June 18, 2019

'Tis the season for giving! That's why we're bringing back some of our favourite stories from 2019. This story was originally published on June 20. Enjoy!

Lying in my bed, in a house shared with people I barely knew, I tried to stop imagining what morning would bring for one million people held inside Mosul, Iraq. Bombs would begin falling shortly after sunrise. I was 85 kilometres away.

It was Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016, and I had been in Erbil for six weeks. Preparations for the liberation of Mosul were underway everywhere. In the grocery store people, clearly military, were buying shopping carts full of tinned food and bottled water; daily co-ordination meetings of humanitarian organizations ran through scenarios of where and when people might flee; my colleagues, some of whom had family members still inside the captured city, were anxious and preoccupied.

Mosul had been controlled by ISIS for more than two years, and we had been notified that the offensive would start at daylight.

What. Am. I. Doing. Here?

I never imagined this life. But I can trace that moment back to a single "Yes."

I had been living in Strathearn for five years. I loved my tiny house and had done some landscaping that year. After nearly 30 years of living in Edmonton I had my favourite haunts; namely Whyte Avenue for lunch and shopping, and the new 124 Street Market for Thursday evening people-watching.

The rhythm of the year was marked by the Jazz Festival, The Fringe, Canadian Finals Rodeo, and of course Edmonton Oilers hockey.

In late 2012, I agreed to put together a series of fundraising concerts to benefit an orphan-care project in Swaziland.

Where is Swaziland, you ask? I had to Google it — it’s a small country bordering South Africa and Mozambique, and has since changed its name to eSwatini. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and in some places heartbreakingly poor. A generation of children have been left vulnerable by high rates of HIV/AIDs.

The distance between Edmonton and Swaziland is nearly half the circumference of the planet; within a year, I basically circled the globe three times.

Prior to that, my travel experience was limited to a few all-inclusives, where I concentrated on my tan, and a train trip across Canada after a bad breakup in my 20s.

Suddenly, I knew my way around Heathrow Airport, I qualified for Silver Elite status on Air Canada, and I had watched a baby elephant nursing from his mother in Kruger National Park.

The concerts were successful and the invitation came to live in Swaziland for a year. I said yes, again. Three weeks later, after a flurry of packing and renting out my house, I was back on a plane.

Somewhere over northern Africa it occurred to me that I had no keys. Not for a house, an office or a car. Everything I owned was in boxes, and strangers were living in my home. A sad movie on in-flight entertainment gave me an excuse for the hot tears, runny nose and shaking shoulders.

What followed was a really tough year.

From a career standpoint, I accomplished nothing during those 12 months.

From a character perspective, I learned humility by continually being asked to put the needs of others ahead of my own, the vulnerability of being surrounded by strangers who don’t know, or care, that you once held a management position that came with a clothing allowance. That you’d done television interviews for international media and produced events that led news broadcasts across your country. I had to stick it out when things were rough.

I almost fled for home several times. The logistics of the two-day journey made me stay put more than once.

At some point, after my pride was levelled yet again by being tasked with something I considered menial, a friend asked me whether I thought God had brought me to Swaziland for a reason. I did. “Well then, if you don’t learn the lesson here,” he said, “where do you think he’ll take you next?”

Apparently Afghanistan.

While in Swaziland, I handed out the Toms shoes that are donated every time someone makes a purchase, and took photos of children opening shoe boxes that had been packed overseas at Christmas.

I became interested in how — and if — multi-million-dollar pledges made by countries like Canada actually made it to people in crisis.

Another Google search introduced me to Medair, a Christian humanitarian organization based in Switzerland. I completed their "boot-camp" style recruitment week, and by the middle of 2016 took a short-term contract in Afghanistan writing reports for government donors, including Canada.

After a briefing in Switzerland and a stop in Dubai to arrange my paperwork, I arrived in Kabul wearing my head covering, long-sleeved tunic and full-length skirt, with three new countries stamped in my passport.

Those three months opened my eyes to a country that differs profoundly from what I had seen online and in news coverage.

I travelled to the Central Highlands, visiting project sites, and found myself walking the ruins of Shahr-e-Gholghola, the City of Screams conquered by Genghis Khan.

I climbed inside the caves and stairwells of the 7th century rock-cut Buddhas that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Deep in the mountains, I shared tea with women inside their houses, where the living spaces were still built above rooms for keeping livestock.

I had terrifically enlightening conversations with Muslim colleagues about faith.

Most importantly, I learned to respect the opportunity I was given to provide people with what might be their only glimpse inside a country like Afghanistan.

Before that contract was finished, I applied for a communications posting in Iraq, basically an entry level humanitarian job. When I was offered the position I said Yes.

Fast forward more than two years, and the battle for Mosul is long over. Ancient monuments and historical sites dating back to the Bible have been destroyed, and untold thousands of people have been killed.

I interviewed a young barber who was imprisoned and tortured after agreeing to cut a man’s hair for his wedding day.

I met a village leader who saved more than 500 people from being killed when he agreed to trade his own life for theirs, and was himself saved only when an airstrike hit the building where opposition leaders were gathered.

I worked alongside doctors and nurses who had fled occupied areas and were now treating the very people who had threatened their lives.

All of those stories stay with me and, once again, I had the chance to put a face on a country that I had previously only feared.

In October 2018, I was convinced it was time for me to return to Canada and pick up a normal life. I had a plan — get a job, get a house, get a cat.

I was 52, and in terms of career responsibility I was working a job that I could have qualified for right out of college. During a workshop for the Medair communications team, a colleague spoke about South Sudan and her personal challenge to continue having hope in the face of senseless violence and crippling hunger.

She announced that she was moving on from her position to take on a different role within the country program.

My spirit said yes. My head said no.

I arrived in Juba two months later.

Despite the heartache of repeatedly saying goodbye to dear friends, the challenge of finding balance within the relentless pressure of humanitarian work, and the sometimes tedium of living under strict security rules, the past few years have passed quickly.

I know I’ve changed, and I wonder where I’ll fit upon my return to Canada. There are three things I know for certain, and I frequently share them with people who say "I couldn’t possibly do what you do."

Firstly, just keep saying yes when there is an opportunity to grow beyond yourself. You can do more than you think you can.

Secondly, be humble and know that there is strength in getting over yourself, in letting go of being defined by your accomplishments.

And lastly, most importantly, don’t quit on a bad day. At the end of a wonderful day spent doing something you feel you were born for, then you can quit. I doubt you’ll want to, but you’ll have my full support.

Sue O'Connor is a former Edmontonian who now works as a Communications Officer for Medair in the South Sudan.