Ivorian refugees in the Bahn refugee camp in Liberia begin the morning by collecting wood and charcoal for their cooking fires. Credit: UNHCR/G.Gordon
On World Humanitarian Day this year (19 August) we celebrated the most basic principle of humanitarian work: People Helping People. For inspiration, and to remind everyone of the extraordinary things ordinary people are capable of doing, we asked professional aid workers to tell us a story about someone who inspired them in a crisis.
I was working in Liberia in 2011 with refugees who had fled the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire when I met Melanie. She was 17 at the time, and had left with her six younger brothers and sisters; the youngest was just three. Their parents had stayed in Côte d’Ivoire. Somehow Melanie had found a village, and a house with a room where the landlord said that if she worked in the fields to cover the rent, they could stay. So that is where they were living – all seven of them.
They were eating whatever they could get, mostly rice and cassava. Melanie was heavily pregnant at the time, and without the father of her baby. We never knew who he was. She would just say: “There is no father.” So basically you had this 17-year-old who was working and looking after all of her siblings and was the only breadwinner. When she had the baby the landlord threw them out, because she couldn’t work immediately after the birth.
What stuck with me was the situation. I saw a lot of under-age mothers, but to be caring for six children and another on the way when you are a child yourself – that is a really big family and a lot of responsibility. And she was doing it all with no help. I had to speak to her through an interpreter as she didn’t speak French. But she still came across as being someone who was very strong; very young but very strong. She was very good at saying what kind of help she needed. I met a lot of people who were meek and introvert, people who were shy or ashamed to accept help. Melanie didn’t have that luxury – for her family to survive, she had to say very clearly: “This is what we need.”
And I remember I never heard her complain about anything, not once. She said “We don’t have food; we don’t have this; we need that,” but it was never: “Oh, my life is so difficult, oh poor me.” In her situation it would have been quite understandable to be miserable and complain – especially being heavily pregnant – but she just pushed through. Her attitude was very much: “This is what I have to deal with and I’m dealing with it – OK, next day.”
Once we had heard about her situation, a lot of people were working together to help them. So, when she was thrown out of her accommodation by the landlord, a child protection agency was there to help and find a better place for them to live.
Right from the start, she and her siblings had also been very clear that they wanted to go back home once it was safe, so that is what we helped them to do. After they had arrived, we got a message from our colleagues in Côte d’Ivoire saying that her parents and the whole village were very happy that they had come back. I left Liberia shortly afterwards, so I don’t know what happened to them. I just hope it is all good.
I will always remember Melanie because she shouldered so much responsibility: fleeing to Liberia with all her siblings, putting food on the table and a roof over their heads, giving birth to another mouth to feed - and all of that while being only 17 herself.
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