August 19 is World Humanitarian Day, a day dedicated to commemorating the bomb attack in Iraq in 2003 that took the lives of 22 humanitarian workers. On this day, we reflect on the sacrifices made by those who dedicate their lives to providing aid and support to those in need. In light of this, we spoke to Helena Krajewska, a member of the Polish Humanitarian Organization (PHO), to gain insight into their work and the challenges they faced in the past year. Krajewska discusses the organization’s efforts in providing aid to refugees and displaced individuals from Ukraine, as well as their work in Ukraine itself. She also highlights the new challenges posed by climate change and the increasing dangers faced by humanitarian workers in conflict zones. Despite these challenges, PHO remains committed to their mission of helping those in need, both at home and abroad. As we commemorate World Humanitarian Day, it is important to recognize and support the vital work done by organizations like PHO in providing much-needed assistance to those affected by crises around the world.
August 19 is World Humanitarian Day, commemorating the bomb attack in Iraq in 2003, which killed 22 humanitarian workers.
Onet: After the outbreak of war in Ukraine, what was the last year like for PHO?
Helena Krajewska: The last year was dominated by the subject of humanitarian aid for Ukraine, and probably there was no person who did not encounter some form of it. Since the outbreak of the war, many refugees from this country have arrived in Poland, as well as people of other nationalities who were fleeing the horrors of war. Although many have already returned to their countries, they needed our support at an early stage of their stay – then we operated on the Polish-Ukrainian border, we supported local organizations and reception centers. Almost a million people from Ukraine are still in Poland.
How do you help in Poland?
We have set up a special national office PAH Poland, through which we conduct a wide range of activities. This is, for example, support with employment, access to learning Polish, meals for children and youth, and financial and psychological assistance. It is very important that these people can find their way in a new country and lead a normal life here.
And how is your presence manifested in Ukraine?
There we help in house renovations, we provide financial assistance, we distribute food, water and basic hygiene products. We help the Ukrainian population prepare for the winter, which can be hard for them. We also conduct psychological consultations for the lonely, the elderly, young people and other people in need. Many of them struggle with trauma, post-traumatic stress. We were also at the crash site after blowing up the dam on the Dnieperwhere houses were flooded and we still help the victims of this disaster – providing access to water, hygiene products and household items. We are constantly monitoring the situation beyond our eastern border to respond to needs on an ongoing basis, but there is a great team of local employees on site to coordinate activities in Ukraine.
Have there been new challenges that you haven’t dealt with before?
Progressive climate change is something we have been dealing with for a long time in places where we operate – but it has never had such a strong impact on the needs of people living in the countries of the Global South. The unstable climate causes a lack of stability, disrupts the established rhythm of the year, including the dry and rainy seasons, and leads to sudden and tragic disasters. Organizations such as the Polish Humanitarian Organization must include preventing the effects of climate change and anticipating future cataclysms in their programs so that the local population can better protect themselves against them. This is a great challenge for the entire sector.
Well repair in South Sudan
Since World War II, there have not been so many active conflicts at the same time, which makes the work of humanitarian organizations very difficult and causes a huge tragedy for the inhabitants of countries such as Sudan, Ukraine or – perhaps soon – Niger. This also means a greater threat to humanitarian workers, especially local ones, who are most exposed to the effects of clashes or armed conflicts.
Helping Ukraine meant that many projects had to be limited or even discontinued. How does it look from your perspective?
It was a great difficulty to secure financing for the projects we run in remote parts of the globe. The eyes of Europe are turned towards Ukraine – it is natural that you need to reach there with help. Many people show a positive heart and support our activities in the East. nonetheless, it is sometimes difficult to interest donors, companies or institutions in crises elsewhere in the world. For example, Somalia, South Sudan, Madagascar and Yemen, where we have been operating for many years, i.e. places of huge humanitarian crises where millions of people still need help. We cannot forget about them.
At the same time, many donors decide to reduce or withdraw funding for activities in the countries of the Global South, which automatically means that we and other organizations lose the possibility of a full or any response to a humanitarian crisis in a given place. This trend was visible throughout 2022 and, unfortunately, continues. Some crises are only 30% funded.
The war in Ukraine has also led to an increase in the prices of food, fuel (i.e. transport) and services in various corners of the world, which makes the already poor situation in the world more difficult. This makes it even more challenging for us to help in many areas at the same time. nonetheless, we are constantly developing our activities and reaching out with help where it is necessary. Last year, we managed to support nearly 2 million people – we have not yet operated on such a scale, but it also shows how much can be done if the organization enjoys high social trust and employs qualified employees in Poland or abroad.
Which regions or countries were affected the most?
It seems that the effects of the war in Ukraine are felt most strongly by various countries of the African continent, including the Horn of Africa, which is facing a prolonged humanitarian crisis, deepened by the worst drought in four decades. In addition, there is a difficult situation in Syria, especially in places affected by the February earthquake, in Afghanistan, in some countries in Southeast Asia, but also in Yemen, which remains the site of the greatest humanitarian disaster in the world. Currently, nearly 340 million people need help, of whom several million are in Ukraine.
PHO’s help in Ukraine
The work of a humanitarian worker or volunteer can be dangerous. Have there been any dangerous situations, how do employees deal with it?
In the Polish Humanitarian Action, we attach great importance to the safety of our employees, both in Poland and abroad. Safety training, pre-departure examinations, vaccinations, assessment of the situation on site and appropriate psychological preparation are the bread and butter of organizations such as PAH.
Unfortunately, all over the world, in different organizations and locations, there are regular accidents, attacks or even deaths among humanitarian workers. Last year, 116 workers were killed, and this year it is already 62. In total, in 2022, there were as many as 444 incidents related to the safety of humanitarian workers.
This is because we work in extremely difficult conditions, in places of catastrophes, active armed conflicts, in an unstable political situation. All we can do is prepare ourselves as best we can for our work. As announced by the United Nations on this year’s Humanitarian Day, no matter where, no matter what, no matter when, we will continue to help those in need.
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