The first book of its kind, Chasing Misery is a compilation of stories from women in the humanitarian aid sector. Released in 2014, the book was self-published by an editorial team that should have captured the aid world’s attention with their stories.
It starts off brilliantly, with a conversation between lead editor Kelsey Hoppe and a man who thinks he’s in love with her, but he isn’t. He’s in love with disaster.
Aid workers live with the harsh realities of everyday life in the toughest places. Yet, they indulge in fantasy by imagining how they will meet up again, in a place where everything is right with the world.
Claiming that aid workers are used to trying on their immortality by taking chances in different crisis, Hoppe explains; We are the type of people who were supposed to die young and didn’t.
Aid workers take on great personal risk to help people in crisis. The risk is a calculated one, as each new country demands a new coping strategy with different rules for how to stay alive and persevere through difficult conditions.
Chasing Misery begs the question, what motivates women to work in the humanitarian sector? Are they really chasing misery or are they chasing something else? Perhaps they are chasing the essence of life, what it means to be alive amidst calamity and chaos.
The book is comprised of nearly 50 stories organized by geographical region. Each story contains a set of challenges that women face on assignment; the everyday realities of being a foreigner and a female, the risk of living in a high-security area, and the moral dilemmas they face when they realize that some people are going to live, and others are going to die.
As a female aid worker who has worked in the humanitarian sector for more than 20 years, I cannot help but think that I too, am a part of the book. Every chapter reminds me of my own experience, every story encapsulates part of my own truth. It reminds me of my own questions; Can I go to the bathroom by the side of the road without setting off a landmine? When stopped at a checkpoint, should I follow the commands of the men with guns or my security briefing? Every day has a dilemma, and every professional choice is ultimately, a personal one.
For readers that are unfamiliar with relief work, each chapter offers a glimpse into the lifestyle. Helen Seeger captures the essence of what it means to be “in the field,” to be on location with the people who need the most help. Many aid workers are in duty stations where they sit in containerized offices and write reports to donors. Being in the field means being on location with the beneficiaries who receive aid. They are the essence of our why, why we do this work.
The hardest stories come from Darfur, where women and children are repeatedly mutilated despite the aid workers’ best efforts. Roberta Romero looks for answers by searching for the thread that holds together all her questions; Why were these women raped? Why did the government cover it up? Why can’t they do more to stop the violations?
Are there any answers to the brutality that man and nature have wrought upon the earth?
Then, amid the heartbreak of people who died, are the miracles for those who managed to stay alive. The twin who passed away after a difficult childbirth, and the baby who made it through the night. Recovering the body of a colleague killed in action, then rejoicing over the colleague who was falsely imprisoned and eventually set free.
At the end of the day, each woman has her own personal experience; her experience interacting with people during their times of great suffering; her experience of vulnerability as she tries to establish order in a disordered world.
There’s also the question of managing your personal life and relationships in the midst of all these other considerations. One woman told her story of managing a difficult relationship with a partner who didn’t want to be living overseas. Concluding that “home doesn’t have to be hard,” she made her way out of that situation and learned to enjoy her work again.
From story to story, we see the theme of solidarity emerge. When an Iraqi refugee comforts an aid worker because her grandmother died while she was overseas, we too are comforted. Humanity comes together in times like these, across different cultures and professional roles.
The only flaw in the book is its organization; each set of stories is compiled by region with a short introduction to a particular country or crisis. Each story is so powerful that once you finish one, you need to pause and put the book down to consider what you’ve heard, before you pick it up again to read another one.
Each section of the book demands its own conclusion. What’s the collective impact of all these stories, and what impact did the aid community have on the situation at large? I also hungered for a final conclusion of the book that would wrap up all the stories into a neat package.
Yet, aid workers know that the world doesn’t offer us a neat package of happy endings. It does however, present us with the conditions of humanity and allow us to respond. What is our response, our personal response to a world in crisis?
The final essay offers an answer. While Malka Older is on assignment for the tsunami response, a man thanks her for her service. She finds it hard to accept his gratitude. She is doing her job. The Japanese people are so organized, no one is fighting over scarce resources or limited aid distributions. But she is there with them, in the midst of their suffering. They are grateful for her presence. She too, is grateful to be there among them.
Each woman in the book is offering her greatest gift to the world. She is offering herself; her professional skills, her empathy, and her presence in service to humanity. While hundreds of books argue about the futility of aid as a band-aid to cover over a watershed of problems, these women offer us hope; hope that our individual contributions do make a difference.