09/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

World Humanitarian Day: Life 'On the Ground'

By Dan Kelly, World Vision

Today marks the first World Humanitarian Day, a day established by the United Nations to recognize the ongoing work and challenges facing humanitarian staff and to pay tribute to aid workers who have lost their lives responding to emergencies and promoting the humanitarian cause.

"What is it like on the ground?" people always ask. It's difficult to know where to begin. Sometimes I think of the endless stream of airports of varying quality; the challenge in balancing the requirements of process and procedure with the urgent needs of the situation -- finishing a proposal, dealing with no electricity when your computer battery is also dying and worst of all, running out of toilet paper.

Other times when I'm asked that question, distinct images begin to cross my mind -- a flooded river in Mozambique; a food-distribution that goes wrong, hundreds of people charging across an open space towards sacks of U.S. government maize; the sound of a bullet going past the vehicle window in Gaza; the face of a man who is threatening to pull the pin on a grenade because he is desperate and can't help his family; shivering on top of a snowy mountain in Pakistan, waiting for helicopters of WFP food to arrive; the faces of two child soldiers in Masisi; a displaced person offering me a piece of roasted maize; a little girl no more than three carrying a ten liter jerry can on her head and walking slowly and carefully up a hill....

And all these images carry with them specific smells and sounds and feelings -- indeed one part of being an aid worker is to experience sensory overload as a frequent part of your work.

We live in a world that is brutally unjust. While there are shocking numbers of women in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo right now who are terrified of being raped or killed, very few of us here can relate to such a pervasive and justified fear. Time and again I've met amazing people, who while in the midst of disaster themselves, give of the little they have. In Pakistan we met a man who took 30 displaced strangers into his house and looked after them until his own finances ran out. Such generosity always makes me ask myself, "How much am I willing to give?"

After the Pakistan earthquake in 2005, we drove up and up through the sharp, cold mountains of the Northwest Frontier Province. The road clung precariously on the edge of the cliff and if you looked out the window, you could see straight down the side, far down to the river below. It was unnerving but one of the most beautiful places I'd ever been.

Our small team went to a few different villages gathering information that would feed into the design of a program. In the last village, I was standing near some rubble talking with the team when a veiled head peeked out around the corner and a woman beckoned to me. I went over and she invited me into her small house, with temporary walls made of corrugated iron sheeting. It was dark and very cold inside and the wind kept coming through the gaps in the wall and ceiling. The floor was hard earth, and in the dim light I could see quilts and blankets piled in the corner. There was nothing else inside.

The woman asked what we were doing. I speak Urdu, but her dialect was difficult to understand. I began explaining about our assessment and, opening my notebook, started to ask her about the types of needs her family was facing. I didn't get very far. She cut me off in mid-stream: "My six-year old daughter died here." And she pointed to the ground where we were standing. She began sobbing and clung on to me so hard my ribs hurt. She was crying "My daughter. My daughter" over and over again. I did nothing but stand there, weeping and hugging a woman who was grieving for her child.