Why more women should take up humanitarian work in Middle East and North Africa

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Rana Sidani Cassou, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. (Supplied)
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Salma Bahgat, Egyptian Red Crescent. (Supplied)
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Laila Toukan, Jordan Red Crescent. (Supplied)
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A Syrian Red Crescent worker in Damascus collects donations for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on Jan. 4, 2009. (AFP)
Updated 12 June 2019

Why more women should take up humanitarian work in Middle East and North Africa

  • MENA region has big gap between demand and availability of female volunteers
  • Arab women's familiarity with culture and languages of region could make a big difference

DUBAI: “The need is so great for the work we do in this field.” This comment, by Rana Sidani Cassou of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), sums up the state of her occupation as a female humanitarian worker in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
The phenomenon of women in the region devoting their lives to helping people affected by wars, natural disasters and humanitarian crises is scarcely new. But what is different now is the gap between the availability and demand for female volunteers and staff.
Cassou, based in Lebanon, has witnessed her fair share of tragedies while working on the frontlines for various aid organizations since 2004.
As the IFRC’s head of communications for 21 countries, it is her responsibility to keep the world’s attention focused on MENA’s humanitarian needs, and “to give a voice to local communities.”
Cassou has vivid memories of her deployment in the ancient city of Bam, in Iran’s Kerman province, following the devastating earthquake in 2003. “I was in Bam within 48 hours of the earthquake,” she told Arab News. “The whole city had been destroyed. Everything was gone: Homes, schools, villages. It was a city of rubble.”
She especially remembers the rescue of an elderly woman from underneath the rubble 11 days later.
“She explained that she’d been in a state of partial paralysis and therefore confined to her bed. Her son would visit her every day to make sure she had an adequate stock of food and other necessities,” Cassou said.
“When the earthquake hit, she was protected by a block of wood that sheltered her. She survived by rationing out the food, medicine and water that her son had left with her,” Cassou added.
“This incident really touched my heart. I realized that when your time isn’t over, it isn’t over. It made me into a person who believes I have to do my best to help people like this, regardless of war, disease, outbreaks or earthquakes.”
Of course, not all stories have a happy ending. Cassou was sent to Tunisia after several migrants drowned when their boat — which had started out from the Libyan port of Zouara in the direction of Italy — capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. “I met a mother whose story haunts me to this day. She was on the boat with her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. She could tell the boat was going to capsize, and so asked another passenger to hold on to her son while she held on to her daughter when the vessel overturned,” Cassou said.
“Rescue teams managed to save the mother and daughter and took them to Tunisia, while rescue helicopters were taking the survivors to Rome to a refugee camp there. The mother arrived in Tunisia with no idea if her son was dead or in some camp for refugees,” Cassou added. “I tried to find the little boy, but I still don’t know what happened to him. This is one of the downsides of the job. It hurts to be weighed down with questions without answers, to not be able to help everyone.”
Salma Bahgat is another Arab woman who has devoted her working life to helping those in need of humanitarian assistance.
As director of the Egyptian Red Crescent’s (ERC) department in charge of tracing and restoring family links, Bahgat’s job is to find and reunite people, especially those separated from their families due to events beyond their control.
“When I got to do fieldwork, it changed my life. It’s a two-way job, where you get to see the real impact of your efforts,” she told Arab News from Cairo.
Bahgat joined the ERC barely 24 hours before Egypt’s political upheaval of 2011. “So I pretty much participated as a humanitarian worker in the aftermath of the violent events,” she said. “A stand-out moment for me early on in my career was during the evacuation of a camp. Helping many people belonging to different groups from the same place was overwhelming. For me, the best moment was when a young man published a Facebook post a year later describing how I saved his life. That day, I came to know how one could be touching people’s lives without even realizing,” she added.
“My job is to reunite separated family members, but it also involves offering protection and support to children, women and elders,” Bahgat said.  
“Recently, I was present during the reunification of several children with their families at the airport after years of separation. The hugs and tears of joy were very moving for everyone present there, but what moved me most was the sight of a stern security official looking at his own child’s photo on his phone as he watched a girl being reunited with her aunt.”
Bahgat said she would like to see more women in MENA pursuing a career in humanitarian work.
“Arab women are strong and caring at the same time, which is a perfect combination for a humanitarian worker,” she said.
“Their work will have a huge impact on the upbringing of a new generation. I encourage women of the region to get exposure to humanitarian work. Any woman who joins this field will be following her heart.”
One woman who has been doing so for more than three decades is Laila Toukan, director of training at the Jordan Red Crescent.
Having been raised in a household where “humanitarian volunteering is a habit and a way of life,” Toukan, a Palestinian, said she had no doubt about her career choice.
As part of her job, she runs a vocational training center which strives to empower women and young girls with a view to improving their economic status and self-esteem.
“We give them training in sewing, handicraft skills, beauty and hair care, culinary art and literacy,” Toukan told Arab News from Amman. “We teach them computer skills to enable them to access social media, as well as knowledge of business enterprise.”
Toukan said she has given socially and economically useful training to hundreds of young women every year. “We have many success stories,” she added. “For instance, two young women who met while doing a course together have launched a successful business from home together.”
Looking back on her life as a humanitarian worker, Toukan said she would not only like to see more Arab women in the profession, but also more of them in decision-making roles. “We need volunteers, committed volunteers, those who’ll stay and make a difference. Together, we can help girls and women in need,” she added. “If you give women cash or an in-kind donation, this eventually goes away. But once you teach them a skill, it stays with them for life.”
Toukan’s views are echoed by Cassou, who said there is a desperate need for dedicated female humanitarian workers in the region. But Cassou cautioned that anyone wanting to do humanitarian work has to be “realistic about their expectations” and realize they “can’t save the entire world.” Nevertheless, “there’s a real need for Arab women in our field. We’re based in a region where most countries have experienced wars, disasters, crises and upheavals, so there’s a need for more hands, especially in the form of Arab women,” she added. “We have empathy, we understand the culture and we speak the language. It makes a big difference.”

‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

Updated 19 June 2019

‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

  • Tehran regime has fanned sectarian flames in region for four decades, analyst tells Arab News
  • IRGC chief says Iranian missiles capable of hitting "carriers in the sea" with great precision

JEDDAH: Iran “will not wage war against any nation,” President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday — hours after two drones launched by Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen targeted civilians in southern Saudi Arabia.

Rouhani's statement sounded a note of restraint after the United States announced more troop deployments to the Middle East.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

But he was also contradicted by the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Hossein Salami, who said Iran’s ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

“These missiles can hit, with great precision, carriers in the sea ... they are domestically produced and are difficult to intercept and hit with other missiles,” Salami said.

He said Iran's ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Before both men spoke, Saudi air defenses intercepted and shot down two Houthi drones packed with explosives. One targeted a civilian area in the southern city of Abha, and the second was shot down in Yemeni air space. There were no casualties, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said.

Rouhani’s offer to avoid war was “the height of hypocrisy,” the Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“Rouhani is the biggest hypocrite in the world,” he said. “On the one hand, he is saying that Iran does not seek a conflict with anybody, and on the other it is launching attacks through its militias on oil tankers, oil pipelines, civilian airports and holy cities.

“This is nothing but the height of hypocrisy. Who does he think he is fooling with those words? Why are they enriching uranium? Why are they seeking nuclear bombs? What have they done over the past four decades? They have only caused trouble. They have only fanned sectarian flames in the region.”

The Saudi Cabinet, meeting in Jeddah, also condemned the Houthi attacks on Saudi civilians, and last week’s terrorist attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, widely blamed on Iran. 


Confrontation fears

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and its long-time foe the United States have mounted since Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane, which Washington blamed on Tehran.

Iran denied involvement in the attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord would prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The standoff drew a call for caution from China. Its top diplomat warned that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced US pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of the landmark nuclear deal.

Russia urged restraint on all sides.

On Monday, Iranian officials made several assertive comments about security, including the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who said Tehran was responsible for security in the Gulf and urged US forces to leave the region.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The new US deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May. Washington previously tightened sanctions, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.

'Nuclear blackmail'

Iran’s announcement on Monday that it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal was denounced by a White House National Security Council spokesman as “nuclear blackmail.”

The move further undermines the nuclear pact, but Rouhani said on Monday the collapse of the deal would not be in the interests of the region or the world.

The nuclear deal seeks to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb in return for the removal of most international sanctions.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters China, a close energy partner of Iran, was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the US side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said. “Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and urged Iran to be prudent.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU would only react to any breach if the International Atomic Energy Agency formally identified one.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama, was flawed as it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.