Daily economic newspaper, TheMarker interviewed ICRC Engineer Sara Badiei, who was until recently in charge of ICRC Water and Habitat projects in the Gaza Strip.
Sara Badiei, who was born the daughter of Afghani refugees in Iran, grew and was educated in Canada- but this is not what sent her to assist people suffering from disasters around the world, like in Gaza, where she has been for one year in charge for the Red Cross, to restore infrastructures .She has friends in Israel and in Gaza, but she is not interested in dealing with politics, but to do her job- to fix the electricity lines that went down, and the sewer pipes that exploded.
by Dafna Maor
When Sara Badiei arrived in Chad as part of her first assignment in the Doctors Without Borders organization, she understood she was facing a tremendous challenge. Badiei, 33, an electrical engineer from Canada, came to manage infrastructure restoration projects, in which she was meant to be responsible for the teams on the ground. The teams were comprised of experienced engineers and operating staff.
According to Badiei, the challenge wasn’t technical, but human: “All those working under me were men, they had all worked in Doctors Without Borders for a very long time – and this was my first assignment. Some of them had worked there since before I was born. So just imagine that I arrived and said ‘Hello, this is my first assignment, I’m your boss.’ It simply doesn’t work that way,” Badiei said in a conversation with The Marker.
Badiei arrived in Tel Aviv the morning of the interview, which was held at the beginning of the month, with all her belongings from Gaza. During the past year she was responsible, on behalf of the Red Cross, for infrastructure restoration in the Gaza Strip. Between Hamas and the IDF, Badiei found herself organizing the teams that restored the electricity lines and the running water to the civilian population under fire. “As a woman it isn’t that easy, but I love the challenge,” she said. “Every place I’ve been, there was an issue with my being a woman and an engineer.”
Especially since your assignments have been in countries where the cultures are very patriarchal.
“That’s right. But these things also happen in countries like Canada and the United States. You have to overcome this. As a woman engineer, you learn very quickly to ignore it and do the job; you have no choice.”
Badiei’s life story is fascinating, and is directly connected to the work she is doing among refugee populations. Her parents were born in Afghanistan. “They fled during the Russian invasion, and I was born in Iran,” she says. “We were refugees in Iran for about ten years. They tried to return to Afghanistan – but couldn’t because of the situation there. When they realized they had no future in Iran, they wanted to immigrate to Canada. For all sorts of reasons it was easier to immigrate to Canada from Pakistan – so we went to Pakistan and emigrated from there to Canada, when I was 13 years old.
“I earned my first and second degrees in electrical engineering in Canada. I did many different things in the field of business. I worked for a few years in the electricity company in Canada, and I also worked for two years in California – so I have a broad background in project and people management.”
Why did you choose to move to the field of humanitarian projects?
“I was bored at work. I wanted adventures. My first assignment was with Doctors Without Borders – first in Chad, after that two missions in Congo and from there I went the Philippines, after the typhoon. I was in Gaza for a year, and now I’m coming full circle – I am returning to Afghanistan. In fact, my base will be the town where my father was born.”
Sabine Sitruk, head of communications at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Israel, adds: “These assignments usually last one year – and that’s fortunate, because it’s very difficult. Coordinators may serve two years.”
Your motivation to engage in humanitarian work was personal?
Badiei: “I have to be honest: my choice of this field was based on personal, selfish reasons. I wanted to see the world. Working at a permanent job and getting two weeks’ vacation a year doesn’t interest me. I wanted a chance to travel, to see the world, to face constant challenges. Besides that, I have a refugee background. It’s very logical for me to look for work that I can identify with.”
Why did you choose to study engineering? Did your family encourage you?
Badiei smiles: “I ask myself the same question all the time. It’s true that it’s mainly a male profession, and usually women who study electrical engineering retrain in another field afterwards, but I was good at math and science, and I loved the practical applications. I like that there’s a solution, an answer to every problem.”
Is there a conflict between the very practical, rational work you do and the more religious views and attitudes among the populations you work with?
“The thing I love about my work is that in the end there’s something tangible, that you can see and feel. Evidently this is one of the reasons I chose to study engineering. These are not things I deal with. I deal with things like a leaking sewage pipe, electricity that doesn’t work. My question is how I fix it – and I go and fix it. I’m lucky; perhaps I made choices in life that don’t necessitate dealing with the things that you mentioned.
