|SAM This isn’t a path you choose; it chooses you.
After medical school, I received a Master of Science in Public Health in Developing Countries. My first field experience was in war-torn Somalia on a maternal and child health evaluation team, during operation ‘Restore Hope’ right after the Rwandan genocide. The combination of troop withdrawal and increased violence resulted in a second wave of famine. I was on a UNICEF team to assess needs, priorities, budget, and provide program recommendations. After similar work for the UN, Burundi, Iraq and Liberia, I started War Child.
BARBARA How did your first war experience change you?
SAM War fundamentally changes any human forever. It changes your understanding of people. You are shocked by the things people do to other people. War is the greatest injustice and the greatest threat to life itself.
When I returned home, I wasn’t the same. Things I thought were important weren’t any longer. War gave me an acute appreciation for what really matters. I have a sense of how the human contact, peace and stability we enjoy, are fragile. Life is about relationships, about family, friends, meaningful human interactions. You have to work for it; protect it; and understand its importance – everything else is just window dressing and can be gone in a second.
BARBARA Scariest moment in the field?BARBARA After seeing such devastation, have you felt guilty for where you’re from or how you live?
SAM I’ve had a few close calls. There were a couple of car ambushes. One in Nairobi, a road blockade with a bunch of guys armed with machetes. We drove through the barricade; the car spun out but we kept going to safety. In Somalia, I was taking a picture of a child at a well, with the mother’s permission. The next thing I know AK-47s were in my face. My security car pulled up; the driver grabbed me and threw me in the car. As we sped off, they fired in our general direction. The one many people are familiar with is when we were making the documentary with Sum 41 in the Congo. That was a very dangerous situation.
SAM I don’t feel guilt because we work hard to affect change. I feel intense anger and frustration for the people who work hard to rebuild their community with so few resources. Especially because often the people who make monetary decisions on program funding are doing it from a corner office. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to a hundred AIDS orphans in Ethiopia, knowing this means no school, no access to health care, or food. I don’t have guilt; I’m disappointed.
BARBARA How does War Child educate Canadians?
SAM We have different programs for students from elementary level right through to university. Many students, their parents or grandparents came from conflict areas. It’s important to talk about these issues.
It’s also important to understand what social responsibility means. You see that sensibility happening in the environmental movement, little kids understand the importance of recycling. But they don’t understand why it’s important to respond to humanitarian crisis in Darfur. We try to help people make that shift – to think not just locally, but globally.
The second part of youth engagement is an important fundraising tool for us. Young people are connected to music, and they raise money, through ‘battle of the bands’ or whatever it happens to be. This is an inspiring part of my job, being in front of audiences – re-enforcing their enthusiasm, idealism and sense of altruism. This gives me hope for the next generation, that as they become leaders they’ll do things differently than the generations before them. That’s worth getting up for every day.
I received a letter today from a teacher in Ottawa. A 10-year-old girl in her class was so inspired by a class project they did on War Child she raised $169.00. That moves us so much, knowing that what we’re doing isn’t happening in a vacuum. Little 10-year-old girls are responding – that’s a great day!
BARBARA A 10-year-old girl in Ottawa raises money for a girl in Darfur; what’s life like for the girl in Darfur?
SAM Over the last couple of years that girl would have likely been forced out of her home at gunpoint as her village burned. She probably witnessed a close relative killed, raped or tortured. She might walk hundreds of miles to a refugee camp. Alone, she’d have been brutally raped. A hut the size of a couch would be her new home, maybe with 5 or 6 others. She’d receive food rations which aren’t always predictable. In Darfur, cooking rations requires finding wood away from camp. Grandmothers collect the wood because inevitably that woman is raped. They protect the younger women from experiencing this brutality.
That little girl in one of our programs would continue her education. She’d be in a child protection centre safe from violence. This is why our programming is important, so that an average day for a 10-year-old girl in Darfur will be safe. It’s about day-to-day survival as well as thinking long term. If that little girl can’t read and write at 16, she’ll live a cycle of poverty, despair and violence. Her education, psychological welfare and long-term security are important, that’s the gap War Child fills. Our work is community related, like building a school. We understand change takes time.
BARBARA Does War Child only work with children?
SAM We do a lot of work with women. The single most important determinant to whether a child in a developing country lives to see their fifth birthday is a woman’s access to income, which is about education. In Afghanistan, there’s also a women’s skills-training and literacy program, a livelihood program. We run a micro-enterprise for women to set up small businesses so they become independent. Our loan repayment rate has been 100% over the last two years. We’re expanding the program to graduate 300 women yearly.
BARBARA Most people want to do something but have restrictions, financially or with family.
SAM It doesn’t have to be big money, $20 is a lot of money in another country; it can send a child to school. You can provide an organisation with your expertise here, not overseas, in organisational management, PR or HR. We can’t pay for a consultant, so a person with this skill-set helps build a stronger, more efficient organisation.
