Chasing Misery: An Interview about Humanitarian Aid Work with Kelsey Hoppe

KHoppe2Kelsey Hoppe works for the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum (PHF), a membership organization of international NGOs providing humanitarian aid in Pakistan, where she lives. Previously, she worked in a range of different humanitarian and development roles in places like Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Indonesia, and Ukraine. Ms. Hoppe is also heading up a project to publish an anthology of essays written by women working in humanitarian responses – Chasing Misery – to be published in 2013.

Missio spoke with Ms. Hoppe about the book project and her work in humanitarian aid.

TWI: Tell us about your work: how you came to work as a humanitarian aid worker, what you were doing before this, etc.?

Kelsey Hoppe: I have always been intrigued by work in conflicts and disasters. When I was younger, I wanted to be a journalist and work in war zones, and I think this developed into a desire to help those who need it most. “Helping” is a multi-faceted concept, however, as are the motivations that drive people to help. But throughout my career I have been motivated to work in places where I can contribute and provide value. I’ve worked in government, in businesses, and with churches in different roles – like communications, marketing, and international development.

As I get older, I’ve come to believe that anyone can do this “helping” anywhere. In fact, the less glamourous the job—and aid work has its own particular “glamour” associated with it—the more admirable the person who does it. A aid worker friend of mine was once asked at a conference if she felt her work was heroic. “No,” she said. “I like what I do, but I am paid well to do it and I get a lot of travel and excitement with it. ‘Heroic’ is the woman who goes to work every day at a care home to take care of my [severely disabled] brother. No one notices her or what she does day in and day out. Not one cares about the people she helps. That is heroic.” I think that’s right.

TWI: You are currently spearheading a project to publish an edited anthology of stories and photographs contributed by women humanitarian aid workers. Tell us how that idea came to you, and what the response has been to this idea.

KH: I have wanted to write a book for some time about my work. But as I tried to write what working in humanitarian aid was like, I realized that there were so many more stories out there that are different than mine, each rich and provocative. A friend actually suggested the anthology idea: Why not collect a number of powerful stories from people in different places to create a bigger picture and to give a platform to people doing humanitarian aid work, as well as to better inform people about what that work is like? There’s a great quote by Susan Minot which says, “People look at authors and think they’re trying to tell their story. But really what they’re trying to say is what it’s like to be alive.” This book isn’t to make aid work look glamorous or to suggest that aid workers are “great people doing great things.”  Instead, through the essays, contributors are saying, “Look, here’s a sliver of human existence full of suffering and misery, and also joy, and laughter, and amazing people. This is what it’s like to be alive.”

The response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. People have said they can’t wait to read it because they do aid work or once did. Others have said they want to share it with their friends and family so they can better understand the work they do.

The only controversial thing has been the anthology’s title—Chasing Misery. It’s intentionally provocative, and it’s drawn from one of the essays. What the title does not mean is that the people that we work with are miserable, or that that we’re miserable doing the work. Rather, it’s that miserable situations exist. They exist in America, like after Hurricane Katrina, as much as in places like Africa or the Middle East that are fraught with wars and poverty. There’s been lots of conversations about whether we’re “chasing misery away” or whether “chasing” means that we’re actively excited about finding it. The title means different things to different people.

KHoppe1TWI: Why only women contributors?

I get this question a lot, especially from men. While there’s no good evidence or research out there about what percentage of humanitarian aid is delivered by women or how many women work for aid agencies in humanitarian responses, I think it’s likely a high percentage. But in the popular psyche, humanitarian aid work is male-dominated and characterized by being macho, living on the edge, climbing heaps of rubble, unloading sacks of food, dealing with hardship, mud, Land Cruisers, and helicopters. Women who do the work are painted with the same brush – rough, tough, and unemotional. And that perception has not been my experience in humanitarian aid work at all. The women who do humanitarian aid work are still women – feminine!

