Poo, kittens, and warzone logic to a humanitarian response

Arwa Damon

President & Founder of INARA

Posted: 15 March 2023

There was nothing “neat” or “organized” about our earthquake response at the start. It was pure mental hoops, just somehow figure it out, get it done. The staff that would have responded to an emergency were all living the emergency, in all its horrific ugliness. My INARA people based in Turkey, more accurately in Gaziantep, had scattered, barely able to respond, even to the “check-ins” I was nagging about once I knew that everyone was alive. Everyone was out in the streets, terrified, some having barely gotten out alive, their homes crumbling as they made a run for it. 

Imad, our communications manager started coding the rapid response quake fundraising page, his phone on the verge of dying. Cold, hungry, finding shelter in his car, that is stuffed with his wife, golden retriever and as many strangers as they could fit. Soha, our fundraising and development coordinator messages “I can fly in from Beirut”. She’s been in the sector for ages but this, this has both our heads spinning. 

And let’s face it, what the hell do I know about organizing a response to something this big? I’m a journalist, a storyteller, a bleeding-heart secret softie who, yes, created INARA, is the president of the board, defacto managing the whole thing, but my experience on the ground is about getting to a story, not the logistics of responding to a disaster of such magnitude.  

I don’t remember how the Istanbul crew got organized.  Some friends and strangers stepped up. I have blanks in my memory. I call them our “INARA elves” now. Within 24 hours, my house was this buzz of boxes being packed with winter jackets for kids, battery packs, diapers, baby milk, boots, undies, toys, books and so much more. My phone rang, the truck that was meant to drive everything down to the areas affected cancelled on me. Ok Damon. Think, think. All my “usual” contacts for drivers and vans, they are all press, they are all apologizing, already booked, while everyone they know is booked or asking for astronomical amounts of money. Think, think. I called a young man with a van. He had transported kittens I had fostered along with their street cat mom for me a month earlier “will you drive down to the quake zone with this stuff?”. Done. Breathe. Packed at midnight, he hits the road.

Soha and I flew into Adana. The cost of hotel rooms was way above INARA’s budget. I found an apartment on Airbnb. It had a squat toilet. I was ok with that. Soha not so much. I called her my “porcelain princess”. We cleared out shelves of toothpaste and brushes, sanitary pads to add to our products. Found a car and driver. Headed to Antakya, where the devastation was the worst, where it took rescue teams days to arrive. The Lebanon office had already started calling all of our INARA cases in Turkey, checking in on them, as they all lived in the quake zone. I’m convinced some of them must be dead. I see their faces; I remember the last time I was here, when we painted t-shirts and danced with a dinosaur. We started with those we could find and the families close to them. Antakya is … gone. How does a city disappear like that? We lose our words… Eyes burn.

This is both familiar and foreign to me. Familiar in that I know this “space” of tragedy, I’ve spent decades in it, I know how to operate in it, to get where I need to be, to get to the people that I focus my reporting on, to get their voices on air. Foreign in that this isn’t about the story, this is about the logistics and mechanisms of getting aid and building a program to respond to a “story”. I threw myself into every little detail of this response with the urgency of breaking news, the logic of just getting there and getting it done. What I’m willing and able to cope with, the circumstances, the sleepless nights. This is all normal to me. I catch myself at times needing to remember that those around me haven’t been exposed to or lived like I do. I need to take that into consideration, try to tone it down, we’re in this for the long haul, there isn’t going to be a “break” or a “handover” to the next reporting team when you’re burnt out.

Remember the kittens that cat van man had driven down? They had actually gone to Antakya, to INARA’s health programs coordinator’s wife and two little kids. I wanted to “save” them, if they were still alive. Ayman, our health programs coordinator was with me. He’d already described how he just grabbed his little ones and ran as furniture and walls fell around them; the ground outside swayed beneath their feet like an angry waterbed. The stairway to their top floor apartment is covered in rubble and chunks of concrete. Walls are missing. His apartment is a mess. Everything that should have been standing is knocked over. “I don’t know how you got out” I tell him. He’s pale, sweaty. The kittens don’t come when he calls. It’s been 6 days. They’re probably dead. I call out, using the nickname I used for all of them “shittens, shittens”! They come. Timid, hesitant. They remembered my voice. I fight back tears. I find the carrier, but can’t find the part that closes it, use a bag. We’re out, slipping and stumbling down the stairs. 

