The Job Where You Have 48 Hours To Get To Some Of The Toughest Places On Earth

Photo: International Rescue Committee/Tyler Jump.
When human rights crises and natural disasters break out around the world, some people are tasked with running into the very places that the majority of people are running from. Aid workers, doctors, nurses and other emergency personnel must be ready to respond quickly. But among those humanitarians, there is an even smaller group charged with being the first ones in to some of the toughest places on Earth.

Emily David is part of the International Rescue Committee's Emergency Response Team, a group of about 40 people whose job it is to figure out how the aid agency will respond to a given crisis, and to figure it out fast. For David, that means being ready to hop on a plane within hours of learning where her next destination will be.

"You will get a phone call, or an email, and you will need to be deployed within 48 hours. And they will literally say, 'A situation has occurred, we're sending in an initial team to do an assessment and set up the programming,'" David told Refinery29. "You don’t have an office there. You check into a hotel, or whatever accommodation you can find. And then you hit the pavement."

It's a job that means long hours, uncertainty, and often putting family and friends on the back burner. But the 43-year-old Australia native loves it. Bringing relief to the world's most vulnerable people — refugees, migrants, those who have lost their homes in floods or fires — is tough, but also rewarding work, David said.

Ahead, David shares her story and photos of her work from Serbia, where she has been on the ground helping people during the worst refugee crises since World War II.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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Photo: Courtesy of Emily David.
Where did you grow up, and why did you decide to get into this type of work?
"I grew up in Melbourne, Australia. As a young child, I traveled; my dad worked for an oil company, so I grew up in an ex-pat environment overseas, from the age of 9 to the age of 14. I lived in Japan, I lived in Saudi Arabia, and so I suppose I was exposed to different cultures. I went back to Australia at the age of 15.

"I didn't know what an aid worker was growing up, you know? When people ask you what you want to do as a child and teenager, you don’t say: 'an aid worker.' It didn’t really exist in our conscience.

"I mean I suppose I wanted to be Julie from The Love Boat. I wanted to go into social events and things like that. But then, gradually, I started to grow a social justice conscience, and I discovered Amnesty International and their work at the age of 14 or 15. I was influenced by movies, as well. I saw a movie by Oliver Stone called Salvador, and that had such an impact on me. It was basically about the war in El Salvador. I think I saw that movie, and I just went, 'I think this is what I’ve gotta do...' I didn’t know what it was exactly, but I was so curious about, politically, how these things can happen. And how do you protect people in these environments? How do we resolve it?

"Wanting to explore different cultures, and understand different cultures and different people, was very much a part of what I wanted to do as my profession. When people ask me, 'It’s great that you help people,' I say, 'Yes, I believe in what I do, but I also love the lifestyle. I love learning about different places, and people, and contexts.' So it kind of suits a lot of things that are important to me."

Caption: Emily working with children at the Jalozai camp for refugees and internally displaced people in Pakistan.
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Photo: Courtesy of Emily David.
What is the lifestyle like for an aid worker? What is your average day like?
"The lifestyle has its pros and cons. As part of the IRC’s Emergency Response Team — I'm the senior protection coordinator — you will get a phone call, or an email...and you have about 48 hours to be deployed. Obviously, there’s a bit of a negotiation around that, depending where you are, and when flights are, but you are ready to go at that point.

"Then you go, and you have a short briefing. But you’re part of that assessment team, so you have to come up with what the situation is. You're usually deployed between two months to three months... When we arrived in January in Lesbos, [Greece], it was a team of four. You don't have an office there. You check into a hotel, or whatever accommodation you can find. And then you hit the pavement, and you do an assessment. You meet with the mayor, you meet with the local authorities, you interview refugees, you do observation of what the immediate needs are, and, priority-wise, what we can do, as immediate implementation.

"You expect to work seven days a week, and they are long hours. And you pray that you are with a team that you coordinate very well with, because you don’t always know everyone on the emergency team. Every context is very different. For example, at the moment, I’m living in Belgrave, and I’m in a city, a great city. But I’m doing emergency work. And in Lesbos, I’m on a Greek island, there are the perks, as well. Other emergencies, you’re at the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it’s under security lockdown. So it depends on the environment."

