracted funding to tackle the secondary effects of the outbreak, such as food security and water and sanitation-related needs, and mobilised across the country to ensure cash could be distributed in a safe manner to people who lost their livelihoods and access to services. 

And amidst all of the programmatic priorities we managed to keep sight of the needs of our colleagues, equally affected by the sudden onset of the pandemic, by setting up a dedicated a Staff Care Unit, tasked with contact tracing in case of anyone contracted COVID-19. This speaks to the constant balancing act between NRC’s mantra to stay and deliver, and the need to do so safely.

•  Has this work or this emergency response changed them in any ways and if so, how?

During this pandemic, Afghanistan really became home for me. It became an indefinite mission, a place where I knew I would be for while – without the luxury of a break. I learned to make Afghanistan home, appreciating the little things that give comfort in an insecure environment in uncertain times. The morning greetings from the colleagues, the familiarity of the call to prayer, the kindness showed by our colleagues who knew that, as a Sri Lankan, staying to deliver meant giving up being able to return to my home country indefinitely, gave me a profound sense of gratitude. This, in turn, kept me grounded and motivated to carry on the important work NRC is doing for the people in Afghanistan. 
Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC
Read caption Giving up the chance to go back to Sri Lanka, Ajanth made Afghanistan his home. Helping the Afghan people became his mission. Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC

“During the pandemic, Afghanistan really became home for me,” he recalls. “It became an indefinite mission, a place where I knew I would be for while – without the luxury of a break. I learned to appreciate the little things that give comfort in an insecure environment during uncertain times.”

“The morning greetings from colleagues, the familiarity of the call to prayer, the kindness shown by our colleagues who knew that, as a Sri Lankan, I was giving up the possibility of returning to my home country indefinitely, gave me a profound sense of gratitude.

“This, in turn, kept me grounded and motivated to carry on the important work NRC is doing for the people in Afghanistan.”

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