Travelling For Others: 9 Lessons I Learnt As A Humanitarian Worker


Durriah Pitchay •  Jun 09, 2017

More often than not, we travel for leisure or for a break from our hectic daily routine. Humanitarian worker Durriah Pitchay, however, travels to help others. Let her inspire you with the 9 lessons she's learnt through her travels!

Credit: giphy

1. Dreams can’t be fulfilled if they are just written on papers

On 27th December 2015, I attended the “Twins of Faith” (TOF) conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia. I was sitting together with hundreds of others in Sheikh Tawfique Chowdhury’s lecture. He mentioned, “You guys are all writing your dreams on a paper and sitting on it – No actions, it’s just merely words. Buck up and dare to dream, dare to change.

Twins of Faith 2015 by Mercy Mission at Putrajaya Malaysia

It felt as though his works spoke directly to me. His forceful tone woke my senses up. You are right, Sheikh. It really is time for me to turn my words into actions.

I made that move, booked my airline tickets and got my contact. Little did I know how life changing this decision could be, and I am truly honored to be where I am right now. 9 trips later, and I never once regretted this decision. Thank you, Sheikh Tawfique! ☺️

2. In any decision making, make sincere tawakkal and lots of dua’

It's always important to remember that Allah is the best of planner and the source of rezeki.

When it comes to achieving what you really want to do in life, it is probably easier to leave an environment you hate, than an environment you love. Take my job as a physiotherapist, for example. It is a job that is filled with satisfaction, a job that I look forward to every morning. But leaving it was a decision I had to make, a decision that I put the most tawakkal to Allah. At that time, I didn’t know what to expect as a humanitarian worker. Every trip I made was an eye-opening and a learning lesson for me.

I was worried about many things when I embarked on this journey initially. I felt that leaving a well-paying, stable job for an unstable one like a humanitarian worker would mean sacrificing opportunities and putting myself at financial risk. How wrong I was. Allah planned my meetings and opportunities so well. There was one instance when I was financially insufficient to go for a trip, but still I had the intention and felt the need to. I made dua’ and it was answered almost immediately as I was given paid cases to attend to. At the same time, I met a friend’s mum who gave me some monetary donation for the beneficiaries. That made me complete, financially, for my trip. Alhamdullilah ?

Dua’ and dzikir is a way we recognize the relationship between our Creator and us. The more we go to Allah for assistance, the more He will show us a way. Sometimes you don’t see it, but his guidance can come in many forms without you realizing it. Cliché as this might sound – Allah’s plan is perfect. In retrospect, it is only through divine intervention that I’ve received all the funds, strength and capability that I need for me to embark on these humanitarian experiences.

3. Being a refugee is not the end, it is the start of greater things

Majority of the volunteers from the Atlantic Humanitarian Relief Team situated in Jordan are Syrians themselves. Beneath the surface of each humanitarian worker is a kind and humble persona with a story to tell. Stories that are heartbreaking, yet full of hope. You can see it in their eyes. These are stories that might happen to anyone else in the world. Syria was once a prosperous country, a country with rich history, lovely and peaceful. Now, it’s one that’s unsafe, and lies in ruins and rubble.

It was there when I met a young man, Essam, a Syrian who is currently studying Medicine in Sweden. His eyes were brimming with tears when we spoke about Syria. He flew to Jordan to be part of the relief team - tasked with helping his fellow countrymen seek shelter. Essam is filled with kindness and hope. He wants to study hard so that he can one day use his skills to help his fellow Syrians. He wants to be a successful Syrian and make his country proud. Such an amazing young man doesn’t deserve to be driven out of his country by circumstance.

Essam, a medical student volunteer with a young Syrian refugee from a random camp in Jordan

4. Refugees in camps have families scattered all around the world, and that is painful

Feryal and I don’t speak much with each other because of our language barriers. She breaks every stereotype the western world has for an Arab lady. Her face which is filled with so much Nur and love, humbles me every time I speak to her. She's a Syrian but does not sit around receiving help from people. This is something I admire about many Syrians I met.

An honour to meet Feryal, who coordinates medical missions and ensures that refugees gets their rights to be medically treated

She empowered herself to be that link for her fellow Syrians to seek when in need. She is truly a giver of hope to the refugees and is always there for them. One of the pains I gathered that Syrians face is that because of the war, many families who fled are broken apart. And because of their restrictions to travel, it not easy for them to reunite.

5. The strength of Syria lies in its people

It was one of my greatest honours to not just interact with the Syrians but to also work alongside them. I cannot imagine myself in the shoes of the Syrian volunteers, who see their fellow countrymen seeking refuge. Bilal, the first Syrian I met – truly showed me the strength of the Syrian people. Hasbunallahu wa ni’mal wakeel, something that he holds on in his life and likewise the same as many other Syrians I've met.

