Aid workers: ‘I have to believe in goodness and in doing good’

Irish overseas offer humanitarian help in face of hunger, death and devastation

The first day Gena Heraty went to work at a residential home in Haiti, she became a mother for the abandoned children in her care. She was 23 back then and 29 years on is still doing many of the same daily chores.

“One of the older girls didn’t want to shower today, but I got her to do it. I spent last night caring for one of the boys who had a temperature. There are night staff to do it, but in my role as mother, I wanted to,” she says.

Heraty is now the director of the Kay St Germaine Rehab and Special Needs School in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and the Kay Christine Home in nearby Kenscoff. However, she still tends personally to her 31 charges.

“The children are why I’m still here. We’re in this together,” says Heraty, who has no intention of leaving Haiti despite escalating gang violence, riots and electricity and water shortages.


The challenges facing her staff put other difficulties into perspective.

“Before this interview, a director of our rehab programme came to me, upset. Her neighbour was kidnapped in his house,” she says.

Another member of staff was attacked on her way to work.

“In true rural Haitian fashion, the people where she’s from caught the guy and beat him to death. Now a judge has said he’ll arrest her family unless they pay money,” she says.

“This is the level of corruption. You can murder people and get away with it. But she is the victim,” says Heraty, who was herself attacked in the care home several years ago and faces a regular threat of kidnapping.

A strong faith helps to combat the fears of the Liscarney, Co Mayo-born aid worker, who is a Roman Catholic but does not, as she puts it, feel tied to any religion.

“My faith is simple: if I believe in a God, then I have to believe in goodness and in doing good. I am not bothered in a life after death – I do believe in it but I am more concerned in doing my best for the here and now. I believe whatever will happen to me here, I’ll be given the strength to deal with it.”

Life in difficult places seems to suit Heraty. If anything, it is spending time at home in Ireland that proves perplexing. This was especially clear during her first years involved in overseas aid work.

Shopping trolley

“[There was such] a disconnect,” she says. “I remember going to an Irish hospital for a check-up and people complaining in the waiting room because they were waiting for hours. I thought, firstly, you have a hospital [and] the hospital has electricity.

"If you want to get a coffee, you have money to get one. But over the years I've learned to be less judgmental. Everybody feels things differently," says Heraty, who pines often in Haiti for a Dunnes Stores "and a trolley".

Covid-19 has imposed its own unique pressures in Haiti.

“I haven’t gone to church recently. Since Covid came, I was petrified of bringing anything into the house. I don’t want anyone to get sick and go to a hospital where there’s no oxygen.”

Looking ahead to this year, Heraty mostly just wants to keep her centres open.

“Nobody wants to donate money to an organisation to pay salaries. But staff are the ones who keep programmes going.”

Before the pandemic, Eric Scanlon and his fiancée, Gabi, had planned to marry in her native Brazil and start a family. In the face of flight cancellations and the closure of borders, the couple were forced to make new plans.

With a background in international relations, Scanlon applied for a job in the Cairo bureau of the United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP).

“It was a shock to my wife. But, thankfully, she was also up for a challenge.”

In September 2020, the couple had an Irish wedding and moved to Cairo four weeks later. Today, they have a one-month-old boy, Niall. Scanlon’s in-laws recently came to help with the baby, and his own parents will follow.

But the Trim, Co Meath, native worries how they will fare when the family help is gone, especially since he can be in the office six days a week, with three-week-long work field trips the norm rather than the exception.

The visits to WFP offices across the Middle East and North Africa are necessary, he says. "You get a much better feel for how it all works, and that helps us to do our job better when we're back in the regional office."

Famine consciousness

Working in war-torn Yemen during 2020 took the greatest toll, Scanlon says.

“I could see and feel the devastation. The airport had suffered bomb damage. Buildings are in ruin, there are craters in the roads, and people are visibly impoverished.”

The Great Famine, he believes, leaves the Irish better able than other Europeans to feel the plight of starving people today.

“Think of the famous case of Native Americans providing food to the Irish, that still means so much to us now. It drives me on to help others.”

He has become more cautious in his work since becoming a father.

“When my wife was pregnant, I took extra precautions, when travelling to places with Covid spikes. I had to be careful not to bring anything home, or to fall ill while abroad.”

This year, he is due to go to Syria to inspect the WFP's work there. "But I can't plan too far in advance because we're constantly responding to events that happen at short notice. We need to be ready at any moment to respond."

Meanwhile, Greystones, Co Wicklow-born Anne-Marie Kerrigan-Deriche jokes that she has "grown up" in the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, having joined in 1986 shortly before her 20th birthday.

By 1991, the then 25-year-old was, with her mother’s blessings, on the Turkish-Iraqi border, dealing with the flood of refugees prompted by Saddam Hussein’s attacks on the Kurds following the opening of the first Gulf War.

There, in the Iraqi city of Zahko, a few kilometres from the Turkish border, she met an Algeria-based fellow UNHCR staffer named Kamel Deriche, who would in time become her husband.

Later, he was posted to Jordan and Kerrigan-Deriche joined him with their infant daughter, Melissa. After 3 ½ years, Kamel was relocated again, this time to Lebanon.

While living there, Kerrigan-Deriche went back to work, as their daughter started school. “She was able to speak, read and write Arabic which was brilliant.”

Kerrigan-Deriche has returned to work at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, leading a donor relations and resource mobilisation team which covers government donors from western and southern Europe.

Situation ignored

There, among other things, she tries to convince donors to support Iran, which is hosting a huge number of Afghan refugees, though many of them are being sent back. She is acutely aware that a lack of international aid previously prompted Syrian refugees to cross the Mediterranean.

“So, I try to remind western governments that this could happen again [in Afghanistan] if they ignore the situation,” she says.

Kerrigan-Deriche is due to move again this year, possibly to Jordan, an idea she relishes. However, it creates family issues since her daughter has little interest in leaving her friends.

“I’ve discussed with my husband that maybe they could stay here, so that she continues her schooling. It’s terrible, having to make that decision.”

Calvin James Sweeney, who teaches in a refugee camp for Yazidis who suffered at the hands of Islamic State, is temporarily back in Dublin from Duhok, Iraq. There, his home is a shipping container and his shower is a bucket.

In the camp, Sweeney, who leads the Scoop Foundation, has been bolstering a "sub-par" education system by teaching mindfulness and computer programming, alongside standardised subjects, to 400 children.

The Yazidis, a Kurdish minority group, have been persecuted over centuries for their beliefs. In 2014, Islamic State militants kidnapped thousands, killed many more and forced women into sexual slavery. Many are still homeless, spread in camps across Iraq.

Sweeney’s team live in one of these, with some 11,000 people.

“We are working and living with a group of girls who were kidnapped by Isis [another name for Islamic State], sold into slavery and married off several times.

"They are 19 and 20 years old. When you're sitting with them, hearing their stories, tears flow," says Sweeney, who speaks reverently about a colleague, Dr Nemam Ghafouri, who worked doggedly to help the women.

"Some had children by Islamic State fighters, through rape. So, the women were told that, since their children are not full Yazidi, they were not allowed into the community."

Dr Ghafouri managed to bring 15 of those children to a safe house, but died due to complications caused by Covid-19, which has swept through the camps.

“We were the only people wearing masks, the only people vaccinated,” Sweeney says.

He is due to return in March, hoping to set up remote school classes for the children. In the meantime, his team are working with refugees in Ireland’s direct provision centres.

The Irish centres “aren’t much better than the Iraqi camps”, he believes.

“We’ve had people in the camp who say they’d love to come to Ireland. I tell them Ireland isn’t the best place to be seeking asylum.”