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World Humanitarian Day celebrates #WomenHumanitarians: Joumana, a personal profile from Aleppo

19 Aug 2019


“First I need to be sure that my work here is done.”

By Basma Ourfali

Joumana documents stories of both internally displaced Syrians in a camp in Aleppo Governorate, and of Syrians who are moving back into their rehabilitated flats after getting support from the Syria Humanitarian Fund; 10 and 11 June 2019. Photos by Hedinn Halldorsson. 

Joumana, aged 36, was born and raised in Aleppo and studied accounting and information technology. Between 2007 and 2014, she worked with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), and then joined the World Food Programme in 2015 followed by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) one year later. As a Humanitarian Affairs Officer with OCHA, she supports and monitors partners that are running projects supported by the OCHA-managed Syria Humanitarian Fund. 

Joumana arrives in Tal Sardam site for displaced people, to get feedback on assistance provided and to find out about people’s needs and struggles. “We usually don’t see people outside their tents this time of day,” Joumana says while entering the camp. The temperatures are blazing. Every now and then a child appears tumbling with half-full jerry cans of water while others peek out from behind the tarpaulin watching 

In the camp, she is offered tea by a displaced grandfather, Abu Mohamad and his family, sitting in the shade outside their tent. He talks of the challenges his family faces and when they will be able to return home. 

“I do what I do because I want to ease the suffering of those enduring the consequences of the Syria conflict,” says Joumana. “We were living in peace, the economy was growing and, all of a sudden, everything collapsed.”

“I don’t find it mind-boggling to be a Syrian helping Syrians. I’m one of them – I suffer what they suffer, I taste what they taste. I’m not foreign. I’ve lived this like they have. I’m no different; every Aleppian is personally affected. The only difference between me and them is that I’m in a position to do something.”

“There was a time when I didn’t tell them what I was experiencing at work. And even though OCHA took good care of us and we spoke to a counsellor every week, I did feel alone and didn’t talk to anyone about what I was seeing. I didn’t want to burden my family – they had enough on their minds.”

“It was the bloodiest period in Aleppo, the end of 2016, beginning of 2017, when the Government recaptured Aleppo from non-State armed groups. People were confused, nobody could predict what was about to happen and I witnessed all of it first-hand. Seeing the eyes of people leaving their homes, headed towards nothing, was heart-breaking.”

“What being a humanitarian means to me is to feel other people’s suffering and to help others. What I like most about the job is the gratitude in people’s eyes, and their thankful words. The reward is when you see that you have really managed to help.”

“The most challenging, terrifying thing about the job is when you’re not able to do a lot, when you realize you cannot help everyone. In the camp yesterday, for instance, seeing people’s living conditions and hearing about their fears of rodents and snakes today, it was frustrating that we’re not able to do more. When you have limited sources and don’t have a magic wand.”

“You can’t turn back time, you can’t give people back the lives they’ve lost. I never doubt what I’m doing. I was born to do this. I don’t know what I’ll do after this crisis. I might find somewhere new to help people. That’s why I’m here. In five years, I might find myself in a different place, in a different crisis, but first I need to be sure that my work here is done.”

When Jourmana gets ready to leave the camp, a displaced woman, Umm Rasheed presents her with a bunch of basil from a small plot in front of her tent. “So, you don’t forget about me,” she says