Me and my Syrian brother, Bilal

These people are facing a trial from Allah and they keep themselves strong by providing for each other and giving without asking anything in return. If there is one good thing I see in these atrocities, it would be the Syrians coming together to help one another.

6. The Acehnese taught me that you don’t need possessions to help, all you need is a good heart

I clearly remember turning down a man on a wheelchair down when he approached me for money. At that time, I only had $2 with me. I had no other cash or card on me, and that money was given to me to buy eggs. I could have given it to him and gone home without eggs, or get my sisters to get it – which I didn’t.

The fishermen, on the other hand, did  not think twice about helping the Rohingyas when they arrived at the coast of Aceh. They took them in despite knowing that their boats could be confiscated. The Acehnese came to help the Rohingya with every possession they had; even if it meant that they have nothing left for themselves.

A meal with the volunteers of the camp who work tirelessly to provide for the refugees

While I was there, months after the Rohingyas landed in Aceh, I found myself getting to know volunteers and people from the NGO I was working with - Yayasan Geutanyoe. These volunteers gave without taking anything in return. If anything were to happen, they were the first to respond, the first to give their all. And I couldn’t be more humbled to know them, work alongside with them and model myself after their character and spirit.

7. Children are the epitome of our future – if you educate them, you secure a future

While I was in Aceh, I remembered tasking the refugee children to draw. Interestingly, the first thing they picked was an alphabet mat shaped like a gun. “Why gun?” you might ask. These children saw it as a symbol of power and fear. When I asked another refugee boy in Malaysia what the job of a police is, he said, “people who lock anyone without a UNHCR card."

A Rohingyan refugee boy in Bayeun camp attempting to read in simple Bahasa Indonesia

I remember showing a photo of my best friend to a Rohingya refugee, and he was shocked that she looked Chinese. He was even more shocked to hear that she is a Buddhist. I had to sit down to explain to him how peaceful Buddhism is and that we should not stereotype anyone.

It is with education that we can change these perceptions. With education, we can create movements that are peaceful. With education, we can create an inclusive environment - allowing children to grow up in a community filled with goodness and kindness.

The volunteers of the refugee camp have a special connection with the children there - something that pleases my eyes

I saw changes within days of teaching and being with them. How? When these children see me, they rush to sit next to me, eager to learn. Create a spirit of encouragement and affirmation, for we cannot, and must not fail educate them. They are a part of our future too.

8. Refugees have dreams

Hasson was 17 when I first met him. At such a tender age, Hasson aspires to be a doctor despite the limited education he was receiving. He calls me teacher, a status I am unworthy of. Although Hasson has moved to Malaysia after first landing in Aceh, he still contributes to the Rohingya society. Serving as a community health officer, Hasson still calls me teacher and his dreams are still alive – to study English, to sit for the exams and to be somebody one day.

One of Hassan’s first essays about why he wants to be a doctor one day

His dreams are just one of many I’ve heard. Similarly, every refugee out there is a “Hasson,” young individuals with dreams waiting to be fulfilled.

9. In the humanitarian world, everyone has a role to play. Don’t get confused and do your best to give!

During my past trips, I met many humanitarian professionals and volunteers. For me, my interest is in children with special needs – particularly physical needs. I do have a soft spot on early education and literacy but I am not a skilled teacher or early childhood educator.

Everyone has a role to play. Each and every stake-holder is important, and it is vital that we all work together as a team to provide the best support and assistance. I'd like take this opportunity to mention briefly two individuals who I had been learning from since the beginning of my journey. They are strong and passionate individuals who have their own amazing roles in the humanitarian world.

One of my inspiration is Ms Lilianne Fan. I met her during my maiden trip to Aceh last January and since then, I love learning from her. Being the International director of Yayasan Geutanyoe, Lilianne never fails to be at the site to befriend refugees, support her staff and volunteers. She does research and education, advocates for refugees and basically cares for everyone! Her views, teachings and love is something I’ve been holding firmly to.

Ms Lilianne and myself on our way to Pusong fishing village

Wayne and Anna are not just my mentors but also friends. This couple has worked on the ground with many kinds of beneficiaries – refugees, high risk teenagers, ex-convicts, low income groups. Sometimes, what I do can be draining but they provide me such amazing advice about what is good and what is not. Every time I meet them, it makes me see the light, and I have the blocks I need to build a road. This lovely couple guides me to build towards that light.

Mr Wayne and his wife, Anna, who are passionate about humanitarian work and who always think beyond just giving

I hope you've benefited from reading what I've learnt throughout my journey. I seek dua’ from you to ask Allah to allow and provide me ease to continue what I do, improving myself with every step I take. May Allah protect and preserve you. Jazakallahu Khair ☺️