Caption: Emily and the IRC team working with refugees and migrants arriving in Lesbos, Greece.
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Photo: Courtesy of Emily David.
How long is the period between deployments? How long are you home for?
"It can really vary. For example, I was in Sierra Leone for three months. It wasn’t in the height of the emergency, it was in the time post-emergency. But then I had a week off, about a week or two off, and then I was deployed straight away for two months.

"Then I had three weeks off, and then I was deployed again, to Greece and Serbia. Downtime is usually at least two weeks. But if you say, 'I need more time,' they will definitely give you more time. It just depends on what’s happening in the world and who’s available. But now [after Serbia], I will probably take some non-deployment time for a couple of months."

Caption: Emily working for the IRC in Sierra Leone.
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Photo: Courtesy of Emily David.
Has it been hard to be deployed while you were with your family?
"Between Sierra Leone and Greece, I was exhausted, and I took a week off to see my dad in the south of France. I hadn’t seen my dad in about a year. And so we went to the house, and we were in a cafe in San Provence. And I was sitting back and having a glass of wine, and all of a sudden: Ring, ring! Ring, ring! I thought, 'Oh, what’s this number? I don’t recognize this number!' So I walked away from the table, and it's [IRC] saying, 'Something’s happening in Lesbos, and they’re putting together a team, and we would like you to be deployed, when are you available?'

"I went back to the table. I think the part that is a little bit difficult is, even though I still had two more days with my family, I'm preoccupied. I was sitting down at the table, and I said, 'I just got a call, I’m going away to Greece.' And my dad said, 'Okay, well that’s what you do, that’s life.' I said, 'I know.' So I got back to my nice salad and my wine, but it was kind of a mixed two days. You're starting to read up, you're starting to think about what you need to do.

"[I was thinking]: I've got to spend 24 hours at home before I quickly fly to New York, and then go straight from New York to the island. What do I have to do in 24 hours? What do I have to pack? Do I have enough underwear? Do I have my drugs? All those sorts of things."

Caption: Emily and her father in France in 2015. She got a call to be deployed to Greece to help refugees arriving there while on vacation with her family.
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Photo: Courtesy of Emily David.
Is it tough to have a spouse or partner and do this kind of work?
"I am single. It is difficult. It does make it very difficult, if you start doing emergency work, to then find someone during that period of working in emergency. If you’re based in one place for a year, it makes it a little easier.

"You come and go when you're working pretty much seven days a week. And then when you're not working, you’re — you have down time, but you're sleeping a lot. You're trying to get the basics done, and catch up with friends. And then you’re off again.

"So yeah, it is difficult to find a partner. And if you did have a family, to be away would be quite difficult, as well...I f I am deployed right now, and I have a family back at home, to be able to give them even time on the phone to connect can be quite difficult. And you’re gone for two to three months at a time. It’s not impossible; people do have it, people do have partners on the emergency team. I think it’s just that you have to find a way to be around that."

Caption: Emily and a local colleague at her colleague's wedding in Peshawar, Pakistan.
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Photo: Courtesy of Emily David.
Is a partner or family something you eventually want to have? Are you worried that you’d have to give up doing this kind of work if you wanted to have a family or a partner?
"I always believe that if you do what you love, then you attract the right people. Of course, there is a practicality around that, as well. But I think, ideally, I’d love to meet someone who is either in the same line of work as me, or understands what I do, and I can find that nice balance with someone. So if I’d need to adjust my lifestyle a little bit to be able to increase the opportunities to meet someone, then, yeah, I’d be willing to do it. But right now, I don’t feel the need to do that."

Caption: Emily during a vacation in Zimbabwe.
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Photo: Courtesy of Emily David.
Have you ever been away for the holidays, and is that tough? How do you and your family still celebrate together, or do you have little traditions you do on your own?
"I’m so lucky in the sense that I have this wonderful family. Even before I was on the emergency team, I worked in the Middle East for seven years. I was gone — I was in Pakistan for a year and Southeast Asia. And at one point, I hadn't been home to Australia for three years. I hadn’t seen my sister, who is my best friend, in three years. And she had a child that I hadn’t met. [I was] speaking to her on the phone the day after she gave birth, and we remained close... But after that three years of being away from my family, I did make a pact with myself that I was never allowed to be away that long. And I think you just put up some rules, a 'note to self' that, no matter what, work is never as important as your family.

