Tania Gaulis is Swiss, but her heart belongs to all those who need her help globally. This is what she is happy to share about her work in Lugansk and other places as the ICRC Delegate.
Is this your first mission with the ICRC?
I joined the ICRC in 2010. My first mission was in Chechnya, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, South Sudan, Moscow and now Lugansk. This is my sixth mission.
What is your professional background, and what brought you to the ICRC?
I hold a diploma in Political Science and International Relations.
I traveled a lot, was curious about other cultures and always wanted to help people. More importantly, I wanted to give a meaning to my work and see the results of my own actions. Being an aid worker was the logical choice. I worked as a volunteer with poor children in the slums in Ecuador when I was 18. Later on, while seeing on the TV humanitarian organizations provide assistance in Iran after the earthquake in Bam in 2003, I understood that this was really what I wanted to do.
When looking for jobs, I applied for a job at a bank at the same time that I submitted my application to the ICRC. I declined the offer of the bank and went to Chechnya with the ICRC instead, a choice that may sound rather illogical for some people! Some of my distant relatives used to be ICRC delegates, so maybe it is in the blood.
What are the priorities of your department here?
I work for the Economic Security Department, and our objective is to help affected populations cover their essential needs and unavoidable expenditures in a sustainable and dignified manner. We assist people at a time of crisis or afterwards. Depending on the situation, we provide food and essential household items, support agriculture, take care of animal health or help people resume economic activities and get an income.
At the moment in NGCA Lugansk we are very much oriented towards food security. This year we have provided food and hygiene parcels on a regular basis to approximately 27,000 people residing in 55 villages along the line of contact. In parallel we have also initiated livelihood support projects, so that people can increase their own food production and not fully rely on humanitarian aid. Following the idea of “distributing fishing nets instead of fish”, we delivered vegetable seeds, poultry, greenhouses and fodder for livestock owners living in mined areas. We hope to increase such projects next year.
In other districts of NGCA Lugansk, we have supported the most vulnerable categories of population through our partner, the Local Red Cross. We will also deliver furniture to social institutions such as psychiatric hospitals and orphanages to improve their daily functioning.
Finally, at the ICRC Heating Point, we offer respite, water and hot beverages to people who have to wait long hours before crossing the Stanitsa Luganska Bridge.
Do you remember what you felt when you boarded a plane going to your first mission?
I was very excited when I was preparing my suitcases but, as the date was getting closer, some second thoughts appeared. It is not easy to replace your current stable life by something completely new, especially in a place where people have suffered from a conflict. You are not sure if you will be able to do the job either, and wonder if it was the right decision. But this feeling does not last very long. Once you land, you immerse yourself in the work from day one and get acquainted with all the details of your organization.
How do you find work in conflict-affected areas?
My partner who works for the ICRC since a long time once told me: “it is not about the place, it is about the people”. This is very true. Each time I start a new mission, there is some positive stress but also some apprehension, as we are sent to work in complex environments and our places of assignment may look like very dangerous spots on the world map.
When I was on a plane and the pilot told passengers to fasten their seat belts because in 15 minutes we would be landing in Baghdad, I had these few seconds of panic thinking to myself “Baghdad really? Wait, it’s a bad idea, let’s turn back!” But you don’t turn back. And what always amazes me is that these places that look so scary from the outside slowly become familiar. You live there, work there, get to know the local culture, feel comfortable there and make friends… To the point that you don’t want to take the flight out at the end of your mission and each goodbye feels like tearing a piece of your heart.
How do you find motivation at work?
First of all, you have to believe in what you do, in the finality of it. A little touch of idealism is necessary to remind you why you are here, especially when things go wrong. But, beyond idealism, what motivates me is to see the practical results of my work and the fact that these results have a positive impact on the lives of people.
However, it is sometimes easy to lose motivation, especially when you spend 6 hours on a motorbike in the jungle under the rain and in the mud, completely wet and cold and with no hot shower or comfort in sight for the next 10 days. It is also easy to lose motivation when you cannot reach people who need you because of security concerns. Luckily, you are often rewarded with wonderful moments too. When a person who is totally illiterate smiles at you and says “thank you” in English, it is wonderful. The smile of a child can make you forget all your stress and tiredness, because you know that you did what you had to do.
On a daily basis, I find my motivation in the teamwork, because there is no greater feeling than a collective achievement. As an ICRC delegate, I am not only an employee; I am also responsible for a team. It often means that I have to be here for them, find solutions when a problem occurs, choose the right words to answer their doubts or frustrations without showing my own as I don’t want to disappoint them. My team in Lugansk renamed the famous song from Nirvana “It smells like teen spirit” into “It smells like TEAM spirit”. That’s my motivation.
What is your most memorable moment during a distribution?
While in the field, people we meet want to interact with us, as we are often the only ones visiting some areas. They share their concerns, frustrations, most burning issues or suffering. In these moments I must sometimes keep my emotions to myself as it is of no help to beneficiaries to start crying when they tell you their stories. It is hard, especially for a sensitive person like me.
In the DRC, for example, when you start using phrases such as “Today we put the motorbikes on the pirogue, crossed the river and then went to the prison” to describe your day, you get the irony of what working for the ICRC can be!
How does your mission in Ukraine differ from others?
This is an active frontline and people are directly affected on a daily basis. There is not yet a “before conflict” and an “after conflict”, so we are here to accompany people throughout this difficult period. Being a Russian-speaking delegate, in NGCA Lugansk I can interact with people in a way that was not possible in Iraq for example. Without the filter of the translation, I feel closer to people and their stories.
On the personal side, I was always a sportive person, something that long working hours or frequent field trips can make challenging on a mission. Like many colleagues, I do my best to stay active, but with mixed results! Here in Lugansk I have some sort of stability. I can enjoy eating out, go to the cinema, circus or theater… I bought an elliptic bike, run in the town from time to time and most exciting – I finally found after 7 long years the opportunity to reconnect with my real passion, ice hockey.
Year after year, many people back home in Switzerland ask me whether this is going to be my last mission and when I am coming back. My reply is always the same: this is not a tour or something temporary. When I joined the ICRC, not only did I choose my job, I chose my life.