If I had to pick the one theme that has come through in all of the essays, it is vulnerability. Women are simply (forgive me, male readers) more willing to be vulnerable about what they see and experience. I don’t doubt that some men feel the same way, but more often than not, the way men and women convey their experiences of doing humanitarian aid work is very different. The women who submitted essays have picked up on themes like their own failed personal relationships, their struggles with depression, their search for hope and meaning, being overwhelmed by the situations in which they find themselves, and being inspired and also helped by those they are there to help. Women’s stories are not the only narrative, but they are an important part. And I think those stories deserve their own space.

TWI: What have been the most challenging features of this project and its process?

KH: Honestly? The sheer amount of time it takes to undertake a project like this! I’m incredibly blessed with supportive friends and family—not to mention an amazing team of people helping me shape and edit the book. And, I have a full-time job as well. The learning curve has been steep: Do we seek a publisher? An agent? Self-publish? Editing. Copy-editing. Designing the book. Blogging. Website Design. Marketing. Platform-building. E-books. There’s this myth out there that, “Oh, I just had a good idea, wrote a book, and it became a best seller!” That couldn’t be further from reality. There are endless, grueling hours of work behind any good idea and any good book. We hope to have it out in 2013, and you can check the project’s website for more information: www.chasingmisery.com.

TWI: Humanitarian workers are often fueled by their faith to do the kind of work that they do, although you don’t expressly tackle that subject in this anthology. Could you comment generally on the interplay between faith and humanitarian aid work? Caveats? Complications?

KH: That is a huge topic, and like you said, we don’t expressly tackle it in this book. The contributors to this book come from different faiths and religious backgrounds, so to say that religion and faith play no part isn’t true. Faith, like politics or the weather, is part of our common human experience; each of us engages with it in different ways.

Humanitarian aid differs from missions work or other types of development work in that, generally speaking, aid workers abide by the Red Cross Code of Conduct (RCCC), which says that one must deliver aid regardless of the race, creed, or nationality of the people you are delivering it to, and that the aid work can’t further a political or religious standpoint. However, I think that the humanitarian principles within the RCCC run strong in almost all religions, and therefore people of faith find it a demonstrable way of putting their faith into practice.

Chasing_MiseryTWI: Given what you/others have seen, what kinds of theological questions emerge out of your day-to-day work?

KH: It’s complicated. In fact, that’s the theological question that I keep finding in my work. How does any faith jive with a complicated—very complicated—reality? With Christians who steal and Muslims who lie down on a bomb to protect others from its blast? Or the other way around? The world has a way, if you let it, of taking every theological framework you could construct and punching big, fat holes through it. The world usually says something like, “Here’s your framework, or your faith, or your religion, what you’ve been taught, what you believe, your way of understanding the world. And now here’s reality. Make them fit. Try.” And you simply can’t fit them neatly after seeing some really difficult stuff.

That’s why I’m drawn to mystics of any faith. And I’ll just go ahead and include Sue Monk Kidd in that group who wrote: “There is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor browbeat days, shining brightly and we don’t even know it.” I admire people who recognize that there is more out there; that there’s a lot of mystery in the world and it might not fit into a neatly systematic theology or religion. The biggest theological questions come from our inability to make things “fit,” and, more importantly, what we do when they don’t fit.

TWI: Who are people you admire in humanitarian work? People you see “getting it right” or “doing it well”, or who “did it well”?

KH: Humanitarian aid work is just that—work. It’s a job. We have our own language filled with jargon, and our villains and our celebrities. But, at the end of the day, it’s a job that you do because you love it, just like any other profession. Which makes it hard to pick out people because people are, well, people. They have moments of shining glory and moments when you’re embarrassed to know them.

This might sound incredibly post-modern, but the longer I live, the more I find that no one is really deserving of our admiration, and at the same time nearly everyone is. I guess the people I admire are those who are authentic. Authentic people are those who are truly who they are. They have accepted that neither they—and, this is the important part—nor the people they serve are entirely angels or demons. They can recognize humanity in some of the most inhumane people. They forgive easily. They laugh a lot. They travel lightly. They don’t take much of anything too seriously. They are generally people who have been sliced open by life and therefore ooze compassion. And, generally, they’re not leaders. They could as easily be a gardener, as a logistician or the head of an organization.

Photos: Kelsey Hoppe; “Sheiks in Darfur,” Ashley Proud.

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