Joel Kaiser (right) discusses building of shelters with the mayor of Jacmel, Haiti, in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Image Credit: Courtesy Joel Kaiser

A spark of hope is ignited when one crosses paths with someone like Joel Kaiser, “a humanitarian professional”. In a world where peace is a far-fetched dream, it is good to know that there are those who are working to try and rebuild what is destroyed by natural, and sadly man-made, disasters.

Mother Teresa says, “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person” — and this is precisely what Kaiser has been doing through his work with emergency relief organisations. At present, he is employed as an emergency response officer with Medair, a non-profit humanitarian organisation that “brings relief and recovery to remote and devastated communities — health and nutrition services, safe drinking water, latrines, protective shelter — whatever families need to survive a crisis and regain their strength”. At present, Medair’s teams are working in Afghanistan, Chad, DR Congo, Haiti, Madagascar, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Zimbabwe — countries classified as the most devastated spots in the world and that are most in need.

Kaiser is in his mid-thirties and originally from Cranbrook, Canada, a small town fenced by the Rocky Mountains in the western province of British Columbia. After graduating from college with a degree in journalism, Joel decided that he wanted more than a comfortable job and a mapped-out life. He wanted to take on the world, walk its hills and valleys, and experience its pleasure and pain.

His adventures began with a journey to Brazil, to the banks of the Amazon River. It was intended to be a leisurely trip but he soon found himself working with Samaritan’s Purse, a Canadian Christian organisation that provides “spiritual and physical aid to victims of natural disaster, war, disease and famine”.

Ever since, for the past eight years, Kaiser has been stationed in the saddest corners of our world, working for a number of organisations including the Canadian Red Cross and Food for the Hungry.

Kaiser’s eyes reflect the pain they have witnessed as he tells of his different experiences. He recounts his yearlong stint in Afghanistan, for example, in a northern city near Mazar Al Sharif called Kholm, where he oversaw infrastructure rehabilitation (schools, hospitals and clinics) and vocational training. When asked to describe his experience there, he says, “It was fantastic. Yes, difficult, but we had the opportunity to rebuild hospitals, schools and clinics that were destroyed by the Taliban. We took trained carpenters and builders, and trained the youth to become plumbers and electricians under the condition that they dropped their guns.” He goes on to say that thousands of young men were trained, and in addition, five schools, a hospital and a clinic were built and staffed with women his team trained as nurses and teachers.

One of the obstacles encountered in Afghanistan was the task of convincing fathers to allow their daughters to be trained as nurses by people who hold Western ideals. Kaiser explains that it required “lots of coffees and teas with lots of fathers” to win their trust and persuade them to send their daughters for education and training.

But there were moments that pained Kaiser. “Because we were not able to visit all the villages, parents came to us complaining that we were too late and that their children had died,” he says. “At this sight, you stand helpless and enveloped with a suffocating feeling of guilt because you feel like you should have, and possibly could have, done more.”

After experiencing such circumstances, Kaiser admits to feeling “hardened and callous” at times — perhaps a natural coping mechanism to stomach such pain.

At the end of each of his journey, Kaiser returned home to Canada, “burnt out”, wishing for an interval of normal life — “to be able to do the mundane things people do, go out with a girlfriend, or work a 9-to-5 job like other people in town.”

He adds, “The last thing you want to do when home is to talk about what happened; more often one simply wants to leave behind bad memories and not think of them ever again.”

Yet contrary to his wishes, the pain is visibly part of Kaiser’s identity and a component of his make-up.

“But as always, sooner than later, another assignment was bound to come into my inbox, another place where people need help,” he says.

When asked about his ultimate goal in life, Kaiser replies with deep conviction, “My hope is to leave the world a better place than when I arrived; this is what I want to do with my life.”

While in conversation, one wonders about that exceptionally admirable drive that compels a person to choose to live in the worst of circumstances and to risk their life for others. To Kaiser, apart from hoping to make the world a better place, it is also a desire to “atone for mistakes”.

He explains: “I was blessed with a lot in life. So, I’m tough on myself. That desire to push yourself to come to the aid of others despite the most extreme environments is also a form of self-sabotage — a way to ensure I never get comfortable with decadence, which only leads to more mistakes and a life wasted.”

Kaiser also speaks of his experience during deadly Hurricane Katrina in the United States. Describing it as “insanity”, he says, “The whole place was flooded; we didn’t know where to begin.” With unreserved frustration, he recounts the difficulty of working in the US, “The situation was so political. The recovery stage was basically to find long-term shelter for those who had lost everything in the storm.” However, American race politics brought along many challenges, such as “trying to find white families willing to take in a black family.”

Another vivid image carved in Kaiser’s mind is that of the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004. “During an assessment, we flew into a village by helicopter where people essentially emerged out of the mud, and due to the circumstances, all we had to offer them was a bottle of water ... You really hate yourself after that,” he recalls.

How do you explain the suffering in the world? I ask. He says, “I’m not satisfied with any answer religion has provided.” He suggests a solution: “collective action informed by evidence-based knowledge. I’m not saying science will save us, but it’s done a pretty good job so far. Communities across the world cannot stop disasters from happening, but they can eliminate vulnerability, such as poverty, that make disasters that much worse.”

In addition to his hands-on experience, Kaiser holds a masters degree in international studies with an emphasis on recovery from complex emergencies from Simon Frasier University in Vancouver, Canada.

Aid efforts typically focus on the politics and economics of a specific place and, he rues, avoid addressing cultural practices and beliefs. “Culture is a primary constraint to development, and yet nobody dares to question ‘why do you raise your children with prejudices?’ because this gets personal,” he says. “Instead, aid agencies focus on political and economic goals by helping create things such as hospitals, schools, courts and elections.”

Most recently, he was on a three-month assignment in the northern part of Jordan extending emergency aid to Syrian refugees. Many Syrians are now renting houses, rooms, and garages in Jordanian cities including Irbid, Mafraq, Zarqa and Ramtha, while others are living in tents in the Al Zatary refugee camp, he says.

“Syrians are in dire need of aid, but the money simply isn’t there,” he says, adding that despite being short of donor contributions, Medair still looks to find the most vulnerable and help with whatever possible means — they pay rent for refugee families, winterise tents and help construct latrines. “In some instances we provide financial assistance, in an attempt to keep children away from begging in the streets or being exploited by landlords, and so we take on the cost of rent whenever possible.”

He believes, however, that the revolution has been an extreme awakening for the Syrians where “on the one hand you see the worst of suffering and tears, and on the other people coming together hand in hand, mothers taking care of their mothers, children helping other children, families sharing what little they have with other families.” He stops for a moment and then says, “You see resilience.”

When asked to describe the most painful scene he witnessed while working with Syrians, Kaiser recalls “seeing unaccompanied children, a 15-year-old girl carrying her siblings and having to provide for them”. He adds, “This girl automatically finds herself at a significant disadvantage as she attempts to provide for her siblings, sometimes at the expense of her own dignity — which is extremely important to her future. Some Syrian girls have to prostitute themselves while there are stories of others who are sold as brides to provide for rent. But because of cultural taboos, people are unwilling to talk about it!” Consequently, Kaiser explains, such cultural taboos stand as impediments when it comes to quantifying and reporting these problems: “In a situation such as this, if you cannot report these problems, it’s as if they never occurred.”

“Sorrowful,” he sums it up. “Seeing children dead is part of the reality of a war — you come to expect it — but more painful is seeing children exploited — that breaks your heart.”


Ghada Al Atrash holds a masters degree in English and teaches at a college in Abu Dhabi.