Category: International

How sport helps the Armenian Red Cross educate young people about HIV

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Karen Young, from Scotland, is spending a year in Armenia as part of a volunteer exchange programme, the international youth volunteering programme.

Well, yet again I am starting my blog entry by saying that we are very busy here in the Armenian Red Cross Youth Department!  We have been finishing off our campaign to promote awareness about lonely elderly people in Armenia as well as doing school sessions on HIV and setting up a new branch of our Smiley Club for kids in a second dormitory.  I love the fact that we are always busy here – it can be very tiring, but it is good fun and we know that what we are doing is really making a difference to people’s lives.

The HIV programme is fully up and running at the moment – we have been going to schools all across Armenia to give sessions on HIV and also to organise a basketball tournament.  The tournament is part of the “We play against HIV and AIDS” programme – which uses sport as a way to educate people about HIV.  Schools play against each other to generate interest in the cause; afterwards we conduct the peer education session and leave posters and information leaflets in the school gym for the kids to read over the next few weeks.

I have helped out with a few of the matches and sessions now, including going with other members of the team to a school in Gyumri (Armenia’s second city).  It was really interesting to see the difference in the response between Yerevan and Gyumri, which is a very small city and, as a result, somewhere where young people are significantly less well informed about sexual health issues than their peers in Yerevan.  This is something that the Armenian Red Cross are working to change, and the response from both staff and pupils was very positive.

Las week we had a charity dinner as part of our campaign to raise awareness about lonely elderly people, and the results were very positive; especially when you take into consideration the fact that this was the first ever event of its kind for the ARCS, and also not a very common type of event in Armenia.  It was a massive achievement for us – we raised over £800 and, more importantly, passed on our message to some very influential people.

We have also been out collecting money again in the streets of Yerevan, again in support of our grannies and grandpas, and the response has been very encouraging.  Again we received a lot of thanks and encouragement for the good work we do as volunteers, as well as of course raising a bit of cash!

All in all it has been a very active and productive period for us, and it is very nice to have a “quiet” week or so where we are mainly writing reports!  What with all the extra hours we have been putting in for the campaign, and the fact that I spend the best part of my spare time climbing mountains and hiking across the countryside with my fellow volunteers, I am exhausted!  But exhausted in the best possible way – and at the moment I wouldn’t swap my volunteering experience for anything – even a well paid job!

Being a volunteer in Armenia, especially when jobs are so few and far between and financial matters still dominate the headlines, is a welcome reminder that there is so much more to life than money and security, and that we volunteers are “paid” in rich experiences and the satisfaction of a job well done.

Photo: Trygve Utstumo via Flickr

Karen’s time in Armenia is funded through the Youth In Action programme from European Voluntary Service. To find out more, email InternationalYouth@redcross.org.uk

Home from Haiti (nearly): Round the world in 22 days

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I’m losing track of what time it is, what day it is and (almost) where I am. Having been in Haiti covering a team leader gap in our emergency sanitation team there, the volcano eruption in Iceland put a stop to plans to come back home.  The end result is 6 countries visited, 9 hotels (or tents) stayed in, and a day lost – sort of.

When news of the volcano reached me I had left Haiti and swapped the discomfort of a camp bed in a mosquito net inside a rather hot tent for the comfort of a hotel bed in Panama – there for meetings at the headquarters of the Red Cross in the Americas.  So, unable to get back, I decided to carry on and our excellent charity travel agent, Ian Allen, did a great job of rearranging flights and re-routing me via New York and on to the Philippines.

Not totally random as I was due to undertake a monitoring trip there later in the month to review British Red Cross support to the typhoon response there from October 2009. So, via an overnight in Hong Kong, I ended up in Manila, crossing the international date line going backwards, hence the ‘loss’ of a day – not sure if I will ever get that Sunday back! I can’t say I enjoyed the 16 hour flight from New York to Hong Kong but at least I cleared my email inbox.  It’s pretty sad that I got excited about finding a power point in my seat to keep my laptop going.  Unfortunately the reality of this kind of work means a constant prioritising, even more so since the Haiti earthquake, that results in less important emails getting put aside for a clear space.  For me clear space is often when flying, so couped up with not much room, and with apologies to my neighbours, I tapped away all flight.

