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"It's About People": A Humanitarian Worker In Syria Reflects

Rasmus Egendal is WFP Syria Deputy Regional Emergency Coordinator. Here, he reflects on the enduring mission and values that motivate his humanitarian work.

“It’s about people.” This is the lesson I learned from my late grandfather Kai Hammerich, a standard I try to live and work by and a principle I try to instill in my own children. My moral guide and the great inspiration behind my own career as a humanitarian, my grandfather was a daring, persistent and unconventional dreamer and that’s what allowed him to achieve all that he did in his lifetime. He cut his teeth as President of the Danish Red Cross in the years after World War II when the world was faced with unprecedented humanitarian disaster.

The most striking thing about my job as Deputy Emergency Coordinator for the UN World Food Programme’s response to the Syrian crisis is the unpredictability of the challenges we face every day. Whether I’m in my office in Jordan or in a shelter for displaced families in Syria, I have to think and act swiftly. You can plan for all the scenarios you can imagine, but in an emergency as dynamic as this one, you will be constantly surprised and tested to respond to without hesitation. No excuse is acceptable for a mother in Syria who is forced to send her children to bed hungry.

In the 1950s, my grandfather was mandated to treat the allied forces during the Korean War, as commander of the Danish Hospital Ship, Jutlandia, which was the Danish contribution to the UN. His work ethic was defined by doing the ‘right thing.’ His work was always about the people who are suffering and, for the sake of the people; he went against policy and insisted on treating civilians, not just soldiers.

Like the Korean War, it is the innocent civilians in Syria who suffer the consequences of the conflict. As the war drags on, the number of refugees escaping Syria continues to grow dramatically, with over 5,000 Syrians fleeing their homes to neighboring countries each day! The number of refugees has now exceeded 2 million and the number of displaced people inside Syria has reached over 6.5 million. One in three Syrians has been displaced from violence, often for the third, fourth or fifth time since the crisis started over two years ago!

We cannot afford to take our eyes off the catastrophic impact that this crisis has on each individual. These are people who have been forced to risk their lives on rickety scows across the Mediterranean Sea, trying to reach sanctuary in Europe. These are people abandoning their land, which will no longer yield crops. These are families with pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children who flee without knowing where the next meal will come from.

It is our job at WFP to ensure that all affected people have the food and nutrition they need. My grandfather’s example resonates with me when access constraints, intense fighting and negotiations interrupt our work in Syria. When everything is wrought with politics, he reminds me that as a humanitarian, you must focus on the people and that you fulfill your mandate answering to their needs, no matter what it takes.

I often think about Farah, a mother I met in Syria who had lost her home and her husband and was twice displaced. She told me that her only priority now is to feed her son and that she relies on WFP to do this. As a parent myself, I understand how difficult it would be to provide an explanation if my own children were hungry and I had nothing to offer them. For this reason, I work for innocent civilians like Farah and her son. As I strive to live up to my grandfather’s example, to be a humanitarian he would approve of, I also seek to embody that same inspiration, to be as much a role model as I am a father for my daughters and my son Kai, who is named after my grandfather.

In Syria, WFP is working hard to scale up our emergency operation to reach four million in 2014. In the neighboring countries, we are assisting almost three million people. The Syria response is WFP’s largest and most complex emergency worldwide.

People and governments have generously stood by, allowing us to continue our crucial job to provide food to the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced families. Norway is one of the countries that have stepped up to support our work and is helping us help people like Farah.

As long as the suffering continues, WFP will continue to provide food assistance to the people caught in the conflict. Until a solution is found, remember the very raw and unforgiving reality of suffering for the ordinary Syrian people caught in this conflict. We must not let them down!

Because, as my grandfather would have said: “It’s about people.”

Learn more about WFP's response to the Syria crisis: http://www.wfp.org/crisis/syria