There Is Nothing Glamorous About Responding to Disasters: A Personal Story

The story of a mom who is a psychosocial support aid worker with the Canadian Red Cross.

sandra-damota

I’m a Psychosocial Support aid worker with the Canadian Red Cross, which includes a lot of travel.  Since I joined the Red Cross in 2012, I have been sent to a number of places around the world including Sierra Leone to respond to the Ebola outbreak, the Philippines immediately following Typhoon Haiyan and to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy.  Most recently I was sent to Alberta in May of this year, to support the people affected by the wildfires.

I have three young boys; Pearce (fourteen), Lincoln (nine) and Campbell (seven). I’m very open and honest with my children about where I’m going and what I’ll be doing and allow them to be a part of it from the beginning.  When I get a request to respond to a crisis, we sit down with a map and I show them where I will be.  They ask questions, and I answer as best I can.  I brag about how many airplanes I’ll get to ride in, they love airplanes and get very jealous.  The departure at the airport is always a huge family affair with my children, their father, my parents, and my sister and her husband accompanying me.  The same group is there to welcome me back on arrival.  

One of the biggest challenges for me, both when I’m traveling and at home, is constantly having to defend and explain my choices for doing this type of work.  Many women who enter this field either do it before having children or when their children are older and more independent.  It’s not uncommon to be asked questions like “Who are your kids with?  Who takes care of your kids while you’re gone? How can you leave them for so long?  Aren’t you worried that something will happen to you?”  

There is nothing glamourous about the work we do.  When you are responding to disasters, medical emergencies and conflict, you see and experience some terrible things.  Awful things.  Things no one should ever have to see.  However, there are beautiful moments that you experience.  The resiliency, the strength, hope, the way individuals and communities come together to support each other when they may not have prior to the disaster.  Those are the moments that you hold on to, the ones that keep you going.

One of the best feelings in the world after a hard day, is coming home to a great big hug from your children. The absence of that is difficult; knowing that hug is not an option on your toughest days when you’re away.  As humanitarian aid workers, we often run into places that people are running away from so we have to be physically and mentally prepared for anything and everything.

I’d say one of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced was in the Philippines.  I was part of the first rotation team that was sent a few days after Typhoon Haiyan and when we arrived, communication lines were down.  We were unable to communicate back home for quite a while, and this caused a lot of stress for my family who wondered about my safety.  As much as you try to shut those thoughts down while you’re away helping others, its still very difficult to know that your family is probably worried sick and that there is nothing you can do to relieve them of bad thoughts until communication is restored.      

As a woman, and mother, I feel like there is already an enormous pressure to always put everyone else’s life and goals before your own.  I was very fortunate to know early in life that I wanted to do this work, and because of that, I was able to build my world around my dream and not the other way around.  I created a supportive network of people around me and my children.  As a mother to three young boys, I want them to recognize the importance of following your dreams, regardless of your gender and society’s expectations.  I’ve become a huge advocate for young women and mothers who want to enter this field. I’ve had the opportunity to do a number of talks, and sit on expert panels about humanitarian work at Universities and this is a message that I feel is really important.

It’s difficult to leave my family and I miss them every day when I’m gone.  As a parent, I believe that it’s my responsibility to teach them that not only is there is a larger world outside of their own but also that they have a responsibility to positively contribute to that world, in whatever capacity they choose.  Last year, when I was sent to respond to a crisis, my eldest son had to write an essay at school listing three things he wanted to be and why.  He chose to be an NBA player, a chef and to “travel around the world with the Canadian Red Cross helping people, like my mother”. That, for me, makes leaving them worth it.

 

Sandra Damota is a Red Cross psychosocial delegate. She has three children and has done multiple international deployments (most on just a day or two notice) to places like Zimbabwe. She works to minimize the long term impact of a disaster by helping to bring a sense of normalcy to a community by doing things like creating safe places for children to play.
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