Increased risks for international aid workers

The death of Kayla Mueller of Prescott, Ariz., is a sobering reminder of just how dangerous the world can be for aid workers. The news sent waves of sorrow through humanitarian groups and the people who work for them — and raised many questions. We posed some to Trevor Hughes of International Relief and Development and Joel Charny of InterAction:

Is the world a more dangerous place for aid workers today? Hughes: Fifteen years ago, there was a kind of assumption that being a humanitarian gave you some level of protection. Obviously things have changed.

How so? What’s different in the way warring parties view aid workers? Charny: [The view is] if you’re not with us, you’re against us.

If you were a new volunteer or aid worker, what questions would you ask of an organization? Hughes: If you’re going to be traveling to a field site, ask: Who’s going to meet you at the airport, how will you know it’s them, how will they know it’s you, what happens if you show up and there’s no one there? You can see if they have protocols in place and share them. And those questions will get you to the group’s security person, because the recruiter won’t have those details. … If you’re going into an extraordinarily violent situation, like Syria, you need to ask yourself if that’s the place for volunteers. There’s a lot of hurt in this world; a lot of people need help. If you’re a doctor with serious wartime emergency room skills and you’re going in with an organization that’s established clinics in wartime situation, that makes sense. But make sure you’re not volunteering blindly or inappropriately.

No one wants to blame the victim, but when it comes to young workers, are they more naive about the threats out there? Charny: I went to Cambodia in 1980 when there was still a war going on between the Vietnam-backed government and the Khmer Rouge. I was 26, the exact same age as Kayla Mueller. When you’re that young, you feel invincible. You want to help people. You don’t spend your time preoccupied with everything that could go wrong. … It’s up to the organization to say, “…We want you to understand that if something terrible goes wrong, this is what we’re going to do about it.”

 [Read full NPR article

Kayla Mueller represents what is best about America

ISIS confirmed Kayla Mueller, 26, died after Jordanian airstrikes against the militant group targeted the building in Syria where she was being held. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the Mueller family received “additional information” over the weekend from the Islamic State that confirmed Kayla Mueller had died. The intelligence community authenticated that information, Meehan said.

The aid worker from Prescott, Ariz., was captured Aug. 4, 2013, as she left a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, Syria.

In a letter to her family in Spring 2014, while still in detention, Mueller wrote she was in “a safe location completely unharmed + healthy (put on weight in fact); I have been treated w/ the utmost respect + kindness.”

In her letter, Kayla also wrote: “I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in this experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator. … I have learned that even in prison, one can be free.”

President Obama, in a statement, said Mueller “represents what is best about America…”

The Mueller family statement has more information about her: “Since graduating from Northern Arizona University in 2009 after only two and a half years, Kayla devoted her career to helping those in need in countries around the world. The suffering of the Syrian refugees drew Kayla to the Turkish/Syrian border in December, 2012, to work with Support to Life, the Danish Refugee Council and other humanitarian organizations to assist families who had been forced to flee their homes. Kayla found this work heartbreaking but compelling; she was extremely devoted to the people of Syria.

“From her college graduation through 2011, she lived and worked with humanitarian aid groups in northern India, Israel and Palestine. She returned home to Arizona in 2011, and worked for one year at an HIV/AIDS clinic while volunteering at a women’s shelter at night.

“Prior to her work in Syria, in December 2011, Kayla worked as an au pair in France to hone her fluency in French in preparation for her work in Africa.

“The common thread of Kayla’s life has been her quiet leadership and strong desire to serve others.”


Worsening humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine

After 10 months of fighting, the United Nations reports that 5,358 people have been killed and 12,235 wounded in eastern Ukraine. Overall, the war has internally displaced 921,640 people within Ukraine, including 136,216 children. Around 600,000 have fled to neighboring countries, including more than 400,000 who have gone to Russia.

Larisa Yakovenko survived a direct rocket strike on her single-story Debaltseve cottage. But with the wreckage strewn about and her exit blocked, the 49-year-old woman with a disability was certain she would die from exposure to the cold or starvation, as she lay helpless amid the smoldering rubble. She screamed for help to frantic residents darting past for what seemed like eternity, until a local boy heard her call. He would stay with her until the missile attack stopped, and then go for help. The boy soon returned with Ukrainian army soldiers who carried Yakovenko to a bus that evacuated her to nearby Artemivsk. It is here, inside a Soviet-era dormitory on the edge of town where some 300 other displaced persons — dozens of them children — are being temporarily housed, that Yakovenko recounted her harrowing tale of survival.

Nearby, Svetlana, a 44-year-old mother of seven, is rounding up the six children with whom she fled last week after enduring months of heavy shelling around her home in the rebel-controlled city of Horlivka. One of Svetlana’s older daughters stayed with her husband in the besieged town. Three of her five children here, as well as Ilya, are under 18 years old. They haven’t had financial support since Kiev cut social services and the banking systems in Ukraine’s eastern regions last summer.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that move “drastically worsened the plight of the civilian population in areas not under government control.”

There are around 1 million other people like Yakovenko and Svetlana who have also been made homeless by the war.


Kayla Mueller American humanitarian worker 1988 – 2015

She had always been the unidentified, lone female American hostage of the Islamic State. For nearly 17 months, while her fellow American captives were beheaded one after another in serial executions posted on YouTube, Kayla Mueller’s name remained a closely guarded secret, whispered among reporters, government officials and hostage negotiators — all fearing that any public mention might imperil her life.

Kayla Mueller humanitarian workerKayla Mueller, who was born in 1988, had a deep desire to help those less fortunate. After graduating from Northern Arizona University, she worked for aid organizations in India and Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories, according to statement from her family.

In 2012, she was drawn to what would soon become the world’s top humanitarian crisis, the Syrian civil war. She moved to Turkey, where many Syrians were seeking refuge, and she settled in a border town assisting Syrian families for the Danish Refugee Council and an aid group called Support to Life. “The common thread of Kayla’s life has been her quiet leadership and strong desire to serve others,” her family said in the statement.

The family advisers said there was not any indication that she had been working with an aid group when she went to Aleppo. She had no professional connection to the Doctors Without Borders compound, said Carlos Francisco Cabello, the current head of the Spanish division of Doctors Without Borders’ Syria mission.

“She appeared there with the external technician in a war zone. We didn’t know that she was coming, or otherwise we would not allow her to visit,” Mr. Cabello said, speaking by telephone from Turkey. “U.S. and U.K. citizens at that moment, and even now, were not considered for the Syrian mission for M.S.F. for obvious security reasons,” he said.  “Aleppo at that time and now is a war zone.”

In an interview with The Daily Courier in Arizona, Ms. Mueller described how fulfilled she felt by her work with refugees, which included leading art classes for displaced Syrian children.

“For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal,” she said.

[The New York Times]

US humanitarian worker hostage killed in strike on ISIS

On Friday, the Islamic State announced that Kayla Mueller’s, a 26-year-old aid worker from Prescott, Ariz., had been killed in the falling rubble of a building in northern Syria that it said had been struck by bombs from a Jordanian warplane. Top Jordanian officials said the announcement was cynical propaganda.

But the group’s use of Ms. Mueller’s name for the first time prompted her family to throw a spotlight on a hostage ordeal that befell an eager and deeply idealistic young woman, who had ventured into one of the most dangerous parts of Syria — apparently without the backing of an aid organization.

Initially based in southern Turkey, where she had worked for at least two aid organizations assisting Syrian refugees, Ms. Mueller appears to have driven into the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Aug. 3, 2013, alongside a man who has been alternatively described as her Syrian friend or colleague, and by others as either her boyfriend or her fiancé. He had been invited to travel to the city to help fix the Internet connection for a compound run by the Spanish chapter of Doctors Without Borders.

They caught a bus back to Turkey, but never made it, abducted on the road.

On July 12, 2014, the Islamic State announced that it would kill Ms. Mueller within 30 days unless the family provided a ransom of 5 million euros ($5.6 million), or exchanged her for Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist educated in America who was convicted of trying to kill American soldiers and F.B.I. agents in Afghanistan in 2008, and is serving a sentence in a Texas jail.

That was shortly before the United States began airstrikes against the Islamic State in concert with European and Arab allies. Soon after, in August, the Islamic State posted the first of its decapitation videos, starting with the beheading of the American James Foley, and then in quick succession the fellow Americans Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig.

After the Islamic State released a video showing the immolation of a captured Jordanian pilot, the Jordanians began their own extensive bombings of Islamic State targets in Syria. It was one of those attacks, the Islamic State said in its message Friday, that killed Ms. Mueller.

Experts on the Middle East said they believed Ms. Mueller was dead, since the Islamic State had no motivation to make such an assertion about a hostage if it were not true.

[The New York Times]

Malaria nets used for fishing

Insecticide-treated mosquito nets are widely considered a magic bullet against malaria—one of the cheapest and most effective ways to stop a disease that kills at least half a million Africans each year. But Mwewa Ndefi in Zambia and countless others are not using their mosquito nets as global health experts have intended.

Nobody in his hut, including his seven children, sleeps under a net at night. Instead, Mr. Ndefi has taken his family’s supply of anti-malaria nets and sewn them together into a gigantic sieve that he uses to drag the bottom of the swamp ponds, sweeping up all sorts of life: baby catfish, banded tilapia, tiny mouthbrooders, orange fish eggs, water bugs and the occasional green frog.

“I know it’s not right,” Mr. Ndefi said, “but without these nets, we wouldn’t eat.”

Across Africa, from the mud flats of Nigeria to the coral reefs off Mozambique, mosquito-net fishing is a growing problem, an unintended consequence of one of the biggest and most celebrated public health campaigns in recent years.