Driver is not amused at two kittens meowing their heads off. We keep finding families, distributing. Get back to the apartment. We find kitty litter but no litter box. “Shower” becomes the litter box. Malik, our content creator arrives. Imad flies to Beirut with his wife and dog, leaves them there and comes back. Khalil, our Lebanon country manager flies in and has a mini heart-attack over the mess I’ve made with receipts. We laugh. Zara, our case management officer comes back. Six of us stuffed into the apartment along with boxes of everything, clothes and other stuff piled for distributions. The Istanbul elves have sent down more items with cat van man who wisely says he’s getting a hotel room on his own dime. The kittens start kittening out, it’s a perfect little playground for them, sliding down stacks of jackets for kids, chewing and swatting dangling cables, sitting on computer screens. They make us laugh. Imad and Khalil can’t poo in the squat toilet. They walk 20 minutes every night to take a poo at the gas station. We laugh. No one can shower because the kittens are pooing in the shower. We laugh. 

Tired, everyone is so tired, even more so those among us that lived through this. They carry a different trauma, a different level of fear. Dead friends, dead neighbors, dead, dead, dead … so much death. The aftershocks are more jarring for them than for those of us who weren’t here. They bring back memories of that night, those days, that time their world shook, crumbled, changed. Fear and emotions surge.

We’re distributing everything out of the back of cars. Hitting different locations, trying to understand the needs and how we can best position ourselves. The vastness of it all, throat closes, brain wants to melt but it can’t. Everyone needs everything but it’s the undies and the sanitary pads that just fly out. Kids go crazy for the coloring books, pencils, and reading books. 

Soha and Imad brainstorm our “standard” packages with family hygiene kits. I go out to do the wholesale shopping but get distracted by a kid’s wholesale toy store. Rubik’s cubes, puzzles, coloring books. “Soha, let’s add a kids section to the standard kit”. Legos, stress balls, bright colors for little hands and faces. 

It’s a huge hit with the little ones. No one else is doing it. 

Weam, our senior case management officer, comes back, Yara our psychologist comes back. 

And we have new faces, in this new existence of ours. Short-term hires, volunteers, drivers. Everyone is tired, everyone is working so hard. We cook (well not me, I don’t cook) for each other, we laugh, some have meltdowns, get lost in dark thoughts, but it’s ok, it’s normal. We’re here. “I’ve got you”. They call me “mama Arwa”, I don’t think it’s funny. They laugh.

I don’t know how we pulled it all off, but now we have a pretty slick little operation going on and it gets better and grows by the day. We have a ‘live and work’ space; I call it the INARA version of CNN Baghdad. I have applied logic that if I buy enough funky furniture for the place, it will offset the “kitsch” of the house wallpaper, gold tasseled and trimmed curtains, glass chandeliers, although the “kitsch” makes us laugh. There’s a lot of laughter and giggles, jesting and joking. Maybe we’re all super silly tired, trying to offset the sad. Baghdad was like that too. Work hard, laugh hard, and yes at times, cry hard.

The system we’ve built is working. We find those informal makeshift tent clusters in the rubble and far-flung villages. We’re not just distributing, we’re noting where there are needs for a doctor (it’s not just injured that were quickly discharged, everyone is sick). We’re planning ahead for our roving mental health activities. We’re punching above our weight, in the best of ways.

We have our wholesale supplies, stock and standard kits packed and ready to go in the garage. We have lists brought to us by our field teams of family-based requests for undies, pads, kid and adult diapers. It’s all super labor intensive, but at least better than doing it in the field out of the campervan.

We’re piloting ideas, seeing what works and what needs to be modified. Our roving emergency mental health team’s interventions are not just with kids, but also for the parents – to help them with positive parenting, their own selfcare and  how to talk to their children. I cringe when I remember a father telling his little boy – as a joke – not to build his Lego tower too high, an earthquake will come and knock it down. I don’t fault the father, he doesn’t know.

We talk about providing snacks during these interventions. I veto chocolate and candy even though we’re providing toothpaste and toothbrushes. Let’s do fruit I say, people are craving fruit. Once, we grabbed bushels of oranges and apples and it brought people such joy… Let’s do it again. Plus, it’s healthy, and I have a thing about that. I also have a thing about whiteboards. I’ve discovered, while writing down schedules, an ability to organize that I do not like having, and house rules that include respecting shared space and the toilet seat being put back down. 

We were always the little NGO that could. It’s what INARA is. I’ve always had a deep level of affection for my staff, INARA asks a lot of them. Now as I sit here writing this on our kitsch couch (I’m getting rid of it) and the workspace (a la newsroom) I’m proud. I’m so damn proud of you all my INARA peeps. 

It’s a lot, the needs out there, a lot to take in. And a brain-breaking amount of work that still has to happen. We’re just getting it done.