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Who saves the saviours: Aid workers in distress

World Governments Aid workers who need our help.

Living amongst us in our communities are thousands of current and former aid workers who, in the course of their work, have seen and experienced horrific things. War, conflict, murder, death from natural disaster, disease and famine. These hardy young men and women are great representatives of our country and often make us proud in the work that they do.
Many of the world’s aid workers are Australian and hardly a night goes by without the evening news showing some event involving aid staff somewhere in the world. Great travellers and brave workers, at some point these Australians have to come home. When they do return their adjustment can be tough, yet just before the election was called our government quietly pulled the funding that helps in their re-adjustment to Australian life.

While it is right and good that we think of the horrors seen by our servicemen and women in war, and while it is proper that we demand from our government that return care is given to those service personnel, what of the returning aid worker? Who helps them?
When preparing for a conflict or natural disaster, one can prepare for the psychological and physical dangers. One also has a support group of peers in those hostile environments to lend support when one is there.But when an aid worker comes home they face the same isolation and loneliness that many ex-service personnel feel. Returning aid workers are often in conflict zones longer than service personnel and often have a deeper and more personal connection with the innocent victims of natural and man-made calamities than service personnel. As a result many can be as susceptible, or more so, to long lasting psychological injury. They need help too.

I know this, because I was one of them.
Family and friends can help a little, but only people who have seen and experienced similar events know what it feels like to see that which has been seen. It is good and proper that organisations like the Returned Services League exist for service men and women to find solace and comfort in friends who have experienced similar horrors, but there is nothing similar for aid workers.
I still fight my demons. The crying face of a Bosnian refugee child named Maria is still imbedded in my shoulder. The scent of a church full of dead in Rwanda remains in my nostrils. The seemingly insurmountable challenge of 3.5 million being made homeless by Pakistan’s earthquake and the deadly Himalayan winter they survived through, still lives with me every day.
On coming home from Rwanda I remember a child in an Albert Park shop complaining about the wrong brand of potato chips. I slumped to the shop floor and cried, not for him, but for the children I had just left behind who would not dare to dream of potato chips.
Only in camaraderie can you find real empathy and help. But there is no RSL for the many thousands of aid workers who have come home. This is why coming home can be tough and for many aid workers it is much tougher than going in the first place.
Few organisations give support to aid workers. One that does, the Mandala Foundation based in Melbourne, has just had its promised funding of only half a million a year over three years, cut by the Australian government’s aid arm, AusAID.
The Mandala Foundation was started a few years ago by some brave psychologists who saw this gap and they have tried to fill it. They helped me and they help others and in the process help themselves too.

The Foundation is currently run by Christoph Hensch. If you don’t know his name, perhaps you should. A softly spoken man, he was the only survivor when unknown forces in Chechnya attacked a Red Cross hospital and murdered six of our colleagues. The killers shot him, leaving him for dead as the masked assassins professionally murdered the others. He is a true hero in our midst and he fights his demons by helping others fight theirs.

In 2010, when CEO of Committee for Melbourne I lobbied for Mandala’s funding. I met with Kevin Rudd when Foreign Affairs Minister and he ensured funding. Now that he is PM the funding has been cut.
Liberal frontbencher Andrew Robb, who has had his own well publicised battles with depression, not only supported the idea of funding but helped me personally in my post aid work return to Melbourne in 2010. Yet Liberal policy so far is silent on the issue of aid worker rehabilitation.
Perhaps then, if you are one of the many Australians who are yet to decide how to vote, perhaps make this one of your deciding issues? Perhaps, when thinking on how to vote, ask your local politician to lobby for the funding to be restored?
In this election season where we see hundreds of millions of dollars being thrown at all sorts of projects, the half a million a year needed by Mandala to look after the health of some of the bravest Australians, really seems like chicken feed in dollars, but great value in impact, doesn’t it?
Mandala foundation is at http://www.mandalafoundation.org.au/