Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Today I went to hear a speaker discuss the relief efforts in Indonesia from the December 26, 2004 tsunami. All I knew ahead of time was that this woman is a fellow alum of Wheaton College in Massachusetts and that she works for the Red Cross. What I expected and what I experienced varied greatly.

As people from campus trickled into the room, people were talking, laughing and eating the provided lunch. In front of a large projection screen hunched a blonde woman wearing all black. Long legs crossed in front of her, hands tucked tightly beneath her thighs, spine rounded so her chest nearly touched her knee, and hair neatly combed into a ponytail--this woman swathed in black all but disappeared behind her lap top screen. For me, her nervous energy was palpable. Later on, I would realize the nervous energy was not related to speaking in front of a group, but instead to all that she has seen, heard, touched, tasted, done and will never do.

Ellen got up to speak in front of the group, but quickly decided to sit, again crossing her legs and tucking her hands beneath her thighs. Speaking quietly and disjointedly, her talk began. She introduced herself as a former executive for large advertising agencies, though her presentation style made me wonder if she had ever given a presentation before. Still hunched, nervously glancing around the room, Ellen's shaky hands tucked loose strands of hair behind her ear. When I stopped watching her body language and listened to her story of transition from advertising executive to humanitarian, I understood.

After working in a number of Eastern European nations and the Gaza Strip, Ellen took on the challenge of Banda Aceh. Stepping willingly into the dessimated landscape of Banda Aceh, Ellen took on the task of creating a line of communication between the Red Cross and the local people. She sees great deal everyday and works with local people who still shudder and shake from their experience with the tsunami. Tirelessly, Ellen works 18 hour days in spite of, or to spite, the feeling that the challenge may be insurmountable. She oscillates between the hope of progress and the reality of impossibility. The Western world wants pretty pictures of newly built homes and smiling children at play, but Ellen sees both the good and the bad. There is still so much to be done, but I perceived that she thinks it never will be done. The more she spoke, the closer her chest dropped to her knee.

Fellow attendees asked Ellen some wonderful questions and she gave candid answers. The Red Cross and other organizations are doing amazing things to support the people of Banda Aceh, but I wondered how they support the delegates who witness death, destruction, and disease. I wondered how these aid organizations support the delegates who put their heart and soul into projects that may never be finished--where their efforts may be a mere drop in the proverbial bucket. I asked. Ellen asnwered.

There is no mental health support for these delegates. No counseling or psychiatric care. Just like our soldiers, we send these workers overseas into deplorable conditions with the mission of making things better, but we do so without providing the support they need upon their return. Instead, they are left to carry this burden--the burden that we only want to hear in minimal soundbites and see in a few heartwrenching photos. We don't want to hear it from the mouths of loved ones or see it through their eyes. We can't relate to their experiences nor do we want to acknowledge that someone we love has been permanently altered because of their service. Left to decompress, to find a comfortable place for the horror in the insulated environment of their own mind, some of these workers and soldiers begin to collapse inward. The burden is too heavy to bear, not because they are weak, but because they are brave enough to actually take action, to feel, to see, to touch, to hear, to experience that from which most Westerners are protected.

As I watched Ellen squirm, shift and struggle through this session, I realized how hard it must be to share her stories. Not just to share her stories, but to edit the stories knowing that we didn't really want to know the full extent of the damage. Though her candor was striking, it was clear that she was protecting us, but I still wondered, who would protect and take care of her.

No comments: