A broken promise

I arrived in Bangui—the capital of a country at war with itself. The people in the camp were internally displaced due to the violence that has been occurring throughout the country, and the World Vision team was on a mission to document their plight.The camp surrounding Notre Dame Fatima church in Central African Republic looked like a market, full of people selling local doughnuts, fruits, peanuts and soap among other items. Some children were playing, while most adults were organising their belongings, getting water from the temporary well or attending to the smaller children. The morning sun was offering a warm and yellow light as well as a sense of peace. It was the month of March. We were part of a small group of staff who had arrived from various parts of the Partnership to begin the response. The streets had been divided into narrow paths between the old mattresses, tarp and fabric covers and old suitcases holding what remained of the residents’ possessions. As we carefully walked along the paths, people invited us to hear their stories. Most of them wanted to do it anonymously or did not want to give their surnames. “We are too scared of being caught in revenge attacks,” one person explained. One woman, Henriette, started yelling at us to make sure we could hear her message: “We are unhappy – unhappy in our own country. Who is coming for us? Help us; it is a tragedy.Each family sheltering around the church has a tiny parcel of the street. Francis was quiet, surrounded by his family: his wife and two grandsons, and he waved at us. We approached him and he invited us to sit next to their mattress, “our most important possession at the moment. Francis explained that he was an electronics technician and that he had previously lived less than six kilometres from this camp where he now survived. His house had been destroyed during the violence and he had to run with his family away from death. “We are ‘refugees’ in our own city; I live so close but I am too scared to return.” Francis made clear that the only thing that he and the other people camping around the church wanted was to regain peace and a sense of normality. It was time to leave and we made a promise. The promise was to return several days later to attend the church’s Sunday service and to share with the people the photos and videos we had recorded of them. A few days later, we were informed that a fatal grenade attack had taken place near the church.Our security officer had to deny our request to return – we had to break our promise due to serious security concerns. A few days later, I had to return to regional office in Dakar, and I have lived with my broken promise ever since. I am finding comfort knowing that World Vision has a dedicated and expert team in place and we will be able to keep our promise to thousands of survivors. With a little bit of luck and strong faith, I might still be able to attend a church service with Henriette and Francis someday in their own neighbourhood. Yesterday, the 28th May 2014, at least 15 people have been killed and several others wounded during an attack in the camp. Gunmen hurled grenades and shot indiscriminately. I think of Henriette, Francis and his family… I hope they are still alive.

Today, we are all refugees.

I came to Australia 15 years ago. I arrived at the door of this country under a business visa with money and professional sponsorship.

Several years later, when I decided to emigrate here, I just had to sign a few papers, proof few facts about my lifestyle and to go through a basic health check. I remember the comment of a nurse during the check up: “we need more people like you instead of…you know.”

Oh yes… I know too well, that under Australian perception and prejudice, I was different: a French guy with education and more money than others.

Today, I am an Australian by choice and love. Today, my government took an abject decision towards refugees.

It is not about taking away the right to settle to Australia. It is about taking away the hope, the security and the willingness to contribute with dignity to our beautiful land.

Today, we have closed our door to refugees and on our humanity.

Only human

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In 2011, I went back to Kenya to shoot video footage for WV Australia. This journey began with hopeful anticipation. I lived in East Africa for few wonderful and meaningful years, filming the beauty and the wildlife of the Masai Mara and the Rift Valley. As I prepared for a return trip, part of me dreaded knowing I would encounter a different Kenya this time – one affected by drought, famine and despair.

A team of communicators from WV Australia spent two days in the South Wajir region and the Dadaab area. Dadaab is the biggest refugee camp in the world with more than 500,000 people mainly from Somalia. Thousands of new refugees arrive constantly. We witnessed the UN and the main non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working hard to build and maintain proper emergency infrastructures like water tanks, towers and tents as well as provide food distribution and health services.

In Wajir, WV Kenya is the main NGO providing water and food; I will never forget the loss of livestock. About 40 per cent of all livestock perished in Wajir. The loss of cattle has devastated this mainly pastoralist population. World Vision staff are still working closely with the population to ease the pain.

While filming, we met a single woman with seven children who were barely surviving. As we prepared to leave, we asked her what she would cook for dinner, but she didn’t have any food yet because the World Vision trucks were still on the road with the supplies for her area. I was shattered knowing I would leave this woman and her family with nothing but the hot wind across the desert to dry our tears. I have never felt so powerless.

Encountering so much poverty overwhelmed me. I still cannot stop asking myself, “Why do they suffer? Can we possibly overcome this much need?” Despite my reflections, I managed to laugh with so many children who still had the resilience to play a game of hide and seek or tell jokes. I looked at so many faces, shook so many hands and saw so many smiles. I promised myself to always remember their faces and to hope for a better future for these courageous people.

I came back to Australia and pledged to tell my family, my friends and my colleagues about my experience, but the reality was different. I could not share my experiences or at least not the way I should have. I realised how emotionally and physically exhausted I was. Nothing made sense anymore. An experienced and kind colleague convinced me to seek counselling. I felt reticent, even defensive, about the idea at first, but I knew speaking to someone could help. My first counselling session led to liberation. I cried and laughed and opened myself up to a stranger in confidence and trust. The two-hour session helped me tremendously, and I thank WV Australia for supporting me in such a way. Our humanity is always challenged in the field and during emergencies. I have learned that we cannot carry the difficulties of our work on our own. We have to discuss, engage and most of all seek help. I believe that in order to be effective and collaborative in our work, we have to recognise our own weaknesses.

After all, we are only human.