The nets have helped save millions of lives, but scientists worry about the collateral damage: Africa’s fish. Many of these insecticide-treated nets are dragged through the same lakes and rivers people drink from, raising concerns about toxins. One of the most common insecticides used by the mosquito net industry is permethrin, which the United States Environmental Protection Agency says is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” when consumed orally. The E.P.A. also says permethrin is “highly toxic” to fish.

Congolese officials have snatched and burned the nets, and in August, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, threatened to jail anyone fishing with a mosquito net.

Though experts say that the vast majority of mosquito nets are used exactly the way they were intended—hung over beds—the full extent of mosquito-net fishing is unknown. “No one is going to come forward in a survey and say, ‘That thing you’re giving me, we’re not using it properly,’ “said Seth Faison, a spokesman for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has financed the purchase of 450 million nets.

Mr. Faison and several other public health officials maintained that mosquito-net fishing was “anecdotal.” “In regards to what we face,” Mr. Faison said, “it’s an infinitesimal problem, maybe 1 percent.”

But that would still amount to millions of nets.

[New York Times]    Read more on the topic

African families defensive on their use of malaria nets for fishing

One of the few detailed studies on the issue of insecticide-treated mosquito nets being used for fishing showed that in several villages along Lake Tanganyika, an essential body of water shared by four East African nations, 87.2 percent of households used mosquito nets to fish. When that study was presented at a malaria conference last year, the reception, according to some of those in attendance, was decidedly cool.

“People are very defensive about this topic,” said Amy Lehman, an American physician and the founder of the Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic, which conducted the study. “The narrative has always been, ‘Spend $10 on a net and save a life,’ and that’s a very compelling narrative.

“But what if that net is distributed in a waterside, food-insecure area where maybe you won’t be affecting the malaria rate at all and you might actually be hurting the environment?” she said. “It’s a lose-lose. And that’s not a very neat story to tell.”

An insecticide-treated mosquito net, hung over a bed, is the front line in the battle against malaria. It’s also the perfect mosquito-killing machine.

Western governments and foundations donate the money. Big companies like BASF, Bayer and Sumitomo Chemical design the nets. They are manufactured at about $3 apiece, many in China and Vietnam, shipped in steel containers to Africa, trucked to villages by aid agencies, and handed out by local ministries of health, usually gratis. The World Health Organization says the nets are a primary reason malaria death rates in Africa have been cut in half since 2000.

But at the end of the line, in poor areas where little goes to waste, mosquito nets become many other things: soccer balls and chicken coops, bridal veils and funeral shrouds. Mosquito nets are literally part of the fabric of a community. For many uses, a secondhand net, which has less insecticide on it, will do. But for fishing, it’s different.

“New mosquito nets are the best,” said David Owich, who fishes on Lake Victoria. “No holes.” When asked where he had gotten his, he smiled. “At the hospital,” he said. “Much cheaper than a real net.” (A “real” net costs about $50, an enormous expense in a place where many people survive on a few dollars a day.)

In Mr. Owich’s world, there is no overstating the centrality of fish. His daily catch pays for school supplies and keeps the kerosene lamp lit in his mud hut. All around Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Malawi and so many others, fish are the engine block of the economy and a de facto social security system for landless people.

For Mr. Ndefi, it is a simple, if painful, matter of choice. He knows all too well the dangers of malaria. His own toddler son, Junior, died of the disease four years ago. Mr. Ndefi hopes his family can survive future bouts of the disease. But he knows his loved ones will not last long without food.

[New York Times]

A third of promised International Aid for Ebola not delivered

Only two-thirds of the $2.89 billion in aid promised to Ebola-stricken countries by the international community had been delivered as of the first of the year, a study published in the British Medical Journal found. Furthermore, that funding may have come too late to bring the most help to the affected region — revealing a potential gap in the international aid effort.

Karen Grepin, a professor of global health policy at New York University, said funding, while generous, may have arrived too late to help with the bulk of the crisis — the outbreak started in March and worsened substantially in August and September, but resources didn’t start pouring into the region until October.

Generally, governments far outpaced international aid groups and private foundations in giving money to fend off Ebola. The top donors include the U.S. ($900 million), the U.K. ($307 million), the World Bank ($230 million) and Germany ($161 million).

In addition to governments and aid agencies, a few wealthy benefactors have also sent aid — Paul Allen of Microsoft gave $100 million to the effort and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook contributed $25 million.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has stated $2.27 billion was needed to halt the Ebola outbreak. Based on that estimate, international donors have pledged more than enough for the fight — so long as they deliver.

[International Business Times]

ISIS handing out stolen aid with its own logo

Images uploaded to ISIS propaganda channels suggest that members of the terror network near Aleppo, Syria are stealing food and other humanitarian aid delivered by the United Nations, relabeling the boxes with group’s logo and handing them out to desperate refugees.

ISIS are calling their distribution of rice, oil and other supplies to the city of al-Sfera is a “Zakat”—a traditional Islamic tithing for the poor.

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) had been shipping modest amounts of aid to the region—about $1 of food aid per day for each refugee—until early December of last year when it suspended its program due to lack of funds.