The Australian women staying behind in humanitarian crises across the world


Monday 19 August is World Humanitarian Day, with this year's theme honouring the work of women aid workers who are often the first to respond and the last to leave.

Humanitarian aid doesn't stop, even when the TV cameras have moved on from a crisis. 

Aid workers continue to provide valuable support to those who have survived a natural disaster or are living in conflict-affected areas, often for many years after a crisis first came to light.

The UN's World Humanitarian Day is marked every year on 19 August to pay tribute to those who risk their lives and rally support for others, with this year's theme acknowledging the large number of women involved in the cause. 

They are "the unsung heroes," the UN says, helping those "from the war-wounded in Afghanistan, to the food insecure in the Sahel, to those who have lost their homes and livelihoods in places such as Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen". 

SBS News spoke to four female humanitarians deployed by RedR Australia to the Australia Assists program about their experiences. 

Suzanne Wargo is helping Rohingya refugees 

WFP retail shops
Suzanne Wargo visiting one of The World Food Programme's retail shops.

Sydney woman Suzanne Wargo is working for the UN's World Food Program in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

The mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, which began in August 2017, has turned the area into the world's largest refugee settlement - with an estimated 850,000 people there currently. 

"There's a real need for people to come in and provide support, and I'm particularly motivated to do that in a capacity where we're empowering those vulnerable communities to be able to prioritise their own needs as well," Ms Wargo said.

We're empowering those vulnerable communities to be able to prioritise their own needs.

- Suzanne Wargo

"That's why I'm really interested in cash interventions, which gives people more ownership to be able to prioritise their own needs and identify what is most important for them and their family as they recover."

A large component of Ms Wargo's role is to help provide food assistance to Rohingya refugees - and helping transition from a food distribution system to a voucher purchasing system.

Currently, 400,000 refugees are using the voucher system, and the aim is to reach 650,000 people by the end of the year.

Cox's Bazaar
An estimated 850,000 people are currently in Cox's Bazaar.

Sometimes you just have to find the small wins, because you can't fix everything," Ms Wargo said. 

"That can be quite challenging when you're trying to create big change really quickly, or you're trying to provide assistance.

"Sometimes you have to do the best that you can do, and sometimes you know that means you have to compromise on things, or things don't get done in perhaps the exact way you had planned or anticipated.

"Given the constraints and circumstances you are in, you just have to work around that, you have to be flexible, but sometimes that can be equally frustrating."

Camilla Bachet helped bring a water supply to Cox's Bazar

Camilla Bachet
Camilla Bachet in Teknaf camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Camilla Bachet, a civil engineer from Melbourne, has also worked in Bangladesh.

She worked with the UNCHR, helping to redesign a water reservoir to ensure refugees within the settlement had sufficient access to water during the dry season.

She said it was difficult to witness how people were living. 

"You'll see sludge ponds that were next to houses," Ms Bachet said.

"Everyone would empty out their latrines and dump it 20 or 30 metres from a house.

"So that's what we were actually trying to clean up. But to see the kids playing around, and pouring with rain at the same time. It's not great.

She also said taking time out to listen to the stories of those forced to live in the conditions was challenging. 

"On the emotional side of it, I did a few focus groups with some men and women, and kids while I was there and designing this water storage.

"Speaking with them, and just hearing their stories from back home and how they ended up being in the camp was pretty horrifying."

Petra Letter helped survivors of violence in the Pacific

Petra Letter
Petra Letter at a training session in Tonga.

Petra Letter, from Perth, recently returned from a 12-month deployment in the Pacific. She was based in Fiji for the International Planned Parenthood Foundation.

While there, she designed a training package for frontline health workers, to help them meet the needs of women and girls who experienced gender-based violence during times of disaster - rates of which increase during crises.


"I think there is a limited knowledge of what sexual and gender-based violence is, and that it's a violation of human rights," she said.

"There's a deep concern for the welfare of their community, and a deep desire to help their community, and make sure people are safe."

Carly Learson worked in Liberia during the Ebola crisis

Carly Learson
Carly Learson visiting a women's centre during a deployment to Cox's Bazar.

Carly Learson is from Orange in the New South Wales central-west. She said while being an aid worker is tough, there are moments which stay with you forever. 

She worked in Liberia during the Ebola crisis and says her favourite memory is helping a Liberian man who wanted to put on a Christmas party for children who had lost their parents to the disease. 

Through fundraising, they made it happen.

"We managed to put on six different parties for 12,000 children across Liberia over Christmas," Ms Learson said.

"He wanted the kids to have something fun, and he wanted the kids to feel like Christmas is a time when you're supposed to be happy.

"These kids have lost their parents ... it was really nice to be able to help him out with that."

Encouraging others

Syrian refugees
Syrian refugees show Ms Learson how to prune olive trees.

All four women say they would encourage others in Australia to become involved with humanitarian work.

"It teaches you about learning about what's most important to you, and what's not so important," Ms Wargo said. 

"You start to learn not to sweat the small stuff, I think that a lot of people can gain a lot by working in humanitarian interventions."

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