"If a year goes by and I haven't seen my family, then there’s something wrong. I need to do something, because they’re my priority. But that was a gradual process. When you’re younger, you want to work as hard as you can and achieve, and there’s this guilt that comes around with working, as well. You feel that you’re being selfish somehow, and if you put yourself first, then you’re not as committed. So it’s letting go of that. Self-care is really important... It doesn’t mean I care less, it doesn’t mean I’m committed less. But that’s a process I think we all go through as aid workers."

Caption: Emily having dinner with her family in Lesbos, Greece, where they visited her on assignment.
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Photo: Courtesy of Emily David.
How do you practice self-care while working in tough places?
"Self-care is so important, and so many stories I hear from aid workers and people working in international development is that you need to have balance, because our life isn’t balanced naturally. So we have to find a way to add that self-care and that balance.

"I’ve said to myself: 'My balance isn’t going to be traditional.' I can’t have a balance and have, maybe, a relationship when I’m deployed. And I can’t go to the gym, you know, in my normal day-to-day, or make sure on weekends, I do so-and-so, or meet friends at the pub. But what I will do is my balance. I will take the same amount of time per day to eat well, to do my yoga, to say, 'Okay, this day, I will not work [during] these hours, and I’ll read a book for pleasure.'

"Or I’ll make sure that I stay in contact with friends and family. I will get [some] amount of hours per day, no matter what, to Skype, to write an email. And that ends up being my self-care, ensuring to a degree that I have balance in my life. It ends up that once you make that decision, it’s not too difficult, actually. And it makes you work better. It makes you better at what you do, because you’re happier. You have more energy."

Caption: Emily in Kenema, Sierra Leone.
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Photo: Courtesy of Emily David.
What is it like to be a young woman doing this type of work?
"You find a lot of single young women, amazing women, in this position. You don’t find as many men...

"Your security is always a question. There are certain things you can do as a man, but as a woman, it’s more difficult in some environments that you’re placed in. For example, in Pakistan, if I were a man, I’d have a lot more freedom of movement. As a woman, I have to sit in the back of the car, while a man can sit in the front. If I get out of the car... I have to have an escort everywhere.

"You are much more self-conscious about the fact that you’re a woman. And then you have the physical security issues. I haven’t come across too many myself, but I’ve heard a lot of stories from colleagues and friends in this field. So you have to always be conscious. In Sierra Leone, I went jogging in the morning. I was told that it was secure, but I didn’t feel very secure. People would drive past, and I’d have something thrown at me. So there’s things you can’t do as a woman. That is very frustrating."

Caption: Emily working at a camp for refugees and internally displaced people at the Jalozai camp in Pakistan.
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Photo: Courtesy of Emily David.
Does it ever get overwhelming? Do you have moments when you feel that the situation is so desperate it's hopeless?
"Yes, I think we’re all in a lot of situations like that. I think it’s part of the skill set that you have as an aid worker. There’s a lot of situations you’re in where it’s not within your power — above your pay grade, in a sense — to find a solution. The European crisis is a really good point and case, because it’s a very political situation, and decisions are being made at a very high level.

"But it doesn’t mean that we can’t advocate. It doesn’t mean we cannot continue to raise the issue, but we’re probably not going to see exact results the next day. And especially working with protection work, which [deals with] human rights violations, ensuring dignity and social security for people, there isn’t an instant tangible outcome that you’re going to see every day.

"But you take it in small bits. So I do feel overwhelmed, and I do think sometimes, Are we making a difference? But I think over the years of experience, you realize that you do make the difference, and even that interaction, even how you approach your work makes a difference... I take it down to the very basics, and I don’t look too far ahead. Even though you have to be strategic, I just look at what I can do today. How can I impact someone’s life right now?"