I’m now heading home via Kuala Lumpur, home of the Asian Red Cross headquarters, having had a very productive visit to the Philippines. It wasn’t quite a thriller in Manila but very impressive was a red cross shelter programme, where local government was lobbied on behalf of landless, vulnerable people to allocate new and safe land that we could build homes on.  These families all lived in very precarious locations, being extremely poor, on the edge of rivers and lakes, and in flood plains. We are building typhoon resistant shelters, complete with latrines, that are definitely a step up from what they had before and, most importantly, are in safe places.  I say “we” but actually I should say “they” as they are the ones constructing their own homes, under the supervision of our trained carpenters.  To see a tremendous sense of self ownership and pride in their new homes with gardens already planted around was great and helped make the long trip away from home feel worthwhile.

So six countries and six different cultures to get to grips with.  Good fun if a little head spinning at time, less fun was being in a wet and cold New York with light clothing designed for hot and humid climes! Oh well, nearly home, though I think my longsuffering family will ensure I stay grounded for a bit at least.

Haiti through the looking glass

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From Catherine Lengyel, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies  reporting delegate in Haiti:

The first thing that strikes me as I drive along the main road into Port-au-Prince is the sight of Haitian flags snapping sharply in the breeze, along the flowery median, as if this were a place with not a care in the world. It is disconcerting, and I feel a bit like Alice. My eyes need only stray a fraction either way for the illusion to be shattered.

The mirror breaks into millions of shards, each as painfully sharp as the next.

Concrete slabs pancaked one atop the other, next to houses teetering at gravity-defying angles, next to tents, next to tarps, next to sheets, and old curtains, and shawls, and plastic, and anything that could possibly serve as a semblance of shelter, teetering and tottering up and down the muddy, worn hillsides.

This is where people now live, three months after the earthquake. Not for a day, or a week, or even a month. But on and on, into the unforeseeable future. This is as far from Wonderland as one could possibly get.

I have seen how hard my colleagues have been working to help, and there has been much progress. Blue tarps, and tents with red crosses or crescents dot the cityscape. Solid-looking latrines stand in professional rows. Children cavort at water points, before carefully balancing buckets of clean water atop their heads. Healthcare is being provided where none existed.

But turn another corner, and the mirror shifts once again. Hand painted signs cry out for help. ‘Nous avons besoin d’aide ici’. An arrow points this way or that, to yet another pocket of misfortune, where the latrines, and water, and tents or tarpaulins have yet to materialise. Our driver, neatly attired in a crisp shirt and pressed trousers, tells us simply that he too is living on the streets. We drive past what was once the university, now a field of rubble, and where many of his friends died.

I feel ashamed to have complained, the day before, at being drenched by the rain as I ran between my tent and the canteen, at the Red Cross base camp. A woman well into her sixties is pounding a hand-hewed stake into the hard ground. Some bits of cloth are folded to one side. She is re-making her small shelter, a rickety construction of cloth and sticks, which was washed away by the same rains I was cursing. She smiles politely and pounds tirelessly. A little farther up the hillside, a young man opens his door – a long piece of cardboard – to let me peer into his narrow A-frame structure. There is just enough room for him to sidle in next to a bed, neatly made up in vibrantly-coloured ‘Little Mermaid’ sheets.

The mirror cracks again, at this glimpse of individuality amidst such potentially soul-destroying hardship. But that is the point, I suddenly realise. Because we are working to help so very many – up to 400,000 people at last count – we end up counting our progress in terms of the tens of thousands of households that we have assisted.

Life may be nothing but a pack of cards, as Alice said, and indeed much of Port-au-Prince remains as precarious as a house of cards. Still, what we can and are doing is to help to re-stack the deck in their favour, despite what sometimes feel like insurmountable odds. Nevertheless, in our race against time and misery, it is important for us to remember that each and every one of these people has a story, and a life, of their own.

