World Humanitarian Day

14 minutes read time
Erin poses with a group of Indonesians.
In Indonesia, a country prone to many disasters, USAID's humanitarians help communities prepare before the next disaster strikes.

World Humanitarian Day

This World Humanitarian Day, we’d like to introduce you to some of USAID’s own dedicated humanitarians working at the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

Erin Magee

Program Officer, East Asia and the Pacific

Years with OFDA: 9

Years in the humanitarian field: 10-11

Hometown: Orlando, Florida

Alma mater: Seton Hall University

Based in: Bangkok, Thailand

How did you get into the field of humanitarian assistance? I started with internships at the UN, non-governmental organizations, and in government to gain experience and knowledge of how different organizations operate.

Why did you want to become a humanitarian? I experienced many disasters firsthand in my home state of Florida, and I saw that they truly can affect anyone. Growing up, my parents always taught me the importance of helping others and viewing each other as a part of a broader community. I always knew that I wanted to help people  -- not just in my own country, but in the global community.

What motivates you to continue working in this field? Being able to work with such dedicated people and actually seeing firsthand the tangible impact we make on people’s lives. I feel honored to work with and learn from people who have devoted their lives to helping others, whether it’s within OFDA, our partner agencies, or in other countries.

In 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake shook Haiti. Erin deployed as part of USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team.

What is your most memorable OFDA experience? After college, I was an English teacher in Japan, but I never expected to return because of a disaster. In 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami, I was deployed as part of USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team. In an evacuation center, I met volunteers whose friends and family were missing, but they were still working day and night to help others. I was inspired by their dedication and selflessness, and proud to be providing humanitarian aid on behalf of the American people.

When you deploy, what’s the one thing you must bring? My cell phone!

Lana Oh

Ar Raqqah Coordinator, USAID’s Syria Disaster Assistance Response Team

Years with OFDA: 4

Years in the humanitarian field: 8

Hometown: Ellicott City, Maryland

Alma mater: St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Based in: Adana, Turkey

How did you get into the field of humanitarian assistance? I got my start working in the field as a field coordinator in Gulu, Uganda.

Why did you want to become a humanitarian? I had the opportunity to travel abroad for the first time in my late 20s. It was truly one of the turning points in my life because the experience showed me that we are really more alike than different. This motivated me to work to become part of a professional corps dedicated to the humanitarian sector.

The USAID Syria Disaster Assistance Response Team, which Lana co-leads, recently visited Syrian refugee children at the Beydagi refugee camp in Turkey. Beydagi opened in 2013 and hosts thousands of Syrians fleeing the violence in their home country.

What motivates you to continue working in this field? The work is very rewarding. I have the ability to influence key stakeholders and make a difference in people’s lives. Through the ups and downs, I am encouraged by my team and colleagues who always jump in to help with advice and offer a shoulder to lean on. They are quick to cheer you on.

What is your most memorable OFDA experience? I am living my most memorable experience currently  -- deploying to Syria.

When you deploy, what’s the one thing you must bring? Emergency food so I don’t get “hangry”.

Sidney Velado

Regional Advisor, Latin America and the Caribbean

Years with OFDA:12

Years in the humanitarian field: 16

Hometown: Garden Grove, California

Alma Mater: Cal Poly Pomona and UC Davis

San Jose, Costa Rica

How did you get into the field of humanitarian assistance? I got into the field of humanitarian assistance after working on agricultural projects that suffered crop losses due to floods, hailstorms, and grasshopper infestations. I realized that development projects were not addressing disaster risks.

Why did you want to become a humanitarian? To alleviate human suffering and help vulnerable populations when they most need outside assistance to survive.

What motivates you to continue working in this field? I am motivated by seeing that my work, both before and after a disaster, alleviates human suffering and helps vulnerable people when they need it most.

Sidney meets with families in El Salvador who lost their homes to flash floods.

What is your most memorable OFDA experience? When Category 5 Hurricane Felix hit Nicaragua in 2007, I managed a large response operation that required U.S. military helicopters to reach the most isolated communities. We designed an innovative tool to help OFDA coordinate with the Department of Defense. It is now used anytime the U.S. military is deployed to support U.S. humanitarian responses.

When you deploy, what’s the one thing you must bring? A positive attitude.

Lori Du Trieuille

Senior Humanitarian Advisor

Years with OFDA/FFP: Almost a decade!

Years in the humanitarian field: Professionally since the late 90s. As a person, all my life.