Caption: Emily and the emergency team working with refugees and migrants arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos. Millions of people have fled war, violence and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa in an effort to find safety in Europe.
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Photo: Courtesy of the International Rescue Committee.
Has there ever been any experience or moment where something has been very difficult or violent, and how did you cope with that?
"I have been lucky in the sense that I haven’t seen anything really violent. I think that the things that affect you a lot are the stories you hear, and the people you become quite close to when you’re working in a context for a while. You see how they’re affected by their environment, and you take on what they’re experiencing.

"I met this woman, she was about in her 50s and she had her 18-year-old son with her. You could tell there was something wrong with him. He was limping, he was lying down most of the time. And we had decided, as IRC, to pick up rubbish, because there is so much litter, there was no system in place to [get rid of] all of the garbage, and it was becoming a health concern.

"And this woman came up to me and she said, 'Can I help?' And I said, 'No, no, you’ve just arrived. You’ve been through a horrendous trip all the way from Syria. Rest, rest. And your son doesn’t look well, so be with him.' And she said, 'No, no, no, I need to do something, I really want to help.'

"...So we were picking up rubbish, side by side, and then she started to tell me her story, and this woman was just so kind and calm. So she was picking up this rubbish, and she said, 'My son has been shot, and he needs to get medical assistance in Europe, somewhere in Germany. That’s what the doctors told him in Syria, they don’t have the facilities.' She said, 'I’m trying to get him there.' I said, 'Okay.' And you could just tell, physically, he was definitely not well. So I said, 'Where’s the rest of your family?' And she said, 'Well, my husband was killed, my two sons, they’ve disappeared, they’ve been taken by the army. My daughter was taken and she’s in prison. And my other daughter has worked to get the money for us to go to Germany.'

"And I just — oh. I mean, I’ve been in this field for a long time, but I had tears in my eyes... You hear a lot of stories along the way, and the strength that people have. They get no acknowledgment for it. No one’s patting them on the back just for being an amazing human being."

Caption: Emily helping people who have recently arrived at the Kara Tepe Refugee Camp in Lesbos, Greece.
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Photo: Courtesy of Emily David.
Any experiences that have happened to you while you were working that were funny?
"One thing I love about my profession as well is that there’s comical moments every single day. Every single day, even in the most dire situations, there is some comic humor to it, as well. I laugh every day, and we all laugh together. Because you’ve got interpretations across cultures, and yeah… I’m trying to think of one specific…

"I’ll just tell you one, but I won’t tell you where I was. It's funny, but it's not. I walked into a police station and there was the head commander of police. And he was trying to impress us, and he said he’s got everything under order, and he’s protecting the refugees, and that everything’s fine. And on his wall, he had a picture of a woman in lingerie, black lacy lingerie, with high boots, leaning back on a motorcycle, right behind him. But he didn’t think that was inappropriate. And on his wall of the police station was a picture of two women naked together. So my colleague and I were listening to him running through everything he was doing for the refugees, and we just were trying to keep a straight face. And you see what I’m thinking, with a female colleague, and we’re just both going, 'Oh, my god.' Out of control.

"There's so many comical moments... I try and write them down, actually. I try and keep a diary and just write down the funny things that happen in the day, as well, or when there’s a situation where you see this great connection with another human being, or another family, which is part of the reason I do what I do, and love what I do. I learn every day, as well, and I laugh every day."

Caption: Emily on vacation in Zimbabwe with her best friend, Natalie.
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Photo: International Rescue Committee/Tyler Jump.
What is your advice for young women?
"The one thing I would say is: Be kind to yourself and to others. I think that’s a lesson learnt for me in life... Everything you do, do it based on your belief, and be really kind to yourself. I think we judge ourselves very harshly, as well. It comes with self care, that you always treat yourself with kindness, and you treat others with kindness.

"A friend once said that to me when I was being hard on myself. I was saying, 'I could have done that better,' and blah blah blah, and my friend turned to me and said, 'Emily, if you had a friend saying what you’re saying to yourself, would you still be friends with them?' And I said, 'No, I wouldn’t.' And she said, 'Well, then why do you treat yourself that way?' And I said, 'You know, that’s very true.'"

Caption: Emily helping people who have recently arrived at the Kara Tepe Refugee Camp in Lesbos, Greece.