Reporting delegates in Haiti: a ‘necessary annoyance’

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Catherine Lengyel is an International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reporting delegate in Haiti:

Whenever I tell someone that I work for the Red Cross, their eyes light up. They are usually intrigued and slightly envious. Inevitably, they ask me if I’m a doctor. And just as inevitably, their eyes dim and their interest fades when I tell them that I am a reporting delegate. ‘What’s that?’ they ask politely.

It’s an uphill battle to revive their interest.

I try to explain that, as reporting delegates, we are ‘the necessary annoyance’ in any emergency operation. We are the ones whom ‘operational colleagues’ flee – too busy with their relief, health, shelter, logistics or water and sanitation activities to want to deal with the tedium of reports. But, as one of my fellow ‘reporters’ put it: “Without us, the others don’t exist!”

Indeed, we are the ones who tell the world how things are going, what the needs are, and what the Red Cross is actually doing about it all. We have to take raw data, bullet points or even mumbled comments gathered ‘on the run’, and turn all of this into something that is easy to comprehend and, hopefully, interesting. It often means taking a jumble of statistics and information, and massaging it into shape. Graphics help, as do tables, and the aim is to end up with some well-written narrative to give a sense of ‘what it really is like out there’.

In fact, the job is much more interesting than it initially sounds. For one thing, we get a sense of the operation as a whole, not just a narrow perspective on a sector by sector basis. This means that we can be useful to the emergency operations in other ways as well: as a sounding board for the head of operations, as a source of ideas to colleagues, or even as a means of identifying overlap or confusion (something that inevitably happens in the early days of an emergency). For example, having just been in Haiti, I have been able to highlight some ‘gaps’ to colleagues – such as how many people will actually be receiving ‘debris clearing kits’, an incredibly important element of our distributions to people who have lost everything and want to clear their land of rubble to begin rebuilding.

During the long days of drafting and crafting the final reports, there are some welcome moments of humour as well. Gems from my time in Haiti include the message from a non-native English health team (they shall remain nameless!) underlining the need for additional beds and ‘mistresses’. It was with some relief that I finally figured out they meant ‘matresses’. And then there was the water and sanitation team that provoked much hilarity in the office, when they wrote about ‘the needs of latrines’. There must be a limit to how ‘inclusive’ we should be, we jested.

In addition to all of this, I do get to go to the field, and see what is going on. I try to use these opportunities to talk to colleagues and better understand why, for instance, we can’t distribute a sufficient number of tents (Answer: because the spontaneous settlements in Port-au-Prince are so tightly packed that there is not enough space – and if we did start erecting tents, we would end up displacing the already disposessed).

I also try to talk to the people, because we are, after all, here to help them and it is important to understand first-hand what they are experiencing. I remember going out on a ‘cash distribution’ during the food crisis in Niger. This was quite a controversial concept at the time – giving people cash rather than food – and there were many ‘naysayers’ amongst the aid community, who predicted that the people would not spend the money wisely.

But, that day at the market in Tanout, not only did the women tell me that they were buying foodstuffs and live chickens, some of them also said that their villages were pooling a percentage of the money received for communal projects, such as a well or an ambulance cart. It was one of those wonderfully vindicating moments that revives one’s faith in humanity, and confirms that what we are doing is useful.

I can only hope that you’ve kept reading this far, and that I’ve managed to turn your look of polite disinterest into a glimmer of intrigue at the work of ‘necessary annoyances’ such as myself. Happy to tell you more anytime…. OK, just kidding!

How the rains are impacting life in Haiti camps

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It’s stiflingly hot here in Haiti, the fierce sun beating down and making life under the tarpaulin shelters unbearable for those in the camps. The relief comes when the clouds roll over the hills on the edge of Port-au-Prince and the first rain drops begin to fall. But relief quickly turns to discomfort as the heavens open and the rain pours in.

It has rained heavily the last two nights here, making conditions even more difficult. We have been preparing for the rains and the tarpaulins we have given do provide the minimum of shelter needed. This together with extra drainage, increasing numbers of latrines, clearing of rubbish, and the provision of bathing areas is improving conditions in the camps where we are working.

