Cloud Talk: Doing Good In The Face Of Adversity
August 19 was World Humanitarian Day, which commemorates aid workers who have fallen or been injured in the line of duty. It also celebrates those who continue to risk their lives to support and protect the communities most in need.
Exactly one week from that date, Gen.T held its latest English-language edition of Cloud Talk to shed light on this field of work in the Asian context.
In the past decade, instances of violence against humanitarian workers have increased, particularly in war-torn countries such as Syria and South Sudan. In many parts of Asia, we may see and hear less of such hostile situations, but individuals in this line of work still face plenty of challenges—and not all of them play out in the open.
Gen.T invited two young social activists to learn about their experiences working with marginalised communities in Southeast Asia. They shared the difficulties they face and the sacrifices they’ve had to make in their line of work, but also what keeps them going.
Executive director of Project X, Vanessa Ho runs Singapore’s only non-profit organisation providing social, emotional and health support to people in the sex industry. Since joining Project X, Ho has worked on projects including the Human Rights Defenders Program, which provided training to ten current and former sex workers in various skills such as digital storytelling, suicide intervention and financial literacy.
Malaysian Gen.T honouree Heidy Quah founded Refuge for the Refugees when she was just 18 years old, and has since dedicated her life to providing refugees with education and opportunities to improve their livelihoods. Her efforts with the NGO were recognised when she was presented with the Young Leaders Award from Queen Elizabeth II in 2017.
Here are the key takeaways from the discussion.
Using social media as a tool
Raising awareness of their causes has always been a challenge, said both Ho and Quah. Traditional formats such as roadshows or attending parliament meetings have limited benefits, which is why they've ramped up their social media marketing and innovated ways to interact with the less-informed public.
"We've taken to social media and telling stories on the ground," said Quah. "Just before Malaysia went under lockdown, we did a human library concept in a shopping mall, where people can come by and have a conversation with the refugee community. Raising awareness in this way and through social media is great because we're seeing the increasing importance of engaging the millennials, so that hopefully they will be able to help us influence their parents."
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Dealing with emotional and psychological trauma
Working closely with marginalised communities such as sex workers and refugees means constantly having to deal with unjust situations and the frustration that comes with being unable to move mountains at times. This can take a toll on a humanitarian's own mental health, said both panellists, who have had to handle cases where their beneficiaries had been robbed, raped or unable to access basic healthcare.
"I felt very burnt out about five, six years ago," said Ho, recalling a particularly stressful period in her career when she was working on a number of high-profile cases at work that drained her emotionally. "I lost 5kg over a period of a couple of months and I wasn't in a good place mentally."
To help herself cope, she sought out a mental health counsellor, who helped her to process her thoughts and emotions, and recalibrate her goals, objectives and motivations. "It was so powerful in helping me do all this, but there's still a stigma around seeking therapy [in Singapore]," she said. "But I think anybody who wants to engage in any humanitarian or volunteer work on any level should consider therapy as one of the ways to managing their own mental health. I do this for my volunteers—I make sure that either I or someone else from the team is there for our volunteers to speak to if they, say, witnessed something they were surprised by or uncomfortable with."
Quah also uses therapy to keep her own mental health in check. "I need to make sure I'm mentally healthy before I'm able to support the refugee communities I work with, because second-hand trauma is very real. And it's one of the best decisions I've ever made."
As a humanitarian worker, having self-awareness is important. It's dangerous when people try to find their own kind of healing through healing other people.
— Vanessa Ho
Traits of a humanitarian
Humanitarian workers don't only need to have a big heart; they also need to possess a level of stubbornness and self-awareness, say both panellists. "You need to be able to hold your ground and also have a deep-seated belief of what a human right is to be able to carry yourself through conversations," said Ho. "For example, I spent two hours in a police station last week arguing with a police officer that what had happened to one of the individuals we support was a crime. I had to call our lawyers on the spot, look up the law and insist that the police take on our case then and there."
"Having self-awareness is also just as important. It's dangerous when people try to find their own kind of healing through healing other people," said Ho. "This saviour complex can cause more harm than good for the people they are trying to help."
This can lead to people creating solutions that are misaligned with the actual issues that marginalised communities face, added Quah. "Our role is not to provide support to feel good about ourselves, but to empower the marginalised community and provide them with a safe space."
Cloud Talk is a virtual event series that takes place twice a month, alternating between Chinese- and English-language editions. Register for this session of Cloud Talk here. To learn about upcoming editions, visit our Events page.