Hometown: San Jose, CA

Alma Mater: Howard University and University of Maryland

Based in: Kabul, Afghanistan

How did you get into the field of humanitarian assistance? Back in the day (before e-mail), I wrote letters to the Senior Vice President of an NGO every week for three months asking for a meeting. Finally he had me come to the office for a meeting. The first thing he said was, “What do I need to do so that you will stop sending me letters?” I responded, “let me be an intern here.” That internship led to a job and my first overseas assignment working on a USAID program in West Africa. While studying abroad during my junior year at Howard, I picked up the travel bug as I discovered that I really enjoy travelling to new places.

Why did you want to become a humanitarian? This line of work is part of me because I was raised by social workers  --  humanitarianism is part of my DNA.

What motivates you to continue working in this field? Developing meaningful and positive relationships with local humanitarians. For example, the talented and dedicated team based in Kabul  -- Pacha and Noorsabah  --  remind me that in spite of current challenges, Afghanistan has a bright future.

What is your most memorable OFDA/FFP experience? Serving as the Senior Humanitarian Advisor in Kabul. It has simply been an honor and a pleasure for me to work on this portfolio.

When you deploy, what’s the one thing you must bring? A small book of poems by Rumi. In between the pages are pictures of my favorite humans and my dog.

Angela Sherbenou

Regional Advisor, West and North Africa Regional Office

Years with OFDA: 12

Years in the humanitarian field: 13

Hometown: Houston, Texas

Alma Mater: Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State) and New York University

Based in: Dakar, Senegal

How did you get into the field of humanitarian assistance? I came from the hospitality industry, where responsiveness, preparing for disasters on the property, and guest relations are key attributes. I have been able to apply this management and training experience to the field of international humanitarian assistance.

Why did you want to become a humanitarian? I am not quite sure I am a humanitarian yet, as I do believe it is an evolving practice. I made a career shift and am delighted with this new course.

Angela served on the USAID Ebola Disaster Assistance Response Team that deployed to West Africa from 2014–2016 to help stem the tide of the worst Ebola outbreak in modern history.

What motivates you to continue working in this field? I do enjoying learning the intricacies of the different components of humanitarian response, and absolutely respect our colleagues’ depth and breadth of experience. There is something new to learn everyday!

What is your most memorable OFDA experience? My most memorable experience at OFDA is meeting with a Liberian health care worker who contracted and survived Ebola, then continued to serve at an Ebola treatment unit, helping other first responders.

Angela helped lead a parade through Gbarnga, Liberia on January 10, 2014, at the launch USAID’s social mobilization program. More than 200 community educators pledged their support to drive Ebola out of the country through awareness campaigns that involve theater, song, art, and radio to spread the word about Ebola, as well as tips on how to stay safe.

When you deploy, what’s the one thing you must bring? “Disaster Tunes” playlist is good for the team when the pressure is on. It includes “Ring of Fire,” “Here Comes the Rain Again,” and “Rock me like a Hurricane.”

Austan Mogharabi

Acting Asia Team Leader

Years with OFDA: 3.5

Years in the humanitarian field: 3.5

Hometown: Los Angeles, California

Alma mater: Claremont McKenna College

Based in: Washington, D.C.

How did you get into the field of humanitarian assistance? I joined USAID as a Foreign Service Officer because I wanted to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective, helping more people. I started working on democracy and governance, but I wanted to have a more direct impact on the people who needed it the most. OFDA was looking for Foreign Service Officers and I jumped at the opportunity!

Why did you want to become a humanitarian? The humanitarian mandate to provide assistance on the basis of need alone, without political agenda, really appealed to me. I wanted to help people. Joining the ranks of humanitarian workers gave me the chance to do that in a direct and meaningful way.

What motivates you to continue working in this field? Disasters are getting worse and more and more people are being affected. Humanitarian assistance is the last and only lifeline for many, and I’m incredibly proud to be part of the international effort to help them.

When you deploy, what’s the one thing you must bring? Pictures of family. It can be heartbreaking to see the impact disasters have on people, and it wears on you. Family photos bring you joy and keep you going.

Emily Gish

Regional Advisor, East and Central Africa Regional Office

Years with OFDA: 7

Years in the humanitarian field: 14

Hometown: Lexington, Kentucky

Alma Mater: Xavier University and American University

Based in: Nairobi, Kenya

How did you get into the field of humanitarian assistance? I studied International Peace and conflict resolution in graduate school, which exposed me to humanitarian issues associated with conflict. My first job out of school was focused on humanitarian policy at a nongovernmental organization, specifically the protection of women and children in emergencies.