Yesterday we assessed the 30 most vulnerable camps to see what the impact of the rains had been. Ten vehicles went out, with experts in water and sanitation, relief, and health. We were looking for signs of shelter or latrines collapsing and drainage channels blocking or flooding. Of the 30, nine were identified as in need of additional immediate assistance in the forms of new shelters, latrines and extra drainage which we then proceeded to provide.

Most pleasing to me was that the two camps had not suffered any exceptional damage and that the community teams with whom we have been working were out and about checking the drainage channels, unblocking any accumulated rubbish, and making sure that the latrines were clean. The rains will get heavier and last longer, but this exercise showed we are moving in the right direction.

Looking back at the last three months of disaster response here in Haiti, so much has been done of which we should be pleased. British Red Cross alone has contributed more than 55 personnel to the wider international red cross effort of more than 1,000 international staff, committed over £10 million in funds with more to come as we enter the recovery phase. Don’t get me wrong, lots more needs to be done and at times here it an feel like two steps forward and one step back.

On a personal level it has been a stretching time for all of us in the disaster management department with the Haiti response demanding, and receiving, a high level of attention. We’ve not been neglecting other situations around the globe though as evidenced by our response to the Chile earthquake, conflict in Yemen, the deployment of a team to Mongolia’s severe winter emergency, drought in Niger and the monitoring of flooding in Brazil and conflict in Kyrgyzstan.

There’s no doubt though that the scale of needs, the pre-existing poverty and the damage to the country’s centralised infrastructure make Haiti in 2010 one of the biggest challenges the disaster management community has faced for many a year.

Donate now to the Red Cross Haiti earthquake appeal

How we’re preparing Haiti for the rainy season

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Haiti’s rainy season is bad enough in a normal year. In April, there’s an average of 160 mm of rainfall, rising to 230 mm in May. At the season’s height, there can be five days of uninterrupted rain. It regularly causes mudslides and flooding, destroying houses, livelihoods and potentially taking lives.

But this isn’t a normal year. The Haitian government initially estimated around 1.3 million people were made homeless by January’s earthquake, although it may be many more than that. Although host families have taken many of those in and some may be able to return to their quake-damaged homes, there are still hundreds of thousands of people crammed into improvised camps and settlements across the affected area.

If those people don’t have adequate shelter, they’re going to lose belongings, be more vulnerable to disease – or worse. In short, it’s a potentially massive problem.

So what are we doing to prevent the rains having such a disastrous effect?

Clearly, we need to provide safer, better living conditions for as many people in the camps as possible in the time available to us. But that’s easier said than done. It’s an incredibly complex issue, which I’ll try and unpick in a series of posts over the next couple of weeks. But there are two main threads to our work right now – emergency shelter materials and sanitation.

The absolute priority is to make sure all displaced people have emergency shelter materials to shield them from the rains – predominantly waterproof tarpaulins. There are more than 50 agencies working on shelter in Haiti, and between us we’ve been getting these materials to an average of 100,000 people a week since the earthquake struck. So we’re closing in on the one million people mark now.

Considering the massive challenges in the early days of the aid effort – destroyed port, blocked roads, clogged airport – this is close to a logistical miracle. It means we’re on track to reach the vast majority of people by 1 May, although because of the uncertainty over numbers of people in need, we can’t be complacent and mustn’t slacken our pace.

We’re also starting to distribute more durable materials, like wood, rope and nails, but realistically we have to accept not everyone will get those before the heavy rains begin. Some work has also started on building more robust transitional shelters, built to last for years, but that’s in the early stages – we’re talking about more than 100,000 structures, which will take months to complete. Frustrating as it is, for the time being, making sure people have simple waterproof materials is still the key to keeping them safe during the rains.

The other area we’re focusing on is sanitation. Toilet facilities in the camps are pretty poor and heavy rain could flood the current camps with untreated sewage water–a potential major health risk.

Red Cross teams, including our own British Red Cross mass sanitation team, are working in several camps to install latrines – more than 1,300 have been built so far – improve drainage, manage waste and raise awareness about hygiene issues among the camp inhabitants. Some interesting techniques are being used to accomplish the latter, including clowns.

