Ten things I would tell my former self about life as a relief worker

Katherine*, Communications Officer, shares the top 10 things she has learned so far from working in Afghanistan.

1. You don’t know it yet, but you know nothing.

Really, you know nothing. You think you do. You have all the “right” degrees, but you’ll get out to a rural village in the “middle-of-nowhere” Afghanistan and realise that you don’t know the first thing about what it’s like to live in a country that has survived over three decades of war.  You will realise the theories written in textbooks can never describe the realities of living and working in this complex place, and that a whole new era of your education has begun.

2. You don’t know it yet, but the first time you hear a crack or a pop in the night, your mind is going to rush back to your security training.

Do you run to the safe room? Where’s your run bag? Head torch? Why is no one else coming out of their rooms? And then you’re going to realise it was the wind or door closing or some other inconsequential thing that you’ll eventually get used to.

3.  You don’t know it yet, but you’re about to be adopted into a new family.

The Afghan staff are about to become your brothers, sisters, uncles, and mothers. You don’t know it yet, but these people will become just as much a part of your family as the loved ones you so dearly miss at home. They are going to laugh at your silly foreigner ways and you are going to secretly ask them what is culturally appropriate. You will worry when they tell you their child is sick, and grow to love greeting them each day as if you are long-lost friends, even though you saw them just yesterday.

4. You don’t know it yet, but you will get painfully and dreadfully sick.

You’ll be lying in bed, curled up in a ball and the thought will cross your mind, “I don’t want to die like this.” You won’t, I promise. You will come through it stronger than ever and join the ranks of your fellow relief workers with their battleground stories. You’ll end up laughing with your colleagues over dinner while discussing the terribly inappropriate details of your past intestinal movements. Not only that, but you will legitimately enjoy these conversations.

5. You don’t know it yet, but you’re going to hit some pretty low lows.

You’re going to come face to face with the suffering that exists in this world and in yourself, and you will feel it in the depths of your heart and soul. You will hear stories and see things that leave your heart hopeless and your soul crying at night. You will hit the end of your limits and wonder how you can ever make sense of this world. And in that exact moment you will realise that you have a choice to make: you can be overcome by this suffering, or you can choose to live a life of hope. I hope you choose the latter.

6. You don’t know it yet, but your hygiene standards are about to hit an all-time low.

You’ll find yourself thinking thoughts like, “If I’m wearing a headscarf all day, do I really need to wash my hair?” You’ll make a pact with your colleagues to let you know if you really do start to smell, in which case you will grudgingly take that cold or barely dribbling shower, but only for the sake of those around you.

7. You don’t know it yet, but you’re going to experience the privilege of a lifetime.

You will see places that so few people get to see, meet people so few others have met, and do things on a daily basis that your friends and family back home can barely imagine. You will be in the middle of a 12-hour bumpy ride to a remote location and over and over again ask yourself, “Why me? How did I get to be so lucky?” You will speak to people and wonder, “What did I do to deserve the privilege of serving you?”

8. You don’t know it yet, but your definition of ‘modesty’ is about to drastically change.

You will begin shopping two sizes too big for everything, and will actually get excited when you find new sparkly headscarves to enhance your baggy wardrobe. You will brag about your first successful few-metre walk in a burka without tripping, and will find yourself wondering if it is appropriate to be sitting next to an unrelated man on an airplane. And yes, you may actually ask the flight attendant to move you to a new seat next to your fellow female travellers.

9. You don’t know it yet, but you will learn that things will never “settle down.”

You’ll learn that everything you need can be packed in a small suitcase and as long as you have a place to lay your head down at night, that is “home” for the day. You will keep saying you’ll have more time when you finish your “to-do” list knowing full well that time will never come. And you will learn to embrace the constant uncertainty of this life you have chosen, knowing that the uncertainty itself teaches you the beauty of surrender.

10. You don’t know it yet, but your world is never going to be the same.

You are about to embark on one of the toughest and most fulfilling journeys of your life. There is no turning back now. Each place will become intertwined into the fabric of your being and each person will know pieces and stories of you which no one else can possibly understand. As you embark on this journey you will learn new things about yourself and this world and be forever touched by experiences and the people you meet. You will never be the same.


You can follow our work in Afghanistan on Twitter at @Medair_AFG

*Actual name changed for security purposes.