Humanitarians: the unsung heroes

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The recent events in Afghanistan and Haiti have brought back chilling memories of the risks we take as humanitarians, serving people in the most challenging and turbulent political and security environments.

Today is World Humanitarian Day — a day to celebrate and honor the work and dedication of every humanitarian working around the planet.

Rick Hooper: a life to celebrate

For me, the 19th of August is a day of personal tragedy. It is the day my best friend and best man at my wedding, Rick Hooper, was killed in the 2003 Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad. A total of 22 colleagues lost their lives in the Canal Hotel bombing, including the chief humanitarian in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Rick had just turned 40 and was in the prime of his professional life. We had started working for the United Nations in the Gaza strip as Refugee Affairs Officers on the same day in 1990. Rick, a graduate of University of California Santa Cruz, a fluent Arabic speaker, spent many years in the Middle East and became one of the UN’s chief experts on the region. A brilliant mind, kind, generous with a strong sense of justice and passionate about human rights.


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Rick dedicated his life to defending the rights and dignity of people affected by crisis. He paid the ultimate price with his own life.





What distinguished Rick is his passion for values and principles, his leadership and courage to speak truth to power and to doing everything possible to make a difference in the lives of people.

For Rick, the work he was doing was not charity but acts of justice. I still have not recovered from the shock of his loss and often wonder what he would be doing today, had his life not been so abruptly ended. I miss our intense discussions about impossible Middle East politics and wonderful people of the region; a region he loved and was passionate about. Above all, I miss my friend.

Humanitarianism: a privilege and ultimate sacrifice

Working as a humanitarian is a privilege. No other job provides the drive, compassion, motivation and reward one gets as a humanitarian. It is the ultimate privilege to be serving people in need. Thinking and acting on how to improve people’s lives is what keeps us awake at night and what gets us going with a strong motivation every morning to “do the right thing”.

Every year, hundreds of humanitarians lose their lives in the line of duty. The toll is heavy and unacceptable.

In 2020, 475 aid workers were attacked: 108 killed, 242 wounded and 125 kidnapped.
Most of the violence took place in South Sudan, Syria, and DRC. Other high incident contexts included Central African Republic and Mali, where incidents more than doubled since 2018. Attacks against aid workers in Tigray of Ethiopia rose during 2020 and has been worsening further in 2021. (Source: Humanitarian Outcomes).


Staff safety, security and well-being

Safety and security of aid workers MUST be respected by all. Our only protection when we work is the flag of the organization we are working under and the faith that all sides to the conflict will respect our work. This used to be the norm. Today it is not. Humanitarians are the unsung heroes who often risk their own lives to save the lives of others.

Rick Hooper, like every humanitarian working in today’s challenges, was a real-life hero, doing extraordinary things in extraordinary times to help women, men and children whose lives are upended by crises.

Looking at the recent events in Afghanistan, the horrible pictures at the Kabul airport, my thoughts are with the millions of civilians who live in fear for their own protection and safety of their loved ones. I have no doubt Rick would have been on the forefront, advocating for the rights and protection of civilians, minorities, women and girls, education and climate change.

I often feel I carry Rick’s spirit inside me, I remember his wit, humor and passion at unexpected moments. I know this is the same spirit that drives every humanitarian around the world. It is everybody’s responsibility, no matter the position we are occupying, to be an advocate and push towards action on the most critical challenges of our time.