For once, the storm clouds gathering above us are real, rather than metaphorical. We have to continue to move as quickly as possible – and continue to work towards stopping a disaster that’s already terrible getting even worse.

As I said above, I’ll write some more over the next few weeks to tackle some of the key questions in more detail.

Global snapshots: the Russian Red Cross

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“If you know about HIV, you don’t have to be afraid of it”: How the Red Cross is helping to challenge stigma and offer hope in Russian prisons

Daniil was a teenager when he contracted HIV from having a tattoo in a pretrial detention centre. He recalls: “I was scared and didn’t know how I’d got infected because I had never taken drugs. I didn’t know what to do and I thought I’d die soon.”

“When I got to the colony, I found out there were guys called peer trainers’. I was very glad to receive support in those hard times.”

There are an estimated 40,000 HIV positive inmates like Daniil in Russia, making the prison population a major focus of the country’s HIV epidemic. The majority of inmates were infected before entering prison and many have been injecting drug users. Entering prison is often the first time they have been tested.

The Russian Red Cross began working in prisons in 2005 with the aim of reducing HIV transmission by raising awareness amongst inmates and staff and providing support to those living with the virus. The programme provides support and education to inmates right the way through the prison process, from entering a detention centre to being released back into society.

Training prison staff was vitally important for the programme’s success. Elena Feodorova from the Russian Red Cross explains: “We
encountered staff members who believed myths like you can tell if somebody is HIV positive simply from their appearance. Educating staff to understand the real facts about HIV prevention made a big difference.


Many began running training courses using the Red Cross methodology after attending courses themselves.”

Between 2006 and the first half of 2009, the programme reached over 12,000 staff and inmates with support and awareness raising messages.

For many prisoners, the Red Cross’ enduring support inspired them to become volunteers. Daniil explains: “When I found out the Red Cross was providing training for trainers, I was the first one to sign up. Now I’m a peer instructor and am very proud of it. I’m glad my life has meaning.”

This training played a particularly important role in 2007 when a change in legislation meant HIV positive prisoners were, for the first time, integrated into mainstream prison wards rather than being contained in special wings. As one inmate reflects:

“It’s not a secret that in the beginning we faced huge problems. I had very strong fear. I did not know how to live together with these people. After Red Cross training, I changed my mind. If you know everything about HIV, you don’t have to be afraid of it.”

First aid with the Red Cross of Serbia

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In a few days, five intrepid young British Red Cross volunteers will be boarding a plane bound for Belgrade, Serbia. Their mission? To take part in the Red Cross of Serbia’s first aid training camp. Before images of ‘band camp’ (but with bandages) jump into your head please let me explain…

Every year, 28 National Red Cross / Red Crescent Societies gather to take part in the European first aid competition.  This competition pits teams of elite first aiders against each other as they tackle a range of challenging situations such as staged bus crashes, shootings and other incidents. I was lucky enough to take part in the 2009 competition and you can read all about my experiences in previous posts.

The Red Cross of Serbia take this competition very seriously. Their team has won the last three competitions (impressive stuff indeed). As part of their training, they run intensive weeklong first aid camps. We’ve been invited to take a team of young first aiders along to train along side the Serbian team. This camp will stretch their first aid skills to the limit as they work alongside their Serbian colleagues.

Leading the team is Lottie Stevens (16). Lottie, pictured, joined the Red Cross aged 15 and is an active peer educator. I caught up with her recently and asked her what she was expecting from the trip – “I’m hoping to gain more skills and soak up the culture of Serbia. First aid competitions are useful because they are so realistic which helps develop your confidence in emergency situations”.

None of these young volunteers are super heroes, they’re just ordinary young people who’ve chosen to volunteer their time. Sound interesting? There’s a whole range of opportunities for young people in the Red Cross, find out how you can get involved today!

Update: The young volunteers that visited the Red Cross of Serbia were in no way related to the British Red Cross team which participated at FACE 2010 in Belgrade. This was a separate trip designed to give our young people experience of how a different National Society operates and to extend their first aid skills.