Working with the Poorest: Among the young, the attraction of humanitarian work persists.
Service arising from faith in a God who cares for the world's most vulnerable: these were hallmarks of an April 15, 2009 conference that celebrated the ten-year collaboration between Catholic Relief Services and Fordham University. CRS places graduates of Fordham's International Political Economic and Development program into CRS internships overseas. Begun by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1943, CRS assists people in the developing world to break free from grinding poverty though community based initiatives in many of the world's poorest countries. Young women and men spoke in a series of workshops of their own first-hand involvement in sustainable development efforts in half a dozen nations.
Afghanistan was one of them. Matthew McGarry, CRS’ country director there, was among the first to describe his experiences. A graduate of Fordham's IPED program, he spoke of his team's efforts to address the difficult issues related to water among Afghanistan's farmers: the nation is primarily agriculture based, and only eight percent have access to clean water. In addition, he said that with the arable portions of land limited because of the region's mountainous configuration, much-needed water is lost through run-off on areas that farmers have overgrazed. One project has therefore focused on water conservation efforts to slow the runoff, and on community efforts to construct dams and irrigations ditches to make the best use of what water there is. One especially successful project, he said, has been the construction of greenhouses that can provide food even during the country's "brutal” winters. "Some farmers can earn more in one month of raising vegetables in greenhouses,” he observed, "than they can in a whole summer of work in their fields.” Such considerations assume particular importance in a time of rising food prices.
Education is another area in which CRS attracts world-wide involvement. "Most of the villages in the provinces where we work never had a school. Now, however,” McGarry said, &ldquothere are many, with the villagers themselves donating space” and working with CRS representatives training local people as teachers, "so that the schools can become self-sustaining.” So far, three grades at the primary level are offered, with six as the goal. Education for girls has been a special concern, and in order to make it possible for them to walk to school in safety, a school has be within three kilometers of a village. "This approach has meant that the boy-girl gender disparity has begun to drop,” he said. McGarry has a staff of 350 Afghans working with him on these and other projects in six provinces.
Interest in humanitarian work abroad ran high throughout the conference, with Fordham students engaging workshop presenters in lively post-presentation dialogue. A student seated next to me at one workshop, a former Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador, told me he would be completing the IPED program in December. "I'd like to do humanitarian work in a developing country,” he said, "but I'm also torn about wanting to stay in this country too,” he said. His was not the only acknowledgment of this kind of tension.
A speaker who described herself as "older” (35!), Tracy O&rsquoHeir, spoke on her work as assistant CRS country representative in South Sudan, where the organization collaborates closely with the Catholic Church on issues like education and health care. Another graduate of the IPED program, she was already an experienced humanitarian worker through time previously spent in Zimbabwe. She described some of the difficulties surrounding the lack of a sound infrastructure. In South Sudan, for example, there are few passable roads. She showed a color photo of her CRS vehicle sunk in deep mud at the side of a road, with a group of Sudanese men standing nearby as they pondered how to free it. Though unaffected herself, violence can also be a hindrance to working peaceably. At the first village where she lived, "you could buy a gun for two chickens,” she said.
In both South Sudan and in Afghanistan, CRS aims at helping poor country people meet their basic needs through exchange arrangements between staff and local people. In the former, for instance, Tracy spoke of a "food for work” endeavor that allowed residents to do various jobs in their communities in exchange food staples. In a similar program in Afghanistan Mr. McGarry said that "we pay the local market rate for day labor,” in exchange for work on infrastructure projects like the irrigation canals.
The final workshop was called, "Is overseas development work for me? Volunteer opportunities to test the waters.” The panelists, all veterans of humanitarian work in developing nations through CRS and other groups, described their experiences. For most, it was clearly a work of love. One panelist with a business background spoke of paying his own way in order to spend time at Mother Teresa's home for the dying in India. While there, he befriended a man at the home who came in "seizuring.” The man's health gradually began to improve and the volunteer had the joy of eventually accompanying him to the train station so that he could return to his family. "They must all think I am dead,” he told the volunteer, but thanks to the care at the home, he was indeed alive.
Prior to his service in India, the same volunteer had paid his way to work with a group of Franciscans in Honduras. But challenges existed too. He cited several, including the sense of losing control over his life. "Here in the States,” he said, "I had my car, my cell phone, my daily schedule-I was in control of my life.” But once in a developing country, he explained, he felt helpless, living in the context of an unknown language, and a culture so different from mine that it would take three or four years to understand it.” There were other frustrations too, such as working hard to organize a local meeting "and then no one shows up.” Nevertheless, so deeply rewarding were his overall experiences that, after marrying his girlfriend this summer, he plans to go with her to a developing country not yet decided upon. Another panelist, a Good Shepherd volunteer, worked in Latin America at a shelter for abused women. For her, the joy lay in the close relationship formed with a young girl who, raped by her father, bore twins. When it was time for the volunteer to return to the United States, the girl told her: "You are my only family.”
The speakers at the workshops testified to what is possible in international humanitarian work: assisting people in the developing world to break cycles of poverty through community-focused initiatives. CRS has progressed far from its beginning days in 1943, when the U.S. bishops established it as the War Relief Services to aid refugees in war-torn Europe. Now it continues to function worldwide in partnership with church agencies and non-governmental agencies, as well as local governments, to bring hope and dignity to those for whom God has a special love.