“One of the things I love about the Red Cross, and it’s unique to this organization, is the status it enjoys. In Gaza, for instance – war broke out, there was tremendous tension and the only organization that ran activities there was the Red Cross. It’s not only that we stay and don’t leave because of the war – we expand our activity.”
Excellent Cooperation with Israel and with Hamas
The organization in which Badiei works – ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross) – belongs to the network of organizations united under the international humanitarian movement, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, which together employ 97 million volunteers and employees around the world. The movement works to protect human life and health – and the organizations within it are legally separate entities.
ICRC, the most well-known of the organizations of the movement, was founded in 1863 in Switzerland by Henry Dunant and Gustave Moynier. The organization has unique authority under international humanitarian law to protect human life and the dignity of the victims of international and internal violent conflicts. The Red Cross began in 1859, when Dunant, a Swiss businessman, got caught in the Battle of Solferino in northern Italy, where the troops of Napoleon III and King Victor Emmanuel II fought the army of the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph. Forty thousand soldiers were killed and wounded in this battle in a single day – and Dunant, who was witness to the atrocities on the battlefield, decided to stay and organize aid for the wounded through the local population.
When he returned home to Geneva, he wrote a book about the battle and sent it to political leaders and senior military officers. Thus began the activity to promote his goal – promotion of International Conventions, establishment of medical aid organizations and legislation to protect the wounded on the battlefield. In 1864, his efforts took Dunant to a diplomatic summit meeting, in which 16 countries participated. The outcome of that summit was the Geneva Convention, signed by 12 countries.
Dunant went bankrupt in 1867, due to the neglect of his business. He left Geneva in shame – and only in 1901, when the Nobel Prize Committee decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for the first time, did he gain world acclaim, when he was chosen for the prize along with the pacifist Frédéric Passy. The organization itself received the Nobel Peace Prize for its work during the First World War. This was the only prize awarded in 1914-1918, during which the Great War took place.
The activity of the Red Cross has not been free of controversy. In the 1990s and afterwards, the leaders of the organization acknowledged its failure to aid the victims of the Holocaust during the Second World War.
In December 2014, NPR (the US public radio network) published an investigation that showed that the claims made by the CEO of the American Red Cross (a separate organization from ICRC), which held that the organization spent 91% of its donations on activity were incorrect – and that the actual spending was 70% of the donations. In January this year, Reuters reported that ICRC is exerting pressure on the US organization to stop accepting donations from cigarette manufacturers.
However, as noted by Badiei and Sitruk, the Red Cross has succeeded in doing things in Gaza that other organizations had difficulty doing. Parties on the Israeli side confirmed that the interaction between the Israeli representatives and the Red Cross is of a high level, and the cooperation is excellent – something extremely necessary in this period, when tremendous renovation efforts are needed.
“We mediate between the different authorities”
“We had 20-30 projects in Gaza before the war – water, sanitation, electricity, hospitals, infrastructures – and the number rose to 60-70 projects,” Badiei says. “We increased from a budget 3 million dollars to 12 million dollars, and from 5 to 10 staff members. At a time when everyone was afraid to go out and move, we were the only ones who did anything. I don’t think anyone can do this except us. We were the only ones who got permits to bring staff from abroad, because we were overburdened in all respects.
“Our situation is good, because we work with all sides and we have good relations with everyone. When something goes wrong or breaks down, and it impacts the civilian population, there is no other organization that can move and do something, among other things because they don’t have the ties needed to repair and drive the change. Therefore, I felt I was really making a difference and creating real change.”
Badiei repeats that she doesn’t have to deal with the ideological difficulties and cultural gaps between her and the local population, because she focuses on the work itself.
Can you describe the work processes of renovation in a place that has been damaged by war or a natural disaster?
“We always work with the local authorities – the water authority and the electricity authority. They have their expertise. Our added value is in organizing the approach to sites where renovation is needed, and obtaining a ceasefire for a certain region. We supervise and adapt the approach. It isn’t only infrastructures, but also evacuating people who are injured, ill or got stuck – and even removal of bodies.”
What is your work model?
“That depends on the authorities. Some of them are very strong, and we don’t have to do much besides coordination. Our business model is very successful: we aren’t meant to replace the local renovation teams. We serve them as leverage, build capabilities and help them with implementation.
