Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The good samaritan

David Sandler is at home in the world.

For more than a decade he's been jet-setting across time zones helping people around the world who are the most in need. Those hit hardest by natural disasters and war-torn landscapes. Those desperately seeking hope in spite of unbelievable suffering.

Though the Wisconsin native enjoyed a promising career as an aerospace engineer, designing satellites for Northrop Grumman and later working for the space shuttle program at Boeing, it was a volunteer mission to tsunami-ravaged Southeast Asia where he found his calling.

"I went in a different direction counting everything else as less important than loving my neighbor as myself," he once wrote in an Instagram post.

On this World Humanitarian Day I couldn't think of a more inspiring person to celebrate with than my friend Dave, who helps build a global sense of momentum every single day. From his beginnings in Banda Aceh, Indonesia to the devastating earthquake in Haiti to his current post in northern Iraq, Dave reminds me that one person can indeed change the world.  


Jennifer Cho Salaff (JCS): How did you know you wanted to devote your life to humanitarian work?
David Sandler (DS): I don't think I "knew" I wanted to take on a job like this. Even though I started off as an aerospace engineer, I found ways to volunteer and serve in my community. I'd say people matter to me most. 

JCS: When did you first get involved in overseas relief work?
DS: I went on a trip to help victims of the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia during Christmas of 2004. I came home [from that trip] and sat in meetings at my job wondering why I wasn't back there. Two months later I quit and returned to Indonesia for a 7-month opportunity that turned into two years. (That's me, in the photo below, working with the International Board of Indonesia.) 

JCS: You've worked in different places across the globe -- Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East. How do you get adjusted to a new part of the world, new cultures, new customs, etc?
DS: I embrace what I can (the food, the people, sometimes incorporating the dress code). I also don't assume that my way is better than someone else's. I say yes to opportunities to try to see something new. I do my best not to complain. Basically, I try to be where I'm at instead of compare to where I've been or what I've had. This is by no means easy (and I've certainly whined -- just ask my friends!).  

JCS: How are you received, as an American, working overseas?
DS: This has been different depending on the location. In Indonesia, people wanted to know me, talk to me and discover how long I had been friends with Shaquille O'Neal and Britney Spears (because I was from Los Angeles). I also found myself to be at the center of many random group selfies. As long as I didn't share an opinion along the lines of "everyone should be like an American," then it was OK.

In Haiti I was seen as rich. Ultimately, right or wrong, no matter how I lived or what I did, I was seen by a lot of people as an ATM. When I couldn't or wouldn't give money people became displeased and occasionally said some negative things. Haitians are a proud people suffering extreme hardships and how I was received didn't matter versus how I responded to those assumptions.

In the northern (Kurdistan) part of Iraq I've been received quite well. This region was under attack during the Saddam regime and now it has some autonomy (like Hong Kong in China). As I move south there is a little less security and a little more risk. Overall I have learned what to say and how to say it. But I think there is more to worry about the closer I get to Baghdad.

JCS: Let's talk about the relief work you did in Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010. More than a quarter of a million people died and some 1.5 million became displaced. You were there for four years. What were some of the most disheartening things you witnessed while working there?
DS: Children starving and unloved. Kids throwing stones at each other with menace. People living in tents falling apart, mud under their feet and no power and no hope for more than three years. An education system that is super expensive (private) and produces few qualified individuals with the capacity to think and manage and work to increase capacity. Millions of people counting on aid and no longer willing or able to pick themselves out of poverty. Thousands of orphanages taking care of kids who have parents but not being able to develop and raise them to be close to self-sufficiency by the time they are 18. Hundreds of international organizations, along with the United Nations, that haven't come close to solving the problems in 30 years, and seem to have made things worse since the earthquake. 

JCS: What were some of the most inspiring and life-changing things you experienced in Haiti?
DS: I witnessed some of the cutest kids just needing hugs and love. People need hugs and love. It matters. Haitians have such pride and generosity. I know that sounds strange with the other things I've mentioned. But deep down, people want and hope for a better life.

