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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - MANILA: In 2020, before coronavirus vaccines were released and travel came to a standstill, Princess Joy Maulana set out on a solitary journey from the Philippines to the Middle East to serve the most vulnerable communities in Syria.
At that time, restrictions and lockdowns were becoming a new normal as the world struggled to contain the impending COVID-19 pandemic. Maulana was sent on a mission to help where the global health crisis was compounded by a different kind of outbreak — of armed violence.
She traveled through the UAE and Lebanon until she reached northeast Syria, where for the next 15 months she would serve as health field officer of the International Committee of the Red Cross, managing primary health care in a place where protracted conflict since 2011 has led to the collapse of basic services.
The main area of duty was a refugee camp in the middle of the desert, where weather conditions were something the Filipina nurse had never experienced before. But Maulana had to keep going — motivated not only by her duty, but also the resilience of those whom she was serving.
“It can be scorching hot during summer or bitingly cold during winter. But I just kept thinking about what the residents of the camp must endure all the time, as some of them still live there,” she told Arab News.
“I wish the world would know the amazing natural hospitality and generosity of Syria’s people, even in the face of adversity. Even under extremely difficult living conditions, Syrians would warmly welcome us into their homes and their tents, and they would offer sweets, qahwa, or tea, even when we have nothing to offer them in terms of assistance.”
Maulana, a Cotabato native who is affectionately known as PJae, joined the ICRC in 2016, after working for years as a pediatric emergency nurse. She is one of 100 Filipinos working for the organization in different parts of the world.
Her first deployment was to Marawi in the southern Philippines, which in 2017 was taken over by groups affiliated with Daesh. After five months of fighting, hundreds of deaths and widespread destruction, the Philippine army reclaimed the city.
Facilitating the evacuation of Marawi residents, listening to their stories, being helpless in the face of individual tragedies somehow made her ready for what she would later continue to face in her line of work, although PJae says that “no one can ever prepare you (for this).”
Even the most crucial assistance that she and other relief workers provide in conflict zones seems less significant to her compared with the scale of tragedies they are addressing: the direct effects of violence on people’s lives.
“Marawi taught me that the painful effects of conflict on the affected people and communities are never acute but last long, or even a lifetime,” she said, recalling “the wounded and sick having no access to hospitals because these hospitals were damaged or inaccessible, families separated from loved ones, not knowing whether they are alive or dead.”
Another major difficulty that PJae has been facing in conflict zones — first in Marawi, then Syria, and most recently South Sudan — is making people understand that relief aid is impartial.
“During times of conflict, people take sides, fighting for one side or the other, no matter the cost. So, when the ICRC tries to access a conflict-affected community that may be perceived as sympathetic to one side of the conflict, in order to provide them with assistance, we may face security risks, which poses a huge challenge to our ability to help those in need,” she said.
“There are also affected communities with no part in the hostilities suffering from lack of access to basic services because nobody could reach them because of the perception of belonging to one side of the conflict.”
PJae is now preparing for her next deployment. In December, she will join ICRC operations in Myanmar, where multifaceted crises and a military crackdown on opposition and ethnic minorities have in recent years led to massive displacement and abuses, which have been classified by the United Nations as crimes against humanity.
The assignment means she will again be away from her family and 10-year-old son in the Philippines. But she knows they support her and that they are well and safe — a basic thing that is not a reality for many of the people she has helped.
“I am always profoundly struck by the many things we often take for granted — even as simple as the hug we get from our loved ones. In many conflict-affected communities, the everyday uncertainty of even ever seeing a missing loved one or family is there,” PJae said.
“Luckily, my family understands and supports my job, including my son. He seems happy that I am out there trying to help people in need.”
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