“Let’s say there’s something that is out of order, like a pipe or an electricity line. We don’t go there and repair it. The local authorities come to us and present the need, and then we ask them what their potential solutions are. We examine the solutions, consult them and offer ideas. They present plans and we check them. If they can’t do this, we help in the planning. The local teams or we hold a tender and recruit contractors. Ultimately, the knowledge and capability remain with them.
“We also serve as mediators between authorities – water and health, water and electricity – all these things are interrelated. It’s a great added value that I haven’t seen in other organizations, especially in Gaza.”
What is the decisive factor in the success of engineering renovation projects? What’s more important – planning and implementation skills or the human spirit?
“That’s a good question. I would say communication and planning skills, and willingness to accept the demands and input of all the participating partners. Otherwise, if it’s not acceptable to everyone, it won’t succeed. After that there’s a need for technical capabilities, and in the end, for the material resources.”
You’ve been in very poor and stormy regions of the world. What is the most inspiring thing that happened to you?
“During the war in Gaza it was difficult for me and very frightening. I had never been in a war – this was my first time. We were in an area of fighting and our staff tried to accompany repair crews in the area and they got near the fighting. They called and said they could see the combat, and they asked me, ‘do you want us to get out or stay? The problem we need to repair here is critical – and we might not be able to get back here again.’
This was an event where for several days we didn’t manage to repair a problem, because of security incidents. For several days we tried to get to the sites where the electricity lines had fallen, and we couldn’t because it was close to the border fence, where most of the combat took place. And then, after a few days, suddenly one day we managed to do it – the coordination was excellent and we restored electricity to 400 thousand residents who had been cut off. We repaired three electricity lines that cover 80% of the Gaza Strip. It was uplifting. You have to understanding that electricity touches the lives of people at lots of points – pumping the sewage pipe depends on electricity, hospitals, pumping water from wells, communication and more.”
How is it possible to maneuver between two parties that are actually enemies? Doesn’t it create distrust? The Israelis suspect that you are helping Hamas and Hamas get annoyed that you are talking with the Israelis.
Sitruk: “The Red Cross has existed for decades and it has built good ties with the authorities in Israel and in Gaza. That’s something unique. Both parties know that our goals are only humanitarian, and that we do good work in regular times, as well. Our acceptance is one of the important keys to the success of the projects.”
Badiei: “During the war, what was inspiring was the courage of the members of our staff. I drew encouragement from them. I felt it wasn’t fair that I had come for just a year, and that I could go on vacation in Israel. I didn’t experience what they experience, and they were the ones who said, ‘we’ll overcome and it’ll be all right.’ In Gaza I saw people living 35 in a house, or who didn’t have water and electricity for a week and a half – and I have electricity and water, and my family is in Canada, so I don’t have to worry.”
How to you maintain neutrality? You have friends in Israel and you move between Gaza and Israel.
Badiei: “My impression is that the average person here and the average person there want the same thing. I’m comfortable speaking with both of them. I don’t talk to them about politics. The basic human interaction is shared. My family comes from the East, but I grew up in the West – I don’t have any problem moving between the two sides. I don’t see a difference between the people here and there.
“I remember that I went to Akko for a weekend, and we were in a holiday apartment in the home of a family there. They were shocked: ‘You work in Gaza? Wow, what’s it like?’ They were very curious and wanted to know about it, how it was there. They said they’d like to see it themselves.
Don’t people try to influence your politic views in one way or another?
“The truth is that if that happened, it was in Israel. In Gaza I work with professionals. They don’t think it’s something I’ll get into, so they don’t talk to me about it – and I don’t talk with extremists. I try to follow the politics, but its very complex and I don’t manage to. A year after I got to the region – I won’t lie – I’m more confused than I was before.”
What do you plan to do now?
“I’m going to Canada, to rest for a month. That’s definitely not enough, but that’s what I have. And from there I’ll go on to Afghanistan – to work on water and electricity infrastructure. I’m sorry to leave the great people I met in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah and Gaza behind.”
What will you tell people abroad who accuse Israel of destruction in Gaza?
“Good question. I can only say that I had the privilege to be in a place that many people can’t see. The people in Gaza are wonderful and generous, and I would say the same about the Israelis. I am concerned that the media tends to polarize things – but in reality both sides are quite similar. I have great love for this place, and I admit that I really don’t know much about it.”