I also met two young men named Walgens and Junior at Child Hope's orphanage in Port-Au-Prince. They were the most hard working, willing-to-learn and striving individuals. They ran the silk screening program and went from just making t-shirts to managing, teaching, selling, accounting and running all aspects of the business. Since then, Junior has started college in Texarkansas and Walgens is working for a t-shirt/screening business in Haiti. I miss them greatly and pray for them. 

Haiti has such beauty throughout. For all the broken or unfinished buildings, garbage, dust and dismay, it has some of the most beautiful beaches, farming landscapes and tree-topped mountains I have ever seen.

JCS: Let's talk about your most recent work in northern Iraq. What's the best thing about your new job?
DS: Seeing results of practical needs (food, medicine, clean water, sanitation, cash) being met for those affected by crisis in a much shorter time frame. Also, I happen to get paid this time which helps me pretend to be a grown-up again.

JCS: Worst thing?
DS: More and more people fleeing for their lives and suddenly having nothing and living in tent camps with thousands of others in the extreme desert heat of summer (up to 122 degrees) and the frigid desert cold of winter (low as 35 degrees). 

JCS: Tell me more about Medair, the humanitarian organization you work for.
DS: Medair is an emergency relief and recovery humanitarian organization that helps people who are suffering in remote and devastated communities around the world. Our organization helps people survive crises, recover with dignity and develop skills to build a better future. Inspired by Christian faith, we bring emergency relief and recovery regardless or race, creed or nationality. (The photo below is a camp called Rwanga, near Zakho in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Medair supplied tools to this camp.)  

JCS: What does your typical day look like?
DS: Waking up to have a team devotion and prayer time at 8 a.m. A busy rush of financial and logistics planning and paperwork, and meetings and transportation requests met from 8:30 to 11 a.m. Followed by an hour or so of bigger-picture planning for medical, water sanitation, shelter/housing materials. Then lunch. Typically we have a rule that we can't talk about work at lunch. Otherwise we might never stop talking about work.

The afternoon is spent writing emails, communicating with vendors and suppliers, working out all the financial auditing paperwork -- making sure we have all our I's dotted and T's crossed so donors can see that their money is being spent properly. This is where I'll stop writing and just say integrity matters. And it matters a lot. People demand it, and by 5:30 p.m. when I'm tired and trying to finish up, it's our job to make sure these things are completed to perfection. By 6 or 6:30 I've arranged plans with friends or other things to make sure I leave the office instead of burning myself out. If something big comes up, I stay and take care of it because people are in need. And when I say "in need" I mean people are sick and dying, or in danger of sleeping without shelter or don't have clean water to drink.

JCS: I think most people in the US don't know much about Kurdistan (the region in northern Iraq where you work). Tell us more about this part of the world (the land, the history, the people).
DS: Kurdistan is full of mountains and farmland tucked into winding roads and rolling hills. In the springtime it is lush and vibrant with green grass and red poppies. It is full of history dating back to Babylon, and Assyrian reliefs and relics from the Roman era. 

Everything I never imagined growing up studying or hearing about Iraq is what I've discovered here. There are so many oases in this desert that I am left speechless at times. I had the opportunity to visit one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces on top of a nearby mountain and the view from up there was stunning: snow-capped peaks in one direction and in another, a majestic walled city on a hill, and then a vast flatland of grass and hills and desert surrounding me below. 

The people are a group that has seen significant trials and challenges in the last century and before. During the Saddam Hussein era the people were often attacked by helicopters and, reportedly, suffered from poison gas on occasion. The Kurds are a loving and generous people group, typically Muslim, who are very honest and moral. Friends of mine have left their wallet or phone in a taxi, with no hope of finding it, only for the driver to return it to their door. Nothing gets stolen. It's almost like American suburbs of the 1950s when everyone left their door unlocked. 