People often respond to an immediate crisis by donating once. We encourage people to give $10 regularly, instead of $100 when the feeling strikes. Regular support creates better program planning for any organisation working on the ground.
BARBARA What can we do as a nation?
SAM We need to reinvigorate and redefine what Canada stands for. We think we’re still the world’s peacekeeper, but we’re 50th in the world. Less than 5% of Canadian donations go to support international humanitarian causes. As a nation we need to redefine what we’re going to champion. These values have eroded over the last 15 years. We don’t want to be seen as a nation that puts self-interest above all else. Our reputation on a global level is suffering.
BARBARA Would having direct experience help?
BARBARA This is global citizenship, what does this mean for you?
SAM For some. Others are fine examples of good corporate social responsibility. This year, Aeroplan donated more than 1.25 million air miles, and they matched air miles people donated to War Child through their website for another million Aeroplan miles. We use the air miles to go to our field programs in Darfur, the Congo and Uganda. It is an example of a great corporate partnership.
SAM Being globally aware and socially responsible at both the individual and corporate levels. Historically conflict stems from our reluctance to ask the tough questions; to speak out against injustices. It’s the lone voices speaking up that change the way things get done. Global citizenship is being that voice, prepared to do things differently and stand by your convictions.
We’re connected to international injustices and war by things we do daily, whether using electronic products made with coltan such as cell phones, and computers; whether it’s gasoline, conflict diamonds, or rubies from Burma. Yet we don’t ask those hard questions or demand accountability from countries, corporations, or our financial managers who invest in companies doing illegitimate things. Like a stone thrown into the water, there’s a ripple to every action and inaction, we're all accountable for that.
BARBARA What advice do you offer leaders, whether in the community, work, or in the field?
SAM A leader has to provide inspiration; to be steadfast in their commitment. It’s easy to get discouraged, even for me. Sometimes I’m told ‘no’ 50 times. It’s easy to throw your hands in the air and say, “It’s futile, what’s the point?” Leadership involves perseverance and the willingness to go further than others. It’s a commitment to integrity, and a refusal to acquiesce when you know it’s the right thing.
BARBARA How do you keep going against those odds?
SAM There are days when it’s challenging. What frustrates me is seeing what’s happening in Darfur, knowing we can have a significant impact yet we get shut down. I’m really fortunate I work with phenomenal people with a keen sense of humour; we’ve learned not to take ourselves too seriously. My husband Eric is committed to this work, which really helps me. Many of our closest friends are in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and they’re always there as support and to encourage us. I also have a great son. In the moments when I think this is worse than pushing a giant boulder up a mountain with my nose, I remember that I’m not doing it alone.
BARBARA You also have artists and musicians that passionately support War Child’s work.
SAM There’s a close association between music and activism, especially the peace movement. Musicians are the voice of each generation; standing for issues, providing the message, engaging in a constructive way. Our latest CD ‘Heroes’ (released March 2009) is supported by 16 legends of the music business, including Beck, Elvis Costello and Rufus Wainwright. Their support is incredible, and the sales of this marvellous CD helps fund our programs.
BARBARA 10 years into the future for Sam?
SAM Making the most effective contribution I can and encouraging people to think critically. I love War Child. I’ve been eating, sleeping and breathing it for the past 10 years. For an organisation to grow, as a founder you have to understand your impact, and the strengths and weaknesses of that impact. As a leader you have to know when to make a strategic withdrawal, not from the organisation, but from the day-to-day to give somebody else the opportunity to drive it. I want War Child to be bigger than the sum of its parts, including me. I’m committed to these issues, and will always lend that voice for people who aren’t being heard. I’m scrappy by nature, if somebody’s getting hurt I roll up my sleeves, get in there and do what has to get done.
BARBARA Do you have a motto you live by?
SAM “Heads down, spirits up; you’ll be fine!” I say this to people going into the field. My philosophy is to capture moments of humanity and remember its importance, whether I’m in the field, speaking to beneficiaries, or in the Toronto clinic talking to a patient. It’s the intensity of that interaction and being present for it. It’s appreciating the moments of joy. I’m lucky I can do that. We have a small cottage up north where family and friends spend time with us. In these moments I’m intensely happy, because I know that in the end, this is all that counts.
BARBARA What are the 10th anniversary plans for War Child?
SAM One will be a music related public event and an exclusive fundraising event in the fall.
BARBARA What's next for War Child?
SAM I’d like to see the organisation expand from $4M a year to at least $10M. Our focus is to continue to grow our efforts, to grow our programs because there’s such a need. To continue to be the voice that fosters a social movement supporting global awareness, understanding and solidarity. H&L
Editor’s note: These stories are a minute portion of what War Child has accomplished. I hope you’re inspired to visit WarChild.ca to learn more, to be a part of global change and share what you’ve learned with others.