17 August 2023 - Iraq

Staff Account: The 20 Years after the first World Humanitarian Day

Sonia Khush, Ukraine Country Director

Sonia Khush, Ukraine Country Director. Save the Children

“I had been working in Iraq for several months and during the summer of 2003 I was based in Baghdad. We took some security precautions but we moved around relatively freely setting up Save the Children's programmes and spending a lot of time at the Canal Hotel, which was the centre of the UN operation. The canteen at the Canal Hotel was a popular meeting spot for international and local NGOs, both to eat and to use the Internet.

Only a few days after landing back in the US, the news broke that the Canal Hotel was bombed, claiming the lives of 22 people. It was shocking. It was tragic. People I had been working with died that day, all dedicated professionals who had come to Iraq with a clear purpose to support people affected the conflict. As I watched the terrible scenes unfold on the TV, all I could think of was how courageous and passionate those colleagues were, and what a loss it was for the world that they were gone.

It was a real wake-up call for the humanitarian community, a major turning point. This attack was one of the most lethal in UN history, and it was the first time that a neutral international humanitarian organisation had been deliberately targeted like this. From then on we had to be far more aware of how we were perceived, the threats, and what would require increased levels of security.

This attack marked a new phase with the world changing in the past 20 years for humanitarian workers and the people they support. The number of incidents involving aid workers has more than trebled since 2003 with on average about 450 aid workers killed, injured or kidnapped every year. This creates new challenges for humanitarian workers and their employers who now have to spend more on security and risk mitigation to try to keep their workforce safe.

But one of the main challenges we have right now is access - trying to reach all vulnerable populations, regardless of whose control they live under. This really plays out in conflict settings where you often have different groups controlling different parts of a territory with no guarantee of safe access for aid or aid workers.

The world today is a lot more politicized in terms of sanctions or donor regulations that may make it easier to work in some areas than others. As an independent, neutral, humanitarian organisation wanting to reach all children, we really have to navigate a lot of politics and restrictions to ensure we can reach the most vulnerable, wherever they are.

And sadly it is only getting worse. At times, we have to justify why we need to help people, often faced with questions like why we don’t just ignore this or that group.

We obviously take a side. We take the side of children. Of their rights, of their need for food, education, healthcare and a clean environment. Which, interestingly, often puts us on a path of collision with certain governments or authorities that may not be doing things that benefit their own populations. So how do we be brave and speak out, yet still be able to operate in the same country? That’s an ongoing issue that we constantly deal with in some of the countries where we work.

It is not all bleak. Some things have improved over the past 20 years. Technology, for instance, has changed the way we work. Whether the prevalence of internet and mobile devices, or the use of cash as a response modality, these are widely accepted and the norm now as opposed to 20 years ago.

People are also better prepared in general, especially for natural disasters. In Bangladesh, for example, we don't see the huge death tolls from cyclones that we used to see in the 1970s or 1980s.

Some of the issues are the same as in the past for any child caught up in a conflict setting. Children need protection. They need mental health support. They need to get an education. And they want to express themselves. So many of the needs haven't changed, but we've learned a lot on how to address them.

Another interesting change - and we already see it happening - is the new generation of humanitarian workers are largely coming out from humanitarian responses in their own countries.  For example in Ukraine, I have about seven staff from the Middle East who grew up through the Syria conflict and worked on the Syria Response in different countries. I have a few who honed their skills in Ethiopia and others in Yemen. All are now working here in Ukraine, bringing everything that they learned from being part of those response both as staff and sometimes as people themselves deeply impacted by those events.

Workers like myself really believe in the humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality, humanity and neutrality, but our ability to act and deliver in accordance with those principles is challenged these days. The mistake we have collectively made is that we assumed since we have these principles, they will always be here. But I guess we learnt that these, like other rights, need to be continuously fought for to make sure they are not eroded.

One positive change we’d like to see in coming years would be for humanitarian agencies to be empowered to continue to follow the principles that we were founded on - independence, impartiality, neutrality and humanity. Also for states and donors and parties to conflicts to recognise us as independent players so that aid doesn't become instrumentalized, or is used to further a certain side or a certain cause.

What keeps me motivated? I'll tell you a story.

When I was working in the camps in northeast Syria, there was a little American boy whose parents had been killed and he was being cared for by a caretaker in the camp.

He eventually ended up with Save the Children in a centre that we were running for unaccompanied children. Our staff were able to use their presence and networks in the camps to find a phone number for his aunt in the US. We independently verified that this boy was indeed related to this family. The family was then supported by the US government who repatriated the boy and brought him to his grandparents in the US.

A few weeks after the boy returned home, the grandfather sent my colleague a video of him dancing in his house. Having seen him in the camp in northeast Syria and then seeing him dancing in his grandparent’s house - it was just amazing. That is what keeps me motivated. Every child’s life we change for the better is my motivation.”


Sonia Khush is Save the Children’s Country Director for Ukraine, based in Kyiv. She was previously the Syria Response Director, based in various locations in the Middle East from 2015-2022, and prior to that a Senior Director for Humanitarian Response. Deployments included the Ebola Response in Liberia (2014), Philippines Typhoon Haiyan Response (2013), Haiti Earthquake (2010), and Banda Aceh Tsunami (2004), and Palestine (2001-2002). 

Sonia worked on Save the Children’s programmes in Iraq from 2003-2006. This including leading the start-up of our response from Kuwait into southern Iraq, and then initiating programming in Baghdad before returning to the US headquarters. It was a bombing attack at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad in 2003 killing 22 humanitarian aid workers and injuring more than 150 other people that led to the United Nations designating 19 August as World Humanitarian Day (WHD). 

Sonia graduated from Tufts University (BA) and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (MA)

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