Kurdistan is beautiful. The people are dedicated to a thriving and promising future of family and education and peace. Its people -- who have suffered SO MUCH -- are loving and generous.

JCS: What are the greatest needs in Kurdistan?
DS: The number of people displaced by the Middle East crisis in Iraq is more than 3 million, and more than 8 million people are in need for humanitarian assistance. Money is the greatest need. With so many organizations and aid workers here the problem is not the planning but that there are not enough financial resources to provide the food, medicines, water sanitation, shelter and technical data for the local government. Imagine all of the people in a city the size of Chicago or Houston living in poverty. That's how desperate the situation is. And I fear that gets lost in the message of fighting and terror that more often gets highlighted in the media.

JCS: What are some of your favorite Iraqi foods?
DS: Well, you finally asked a question I really care about (haha, just kidding!). Seriously, I love the kabobs and hummus and baba ghanoush (made from eggplant). Grilled meat and vegetables will always have a place in my heart (and stomach)! Iraqis also do grilled fish where they split it open in half, sandwich it between a rack and stand it vertically against an open flame, seasoning it with salt and spices.  They serve it with loaves of large, fresh, hot flat bread and sliced and diced vegetables. DELICIOUS.

Oh! And dolma! Dolma is stuffed grape leaves (or peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes or zucchini) which consist of ground lamb and/or beef with rice and spices, baked to perfection. I will stop now or else we'll need a whole other Q&A for food.

JCS: Your job is intense, especially in an emotional sense. What do you do to unwind? What things do you incorporate into your everyday routine to help keep you centered?
DS: The first thing I try to do is get some alone time, primarily to pray, think, sleep or journal/write poetry. After I've quietly had the chance to express some of my most extreme emotions, I like to be with my friends -- hanging out, watching movies, eating together (I started hosting dinner parties again; I missed cooking so much!). I've also taken up running again and I do pilates/yoga. I even hike sometimes if only to get some new, beautiful pictures and spend time with people.  

JCS: Speaking of poetry, it's something I recently learned about you. You're a very good poet! One of my favorite poems of yours, which you posted on your Instagram, is called "Etched & Shaded" (below). When did you start writing poetry?

DS: My senior of high school, which was many years ago (OK, 20 years ago!). 

JCS: What kinds of themes do you explore in your poetry? Who are your favorite poets?
DS: Love, hurt, God, spirituality, poverty and frustration, nature and beauty. My favorite poets: Paulo Coelho because his short stories are more like poems to me; Maya Angelou simply because; Emily Dickinson because she was a foundation of my American Literature classes in high school; Robert Frost because while in nature he wrote about deep themes that (still) matter to society; David and Solomon for their Psalms in the Bible because they are real, raw and pure, crying out to a known God while facing reality. And me, because ;). 

JCS: Do you ever miss home? Do you ever get lonely?
DS: I often miss home. I miss my friends and their families tremendously. It's hard to only have phone and video calls with some of them, especially with an 8 to 10 hour time difference. I definitely get lonely, not having people that know me deeply and intimately on a daily or weekly basis. But I try to develop those kinds of friendships and relationships here, too, and work hard to make that happen because it matters to me.  

JCS: You've talked about having "Oh crap! What am I doing here?" moments. What keeps you going every day? What's the first thing you think about when you get up in the morning?
DS: There is a quote an old mentor gave to me: "Begin with the end in mind." It comes from a variety of places including, "The Making of a Leader" by Robert Clinton and "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen R. Covey. I came here to do a job and love and serve people because my heart and prayers led me here. If I give up and just walk away, then I'm abandoning a principle that matters. My word and vows and promises matter. 

JCS: Will you ever come back to the US? Or is the world your home?
DS: The world, including the US, is my home. I have no idea what is next, but I love visiting my friends and family anywhere and everywhere in the world! 

Photos courtesy of David Sandler.