Humanitarian Health Action

Like a small family: supporting WHO staff welfare during the Gaza crisis

In the photo from left to right (back): Ms Amani Jouda, National Nutrition Officer; Mahmoud Daher, National Public Health Officer (OiC Gaza sub-office); Ms Dalia Salha, National Epidemiology Officer; Ms Lubna Al-Khozondar, Administrative assistant; Ms Rawia Al-Wari, Receptionist;Mr Abdelnasser Soboh, Information management assistant.
Front sitting: Mr Dyaa Saymah, National Mental Health Officer; Dr Eric Laroche, ADG Health Action in Crises

11 Feb - 2009 | Geneva - It is easy to get lost in your work and feel like a small piece of a large machine when working at WHO. It takes stories like those of our staff in the WHO Gaza office to remind us that our workmates can be as important as family and that our job is much more than working nine to five. It is about people's lives.

Dyaa Saymah is the WHO National Mental Health Officer in Gaza, but in offices as busy as those in Gaza, it is usual for staff like Dyaa to do a whole lot more than indicated in his job description. For example, delivering vital supplies, such as bread, during times of crisis.

During the three-week conflict, that began in Gaza on 27 December, 2008, Dyaa and Mahmoud Daher, the WHO National Health Officer in Gaza, worked around the clock, coordinating with health providers on the ground, maintaining constant contact with WHO offices in Jerusalem, Cairo and Geneva and, importantly, keeping tabs on other WHO staff in Gaza who, due to the insecurity, were unable to leave their homes and travel to work.

On an almost daily basis Dyaa drove a WHO armoured car to collect one of the most basic of commodities - bread - from the World Food Programme. He then delivered the bread to all his colleagues and their families in and around Gaza City, a potentially perilous journey due to the violence, but one that was deemed vital for so many reasons.

"Some of our colleagues could not leave their homes to buy bread, so it was important to be able to deliver it to them. But the most important point for me was to be able to see that our colleagues were physically safe," he said.

Dyaa, who is a psychologist, said several of his female colleagues are also mothers with young children, and who were traumatized by the conflict. One of his duties during his "bread runs" or by telephone from WHO's Gaza City office was to provide basic counselling to the families to help them deal with the psychosocial impact of the situation.

"I would ask my colleagues about their children, if there was anything we could offer over the phone to help their worries, and how can they deal with their children during the shelling," Dyaa said. "The main problems were related to behavioural problems and nightmares. I suggested that my colleagues needed to be honest with their children. And to physically be with them and tell their children they will not leave them. The parents realized a big part of their children's reactions were linked to how they themselves reacted to the situation. So it was important for the parents to remain calm, to keep a low profile and to tell their children that they were always there with them."

Dyaa's "bread deliveries" were a vital cog in WHO's tireless field operations in Gaza, not just for providing information on the general health situation and support to health facilities, but for supporting our own staff's welfare during an emergency.

"This was a very personal experience," Dyaa said. "We are a small office with a small staff and we spend most of our days and hours in the office. We are like a small family. It is beyond a working relationship."

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