Throughout her Bachelor’s degree programme in International Relations and International Organization and her Master’s in Humanitarian Action, her heart was always set on becoming an emergency aid worker. Sytske Claassen (38) is currently coordinating the setting up and deployment of tent camps in Mozambique.
Sytske Claassen’s house in the port city of Pemba in north-east Mozambique has sea views and a waterfront veranda. ‘When the fishermen come ashore here, we can buy fresh tuna almost without having to get up out of our deck chairs.’ During our video call, I catch sight of a small swimming pool, and glance the sea shimmering just beyond the veranda railings. Everything about the place exudes peace. ‘This is an expat bubble,’ she explains.
Each morning, she is picked up and driven to a very different setting. Claassen spends much of her working week in a warehouse built by the UN, where she coordinates the setting up of tent camps. The enormous quantities of materials and equipment involved must be utilized as efficiently as possible. ‘So, we’ve developed a tracking system, not unlike the system they use in IKEA warehouses.’
The warehouse may be run like a well-oiled machine, but the circumstances that necessitate its existence are out of control. Every rainy season, Mozambique is battered by highly destructive cyclones, such as Ana that struck in January and Gombe in March. Houses are swept away, roads become impassable, large groups of people are forced to flee to other parts of the country. At the time of our interview, 11,000 people were in some form of emergency accommodation, including tent camps. ‘And the total number of people who have been impacted in some way is far higher – more like 100,000. Anything from having become unemployed as a result of fleeing from the region where they lived to having lost their entire homes.’
Precisely because the warehouse can feel so far removed from the grim reality of life in the tent camps, Claassen visits the camps regularly to see for herself how the refugees are doing. Typically, Mozambicans are known for being cheerful, warm-hearted, and full of life. But not here. ‘Families often have to wait a long time to hear where they can go next,’ she says. ‘You can see in their eyes how exhausted and demoralized they are. And it’s rare to see the children playing.’ She is acutely aware of the significance of her task. ‘What we’re doing here has a direct impact on many, many people’s lives. You always wish you could help sooner and do more. That can be tough.’
No wonder that she values the close relationships within the team so highly. ‘We look out for each other. In this line of work, it’s essential to rest regularly, to eat healthily, and to take an extended break every two months. We hold each other to that.’ Claassen has been involved in providing emergency aid around the world for years, often for short periods of just a few months in each location. ‘You’re basically starting again from scratch every time. But in each new place, you always come across at least one familiar face. It feels a bit as if a good friend has travelled out ahead of you and is waiting to show you the ropes.’
Text: Dorien Vrieling
Source: Broerstraat 5
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