These are spirited, grueling and perilous times for those trying to change the world. The risk of a gruesome death while serving humanitarian needs is frighteningly real.
“It’s a conscious choice and has to be a calculated choice,” says American aid doctor Pranav Shetty about heading into the world’s most dangerous places. Shetty, 33, is emergency health coordinator for the International Medical Corps based in Los Angeles. He has pivoted this past year between two headline-grabbing crises — the Ebola epidemic, and the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
In West Africa, thousands have died, including half of the health workers who became infected with Ebola. In the Middle East, tens of millions have been displaced, and the Islamic State’s savagery has swallowed up aid workers like 26-year-old Kayla Mueller.
“There’s always a certain amount of the unknown,” Shetty says by phone from Sierra Leone, where Ebola remains a deadly risk. “Everybody is taught to be hyper-aware.”
Mueller’s death struck the humanitarian community particularly hard, in part, because she was a young, idealistic woman who encapsulated with her words the passion behind what aid workers do. “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal,” she told The Daily Courier in her hometown of Prescott, Ariz., about her work with refugees.
Mueller was kidnapped in 2013, a year when a record 460 aid workers were killed, wounded or kidnapped in dangerous places around the world, a 66% increase over 2012, according to data compiled by Humanitarian Outcomes, which provides research and policy advice to aid groups.
When a gruesome hostage killing posts to the Internet … the news reverberates through the aid community. “My first reaction is ‘Oh, my God, that could have been me,'” says Greg Matthews, 35, who has worked in the Syrian region for the New York-based International Rescue Committee. “That could happen to anybody at any time in any of the circumstances in which we work.”
Yet the challenge of providing relief in some of the world’s most chaotic environments, coupled with a lifelong desire to make a personal difference — and a restless hankering for adventure — keeps the humanitarian industry thriving.