It was a day before his flight back to Syria, and International Federation Of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies health delegate Dr Jeyathesan Kulasingam, 46, was busy organising his luggage, preparing to return to his mission station in Damascus, following a two-week break.
In the kitchen, the aroma of freshly baked muffins and cookies wafted through the air, as his wife, Tham Yuh Shi, 36, packed sweet treats for her husband’s work duties in the war-torn country. Odi, the couple’s two-year-old Labrador, sat and watched obediently as Jeya – as he’s more affectionately known – loaded up his suitcase.
“Those are other ‘must-haves’ for the trip,” said Jeya, pointing to a few premix coffee bags, instant noodles packets, dried seafood and Tham’s homemade soap bars strewn beside his travel bag.
“Other essential items provided by my family include muruku, urukai (pickles) and curry powder, which will be added to my cupboard of ‘armaments’ in Damascus,” quipped the genial doctor during an interview in Kuala Lumpur recently.
He has become so accustomed to these mission trips – lasting anything between three months and two years – that he knows the exact quantity of items required for each assignment.
“It’s almost impossible to find any of these tasty treats there. These homemade delights are savoured with other colleagues when we get together to relax,” said the Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS) volunteer, who has been working with IFRC on international humanitarian missions for more than 10 years.
Man with a big heart
In the last 18 months, Jeya has lived in Damascus and deals closely with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). His job ranges from organising health programmes and visiting medical service centres to offering clinical aid and humanitarian support for war victims.
While Jeya’s work responsibilities may seem pretty straightforward, living amidst Syria’s protracted crisis – described as “the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world” by the United Nations and European Union – is no bed of roses.
Many IFRC field trips are cancelled at the 11th hour. Electricity and water cuts are virtually routine. Since the civil war broke out in 2011, the deafening sound of bomb explosions, gunfire emanating across the city and security check points, have become part of an ordinary existence for communities living there.
“We have learnt to carry on with our daily routines, even in the face of the hardships caused by the crisis. We are here to do our best in assisting and supporting the humanitarian mission. There are times when the ground shakes from mortar fire, but we still have to carry on with our work,” said the former LaSalle Petaling Jaya boy, who joined the MRSC in 1976 while still in primary school.
In three decades, he has undergone innumerable training programmes, including emergency disaster relief, psychosocial response to tragedies, health emergencies and response to epidemics.
Jeya has also extended himself in numerous humanitarian missions locally and across the Asian region. He was deployed to Banda Aceh in Sumatra, Indonesia, following the devastating tsunami of 2004 and earthquake-stricken cities like Kashmir in India (2005), Nias Island (2005) and Yogyakarta (2006), both in Indonesia, and Sichuan in China (2008).
Although Jeya’s work can put many of us to shame, he reiterates it is simply part and parcel of the job.
“Being able to contribute to help the community allows me to live my childhood dream. It makes me realise that life is really precious and allows me to look at humanity in a different way,” explained the well-built six-footer.
Training is key
Jeya reckons there’s a common misconception that humanitarian relief work is merely about lifting stretchers, distributing food and providing medical assistance.
Sadly, many are unaware relief work includes many complexities – rehabilitation, psychosocial recovery, search-and-rescue operations and managing epidemics are all difficult tasks.
“Not everyone is prepared to deal with disaster relief work. Serving in disaster areas requires mental and emotional strength. At calamity stricken areas, relief workers live with bare necessities in tents, without access to running water, electricity or phone connection. You must be ready to do what is needed without considering your status, rank or title,” says the humble man, who has participated in a variety of volunteer duties, such as digging wells, setting up tents and, coordinating projects for rehabilitation and reconstruction.
While MRCS – which now has 300,000 members – gladly accepts volunteers, candidates require the right motivation, clear intention, self-confidence, discipline to work in a team with a common goal and focus on the humanitarian mission. To ensure requirements are met, they have to undergo a one-year training programme encompassing first aid, nursing, hygiene management and disaster preparedness.
“In many of the training sessions, we include mock exercises, or stimulation training, to ensure volunteers do not only have the adequate knowledge and skill, but experience necessary to deal with the situations presented to them in the field,” said Jeya, who has been a MRCS trainer for over 25 years and enjoys imparting his knowledge to volunteers.
“The best is being able to share my experiences with them because in this field, it is important for those who have experience to keep passing on the knowledge and skills learnt from different situations.”
Receiving feedback from volunteers on the effectivity of the programmes is rewarding, but nothing beats seeing the smiles on the faces of relieved victims.
Jeya could easily be raking in the big bucks in the cosy and safe confines of a plush, air-conditioned hospital, yet he’s out there risking his life for the greater good of humanity.
“I choose to do this work because it demands passion, commitment, dedication and, above all, respect for humanity. Providing a glimpse of strength and lending support means a lot to victims during difficult times. We all know an honest smile can make a world of difference,” he revealed with a warm smile.
On a parting note, he provides food for thought: “I’ve seen so much suffering and pain in the course of my work, so, I’m merely trying to make life a bit better for those who don’t have it as good.”
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