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"I’m a donkey with a smile": The story of an aid worker in Yemen

Posted by Abdullah Ampilan Community Mobiliser and Public Health Promoter, Response and Resilience Team

21st Dec 2016

Humanitarian worker Duoi Ampilan explains why, despite the dangers and the distress, he still loves his job - and does all he can to make sure your support reaches as many people as possible.


The day I was asked to be part of Oxfam's emergency work in Yemen, I contemplated the life I would face there. I was hesitant and afraid. It's a country where roaring guns and missiles are part of the daily routine. Then I thought of my role as a member of Oxfam's global humanitarian team, which is at the forefront of our disaster response. When there is a disaster we are expected to be there. 

It took me days to process my thoughts. I had experienced this personal dilemma before, when I was sent to South Sudan in 2010 and Afghanistan in 2012, and then again when I was part of the response to the Ebola crisis in Liberia and Sierra Leone.


South Sudan "I am shown here preparing the visual aids for my training for the hygiene promoters. We never had a generator for more than 3 months. The place (Gogrial East, Warrap) was very remote. There was no electricity, or mobile network signal."


When I told my mother at home on my lovely island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, she asked me if I could take a different job. I understood her concerns. No mother in the world wants to see her child in difficult circumstances. I explained how committed I am to helping those affected by humanitarian crises. And she said that it's up to me.

When I arrived in Yemen, what I saw tore me apart. Burned houses, buildings razed to the ground, the ruins of the war. I listened to the saddest stories and to the sweetest dreams, too. The mothers and children begging in front of the shops broke my heart.

As a humanitarian aid worker I shouldn't let this affect me, but I am just an ordinary human being with feelings and emotions like anyone else. So I use these emotions as motivation for me to do my work better, faster and bolder. As an Oxfam staff member, I cannot do much but play my role with a heart. 

People say I am brave to do this. But it's not about bravery or courage. It's not even about having a job, because there are many options in life. It's about commitment and love for the work.

Perhaps it's also about my background. I was born in a camp for people forced to leave their homes and grew up with war in the Philippines. My family was constantly moving from one place to another to avoid soldiers. In the end, it motivated me to do this work.

I call myself a "donkey with a smile". Why donkey? Not because I look or feel like a donkey, but because it's the animal of hard work and perseverance. I want such traits. Why the smile? Because smiling defies the hardships of a day's work.

Do I feel tired? I am a normal person, vulnerable to wear-and-tear. I get tired but I always get inspiration from seeing that we are making a difference in people's lives. I love the way we work with the communities and involve the ordinary men, women and even children. I love the feeling of helping those who are in need. And I accept the fact that being away from home is challenging. My father died recently, but I couldn't get home to be with my family because there were no flights. I had to wait six days for a ship to come. I was trapped, but I accepted it was part of being a humanitarian aid worker.

So there is not much comfort and things are not easy, especially as we respond to the worst disasters in the world. Every day is a cycle, and nothing is certain except the uncertainties.

But I will continue doing this work as long as I can. I am just grateful that I have learned to do this job so I can serve my own communities and my own people.


Philippines. "This was during the super typhoon Haiyan. I was leading the volunteers during the rehearsals for our Hand-washing Dance.

Update: Duoi's been nominated for a Bond International Development Humanitarian Award. Duoi was nominated by his colleagues who say he is a "true reflection of what a humanitarian worker should be, and a role model for us all." 

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Header image: Duoi in Aden, Yemen, checking the  quality and quantity of the hygiene kits. These kits include soap, sanitary towels, a wash basin, a towel, and plenty more. Credit: Omar Algunaid

Blog post written by Abdullah Ampilan

Community Mobiliser and Public Health Promoter, Response and Resilience Team

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