Abdallah Khader, 20 Years of Life as a Humanitarian

19 August 2018

Abdallah Khader has been working with IOM in Jordan since 1998. Over these 20 years, he has been deployed at Jordan’s borders to receive refugees from Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2012; at the airport to support the resettlement of refugees; and at refugee camps inside Jordan. He has even been sent as surge support to humanitarian responses in Libya, Tunis and Chad. On these missions, Abdallah has been exposed to multiple challenges: from sleeping in a tent in the middle of the dessert to being attacked by thieves on the way to a refugee camp.

When asked about the toughest working environment Abdallah has dealt with, he answers without hesitation:

“The living conditions in Chad were difficult. We didn’t have electricity and we were sleeping in camping tents. But, I prefer that type of work to high security places like Libya, where you feel constantly at risk.”

A particularly emotional memory for Abdallah is that of a child with epilepsy (watch video). He managed to reunite the child with his family at the beginning of the Syria crisis, when refugees were crossing the border into Jordan every day in high numbers. The child came with a group of around 4,000 refugees and Abdallah could immediately see that he was distressed. Having a son with epilepsy, he was able to identify the symptoms and approached the group to try find out who the child was travelling with. It turned out that the child has joined the group alone, and nobody knew his name or origin. Abdallah took time to talk to the child and gave him water and food. He then realized that the child was holding a paper almost hidden in his closed hand. It took hours but by the end of the day; the child finally opened his hand and disclosed his name - Ammar. The small piece of paper he was holding had a phone number written in it. Abdallah immediately called the number explained who he was and the situation. The woman on the other side of the line was Ammar’s grandmother and came to pick up him from Zaatari camp*, which quickly became the biggest refugee camp in Jordan.

“I felt like I did something really important. I was so happy. She came after three hours from Amman, we took her inside the camp and she hugged her grandson. I started crying because I saw the boy and thought about how I have the same situation at home. My son has epilepsy, and I would have like someone to help him if he was in the same situation.”

Three years later, he saw Ammar in a shop in Amman. He was now living in the same neighbourhood as Abdallah. The borders between Syria and Jordan were very fluid before the crisis and many families used to live on both sides of the border. As a result, Syrian and Jordanians have shared a similar culture and the same language for decades. As a humanitarian worker deployed in his own country and assisting refugees from Syria, Abdallah is so close to the people he works with that they live in the same communities.

When working in Chad receiving and moving people fleeing violence in neighbouring Libya, Abdallah was confronted with a very different scenario from what he typically encountered in Jordan. The long hours of work added to the stressful situation and the responsibility of protecting people while working under challenging conditions. One day, Abdallah was requested to leave in search of a group of 99 migrants stuck in the desert, who were without much water and only had a broken car. He immediately gathered two trucks, a doctor and drivers, as well as an 80-year-old Chadian guide able to find his way in the dessert by following the stars and the moon. After a few hours travelling with 50° temperature, they managed to find the group of migrants and bring them safely to the basecamp.

“This is one of the challenges of humanitarian work: you must go immediately to the field and act. You cannot work just for eight or 10 hours a day, as in the office; in the field, it can happen that you work 17 hours and still are happy.”

In Abdallah’s opinion, the most difficult thing is the personal sacrifice that comes with the life of a humanitarian worker. “It is true that my family paid the price for my job. In a non-emergency assignment, you can see your family all the time but you miss the fieldwork, you know somehow that there are other people that need you. My family, my children and wife, are safe at home; they have water, food and electricity, but some people don’t have water and electricity, they are sick and they need assistance.”

Abdallah is 53 years old and has been through different missions and worked with colleagues from all over the world. When asked what advice would give a young person hoping to start a career in the humanitarian field, he answers:

“Young people have the energy and the will. They want to work, to travel and I like to work with them because of that. But I always tell them that for this work the most important attributes you should have are loyalty, devotion and patience. These are the things I take from my personal experience: be patient, be devoted and work hard. You will get what you want with patience and devotion. Come to your job from your heart because if you love your work, for sure your work will love you.”

*IOM followed protection standards when reuniting this child with his family in coordination with UNHCR and the Jordanian Government

This interview was posted in the lead up to World Humanitarian Day, 19 August 2018.

Humanitarian workers are #notatarget