Why did you want to become a humanitarian? I’m not sure I set out to specifically be a humanitarian, but I wanted to help people who were impacted by conflict, which led me to this field.

Emily meets with mothers at a clinic in Somalia.

What motivates you to continue working in this field? I enjoy trying to solve complex problems, I love working with really smart and motivated people, and I enjoy being able to help people who need it most.

What is your most memorable OFDA experience? I worked for a long time on the Ebola response, both from Washington, D.C. and in Liberia. After so many hours and so much effort, I was very happy to represent OFDA at the meeting where the World Health Organization declared the end of Ebola transmission in Liberia.

When you deploy, what’s the one thing you must bring? Running shoes, a Kindle, a french press coffee mug and good coffee. 

Santosh Gyawali

Senior Disaster Risk Reduction Specialist

Years with OFDA: 5, but 27 with USAID!

Years in the humanitarian field: 5

Hometown: Kathmandu, Nepal

Alma mater: St. Xavier's School

Based in: Kathmandu, Nepal

How did you get into the field of humanitarian assistance? Working for USAID Nepal on their IT systems, I saw OFDA’s work to help people after a disaster. It motivated me to work in humanitarian assistance. Disaster risk reduction, especially using technology, was really interesting to me. I thought making the switch to humanitarian assistance will give me opportunities to learn and also make a difference in the lives of many: saving lives, promoting human welfare, relieving suffering, and maintaining human dignity.

Why did you want to become a humanitarian? Being a humanitarian is a career with meaning that aligned with the values I was brought up with. Doing something that results in acts of kindness brings happiness. It’s not about looking for praise or glory, but promoting human well-being and making a visible impact on people ‘s lives. For me, it’s the ultimate joy, and my inspiration for becoming a humanitarian.

What motivates you to continue working in this field? Working with people gives me an opportunity to understand them, and also helps me understand myself. As a humanitarian I see myself as a change agent helping people who are less fortunate and making a positive impact. It makes me content and keeps me motivated to know my work saves lives, reduces human suffering and creates a better tomorrow.

What is your most memorable OFDA experience? Hearing that My most memorable experience was after the 2015 Nepal earthquake. One of our programs trains people in Nepal on search and rescue. After the earthquake, I heard that many of graduates used their skills to help save their neighbors. I felt a real sense of accomplishment.

When you deploy, what’s the one thing you must bring? Positive attitude and determination to make a difference in the lives of others. Followed by a travel health kit.

Charles Wanjue

Team Leader, USAID's Nigeria Disaster Assistance Response Team

Years with OFDA: ~7

Years in the humanitarian field: More than 15

Randolph, Massachusett

Alma Mater: Johnson & Wales University

Based in: Abuja, Nigeria

How did you get into the field of humanitarian assistance? While I was in college, medical students from the University of Nairobi and I organized a health care mission to rural Kenya where we provided free medical and dental checkups and treatment to underserved communities. In 1993, I joined Christian Children’s Fund as a Senior Social Worker in northern Kenya. There was no turning back from there!

Why did you want to become a humanitarian? I wanted to give back to society because I count myself lucky and in a better position than the majority of people around the world. I grew up in the rural Kenya and saw human suffering in times of drought and poverty firsthand. To date, this still gives me a push whenever it gets tough.

What motivates you to continue working in this field? I cannot imagine anything else being as exciting, challenging, exhilarating, and rewarding as helping others. The immediate impact we make in people’s lives and real time results of our efforts as humanitarians are what I aspire for and what keeps me going. Now and then, I walk away from a situation feeling that the world is a better place because of something I/we did. That’s tremendously powerful and motivating, and it’s what keeps me doing this.

What is your most memorable OFDA experience? Working in Sudan supporting one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world  --  Darfur. We worked with around 40 partners. I saw the separation of the two countries, and all the tensions involved with that process. I also witnessed a six-month ordered departure after the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum was attacked in September 2012. As such, we had to work on a very large, diverse, and complex portfolio spanning man-made as well as natural disasters, with a background full of political pitfalls and bureaucratic impediments.

When you deploy, what’s the one thing you must bring? I bring my heart full of grace, phone and Wi-Fi hotspot to keep in touch with loving family and friends.

...

On average, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance responds to 65 disasters in more than 50 countries. These are some of the humanitarian heroes who make this possible. Join us on Facebook and Twitter to follow our response efforts.

Editor's Note: This entry was originally published on USAID's Medium account.