08/15/2014 09:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Honoring the Many Faces of Humanitarian Work

Next Tuesday marks World Humanitarian Day -- a day to honor all the brave and selfless people who have given their lives to better those of others.

Often, we associate this humanitarian work with those who come from afar to generously help others in parts of the world where a natural disaster, civil conflict or extreme poverty is devastating lives. But there are many unsung heroes who rise up from within the same backdrop of calamity -- not with a master's degree in international relations but with their personal dedication, wisdom and courage to help their fellow citizens despite being among those in need, too.

Ruth Nganawarh, a Caritas volunteer in CAR, helps a woman carry vital assistance. Throughout the month of May 2014, the most critical month for planting, CRS and Caritas CAR distributed seeds and tools to thousands of people in the outlying villages around Bossangoa. Photo courtesy Kim Pozniak/CRS.

One of those people is Ruth Nganawarh, a woman in one of the most isolated areas of the Central African Republic (CAR), where a civil conflict has been raging across the country for more than a year, claiming thousands of innocent lives. Ruth lives in Bossangoa, a six-hour drive from the capital, Bangui, and a town so devastated that there is barely any food in the markets; homes are still blackened from the attempts by rebels to burn them, and where people still live in hiding for fear of being attacked.

When the violence arrived at Ruth's doorstep last December, she and her family fled into the countryside's thick tropical forest to escape the brutal attacks that swept through town like wildfire: hundreds of people were slaughtered, homes were burned and incessant gunfire filled the air.

Ruth and her children spent weeks hiding in the forest before returning to the relative safety of a makeshift refugee camp at the compound of the Bishop of Bossangoa. There they slept for months on the dirt floor, cooking food over an open fire and living in cramped conditions with thousands of others who had fled the violence.

"With this crisis," Ruth says, "women have suffered a lot. They have been raped. We are without any strength anymore. People have seen a lot of this on the Internet. You can see how we don't have anything. We have lost everything."

Ruth Nganawarh talks with other Caritas volunteers before going on a day-long mission to distribute seeds and tools to vulnerable families in the Central African Republic. Photo courtesy Kim Pozniak/CRS.

Yet today, despite the incredible hardships she's endured, Ruth is ready to face another challenging day filled with major obstacles. The difference: today she's working as a Caritas volunteer alongside Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to provide life-saving assistance to her fellow Central Africans.

"Before [the conflict], I was a secretary for the government Office of Customs in town. But because of [the violence], there was no more work. So, I'm here as a displaced person, I was doing nothing," she recalls of her time at the camp. "One day Caritas was looking for workers, so I applied. And because of my previous experience, I got the job."

Delivering aid -- with no fuel, no roads, no security

It's a rainy Saturday morning and Ruth is ready for the mission ahead. Standing in the Catholic Church courtyard and wearing a white vest bearing the Caritas logo, she talks to her colleagues and CRS partners about how they will accomplish their goal: delivering life-saving aid to thousands of families in 160 villages who have lost everything in the violence. On paper, the mission seems straightforward: drive a truck loaded with seeds and tools down a road, stop at each village and distribute the items. Simple enough.

Except in the Central African Republic, a country stricken by extreme poverty, with no development and ravaged by conflict. Like every day, those challenges threaten to throw off today's mission, too. There's no fuel for the only truck in town, a scouting of the route reveals that a small bridge has been washed out by the rain, making it impossible for the nine-wheeler to cross, and the lingering threat of possible attacks in the area might stop the operation before it even gets underway.

At the height of the violence in Bossangoa, CAR, this camp housed more than 40,000 people who fled attacks on their town. Ruth Nganawarh spent several months at this camp. Photo courtesy Matthieu Alexandra for Caritas Internationalis.

But Ruth, the other volunteers and the CRS staff are not deterred: after scouring the town for nearly an hour, someone finally returns with some gasoline. Someone else reports a successful repair mission: a few wooden boards replacing the washed out bridge will be strong enough to support the truck. And the day's security check reveals no reports of violence along the route. So at 10 a.m., and although delayed by a couple of hours, the convoy finally gets on its way.

After a long day of work, a meticulously organized operation and no major incidents, hundreds had received life-saving seeds and tools so they could take advantage of the critical planting season and survive.

"The [distribution] today was good," Ruth says, exhausted but happy. "Everybody was really grateful to receive what we gave and everything went well with the conditions, security, the organization."

"It's a pleasure to go and help these people who have problems. We feel good. We feel proud of doing this work. We are really happy and if people need something and you come and you provide it, they are really happy."

This post is part of a five-part series produced by The Huffington Post, USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, and the NGO alliance InterAction to commemorate World Humanitarian Day. World Humanitarian Day (August 19) honors aid workers who have lost their lives helping the millions of people affected by disasters around the world. This past year has seen four large-scale "Level 3" humanitarian crises -- Syria, Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan and the Philippines -- that are stretching the capacity of the humanitarian system. To learn more about these crises, visit here. For more information about USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, visit here; further information on InterAction can be found here. To follow the conversation on Twitter look for #WHD2014.