A homage to our humanitarians

In an organisation founded on benevolence, with the advancement of goodwill and peace at its very core, World Humanitarian Day holds special significance for each and every one of our members.

By Anne Matthews
D9560 Passport Club

World Humanitarian Day (WHD) is an international day that recognises humanitarian workers and those who have lost their lives working for humanitarian causes. The day, August 19, was designated by the United Nations General Assembly and was first celebrated in 2009.

The date was chosen in memory of the August 19, 2003, bomb attack on the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mellon, and 20 of his staff.

This year, WHD occurs as the world continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. For the past 17 months, aid workers have overcome unprecedented access difficulties to assist people in humanitarian crises. As well as the pandemic, the Syrian conflict has passed the 10-year milestone, which has seen 12.3 million people displaced. In May 2021, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated causing deaths, injuries and further displacements. Our own region was ravaged by floods and fires and saw families struggling due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Despite all the lockdowns, natural disasters and conflict, Rotary has continued its humanitarian work.

In Syria, ShelterBox has supported more than 400,000 people by providing them with essential aid ranging from tents to winter clothes. And, since the pandemic, items such as soap, face masks and hand basins have been included in the aid boxes to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

In Dhaka, Bangladesh, Rotaract and Rotary clubs distributed 25,000 face masks to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

In Australia, Rotary provided assistance during floods and fires and many clubs provided food and clothing to families affected by the loss of income due to the pandemic.

“Let us pause for a few minutes and honour the work of humanitarians, like Dr Frenkel, and our ShelterBox and polio workers, who have overcome enormous challenges to save and improve the lives of millions of people.”

In the midst of the chaos in Israel and Palestine, and in an effort to calm the situation, Adv. Dr Nachum Frenkel, governor of Rotary District 2490, established a committee “to work towards camaraderie and trust and in the spirit of Rotary find unifying ground and work towards the positive”.

However, the challenges our volunteers have faced this year have not been without loss.

On March 30, 2021, three of our polio workers were killed in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. The three young women, all in their 20s, were shot dead while on their immunisation rounds.

In a statement issued from RI headquarters, Rotary International PolioPlus Chair Michael McGovern expressed grief over the deaths.

“We were deeply saddened to hear of the loss of three polio workers in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. As is our custom, we will provide immediate payments to the families to assist them in the short term,” Mike said.

PICTURED: ShelterBox has supported more than 400,000 people affected by the Syrian conflict by providing them with essential aid ranging from tents to winter clothes, soap, face masks and hand basins. (Photo: ShelterBox Australia).

According to the Afghan Health Ministry, approximately three million Afghan children have not received the polio vaccination due to Taliban militants preventing door-to-door campaigns over the past three years. As a result, Afghanistan recorded 56 polio cases in 2020.

After months of negotiations, finally, in March 2021, the Afghanistan Government, in cooperation with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), commenced a five-day polio campaign aimed at vaccinating 9.6 million children in 32 of the country’s 34 provinces. Tragically, the day after this campaign commenced, these three courageous young volunteers were killed.

Following the shootings, polio campaigns across the provinces were put on hold and remain suspended in at least three districts, including Jalalabad City. Female workers in Afghanistan’s very conservative society are breaking cultural norms simply by working; however, the GPEI need female workers because male volunteers are not permitted to enter Afghan households.

In June, a further five polio workers were killed and four injured in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province in five separate attacks on health workers.

Despite these setbacks and challenges, many of our volunteer vaccinators have refused to stop. As one volunteer who was out vaccinating on the day of the March shootings said in an interview with The Guardian: “Yes, I am scared, but I can’t give up now because it is a matter of life and death for these children. If we leave the country to the hands of the insurgents, they will destroy it.”

Truly a noble ethic to live by.

We must all stand up for what is right and just. Together, we can inspire and make a difference. More official statements, such as the one released by the G7 countries following their June 2021 meeting in the UK need to be made. Their communique “highlighted the need for increased global efforts to detect global public health threats, by building international surveillance on existing networks such as polio surveillance”.

So, let us all stop and celebrate World Humanitarian Day on August 19. Let us pause for a few minutes and honour the work of humanitarians, like Dr Frenkel, and our ShelterBox and polio workers, who have overcome enormous challenges to save and improve the lives of millions of people.

These real-life heroes are doing inspiring things to help women, men and children whose lives are upended by crises. They support individuals and communities in the fight against poverty, injustice and hopelessness, while safeguarding the fundamental human rights of populations displaced by war and conflict. They are creating inspiring stories and inspiring others to create their own.