Stories

Meet Anne Reitsema: our new CEO

Anne is a leading voice and practitioner in the global humanitarian sector. Over the past twenty years, she has led humanitarian responses in Darfur, Somalia, Angola, Northern Uganda, and South Sudan. Most recently, as International Director, she oversaw all Medair’s country programs in the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe, and Africa. Anne also serves on the Global Emergency Directors Group.

We are excited to announce that Anne Reitsema has been appointed Medair’s new CEO, the fifth person to hold this responsibility since our beginning in 1989. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to catch up with her as she embarks on this new chapter in her humanitarian journey.

 

 

Anne, tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born in South Africa to a Dutch father and an American mother who were both actively involved in building relationships and restoring hope in the Zulu community. Growing up with five other siblings and some additional young people staying in our home, I discovered the joy that comes from a life experienced together— coming to terms with the world and discussing our discoveries over long dinners, hiking in the mountains, and delighting in the beauty of creation. To this day, my family continues to be a great source of encouragement and inspiration.

When I was 11 years old, our community was rocked by extreme conflict that lasted 10 years. A number of the young Zulus in our church who were very close to my family were killed. The first-hand experience of these clashes impacted me in a very personal way and birthed a passion to come alongside communities affected by conflicts.

 

Out of your life experience birthed a passion to serve conflict affected communities – How did you turn this passion into a career?

When I was 18, I decided to study social work, psychology, and community development. After graduating, I moved to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in counseling. Although I was a full-time student, I continued working in child protection and was able to complete part of my studies by extension from the UK. I honestly don’t know how I managed it! I ended up with just enough money in my bank account to pay for my vaccinations and the flight to my first assignment with Medair in 2004.

 

When did you first hear about Medair ?

I first heard about Medair through a friend of my brother’s. After graduating, I started looking for an organization that recognized the importance of modeling restoration and reconciliation through relationships. I also wanted to integrate my Christian faith into my work, as it was and is the lens through which I see the inherent value of people. When I mentioned this to my brother, he set up a meeting with a friend of his who was working for Medair. I left that encounter convinced that Medair was exactly what I was looking for and I never looked back!

“I was passionate about supporting conflict-affected communities and started looking for an organization that recognized the importance of modeling restoration and reconciliation through relationships.”

I initially joined intending to draw from my expertise in psychology to support the mental health sector. I very quickly ended up in leadership positions where I used my psychosocial training in a different capacity. My background in counseling proved extremely helpful as I led teams. One of the things I remain passionate about to this day is seeing groups of people thrive, grow in their effectiveness and their trust in one another, and most importantly, experience increasing joy in what they have to offer.

 

What are some ways in which you have personally experienced joy under difficult circumstances?

In all the projects that I was a part of, we embraced rhythms of celebration and reflection. We made a point of carving out time once a quarter to rejoice over our successes, answers to prayer, and breakthroughs, but also to process the challenges faced and to grieve our losses. We would physically draw all these events on a timeline to have a visual reminder of them.

Because we are in a sector and context where we face so many obstacles and setbacks, it is extremely powerful to draw renewed strength and inspiration from celebration and mutual encouragement.

Our hearts broke for those who were suffering because we knew that what they were experiencing could have happened to any of us.

I’m also reminded of how teams would come together in an acute crisis—when it’s all hands on deck, no matter what your role is. I can remember times when we would rally together, turn the music on, start singing, and bring food to share with one another. Our hearts broke for those who were suffering because we knew that what they were experiencing could have happened to any of us. This shared sense of solidarity gave us unexpected, renewed energy to push through and ensure that help reached people in their most extreme time of need.

 

What stands out to you after so many years spent in the field?

There is incredible value in a group of people coming together for a common purpose. Together we are stronger. In the context of community, we can model restoration and reconciliation through our relationships and influence the context we are in. This fellowship and partnership have carried me through difficult situations time and time again.

In the face of so much darkness, our shared faith is a shining light and an anchor that continually spurs us on toward love and hope. Being able to look beyond the present realities together gives us the strength to be a presence that brings joy and peace amid crises.

 

It’s not an easy time to take on the leadership of a humanitarian organization. How can Medair navigate the challenges?

Over the past 24 months, we have witnessed a significant shift in the global power dynamic, leading to increased polarization and repositioning of different parts of the world. This has had an impact on how we are perceived as a faith-based international humanitarian organization.

I think it can be tempting to approach these times with fear and anxiety, but I believe that if we stay true to our calling of fighting for the value of human life in the hardest-to-reach places, we can continue to do what we set out to do, becoming more agile along the way. We realize that first and foremost we are carried in prayer by many of those who support us in this work.

Upholding the quality of our services is also key to ensuring our relevance and will drive the growth that is appropriate at this time, even if it looks different from what we had envisioned. What does quality control look like in the case of an organization like ours? It might mean selecting the most efficient medicine to treat children for example or not causing harm to the communities we come alongside. Without standards of quality in place, everything we do is a waste of time.

Our vision also means allowing our seven core values of hope, compassion, dignity, integrity, accountability, joy, and faith to permeate all our relationships, whether within our teams, with the people we seek to serve, with the authorities, or with our donors. When we model these values, we bring out the best in each other.

The joy, love, care, and energy that a team feels in a moment like that is a memory that carries me through difficult times.

I remember once during an emergency response in South Soudan, we worked well into the night as a team preparing buckets to be flown in the next morning by helicopter to a community that had fled conflict. We prepared water filters, drilled holes in the buckets so we could attach the filters, labeled and packaged the buckets, and checked the instruction booklets included. We only had a very small window of time to make sure these people had access to the clean drinking water they needed to keep their families healthy.

The joy, love, care, and energy that a team feels in a moment like that is a memory that carries me through difficult times. In my new role, this feeling is less tangible, but I think back to those days and am inspired to play my part in what is still a team effort.

 

 


Read the official release about her appointment.