Forget Coming Home for the Holidays: These 7 Foreign Aid Workers Are Too Busy Saving the World

Their inspiring stories will make you want to skip today’s party, book a flight, and go help someone already.

Ariani Soejoeti, originally from Indonesia, is currently working as a United Nations volunteer in Nepal. (Photo: Ariani Soejoeti)

Dec 25, 2014· 8 MIN READ
Elizabeth Rodgers is a freelance journalist, screenwriter and documentary filmmaker. She has written about technology, parenting, autism and travel.

Many foreign aid workers are so unwaveringly passionate about what they do, they don’t come home to their families during the holidays. Instead, they stay in the developing nations where they’re posted, facing challenging—but rewarding—tasks every day. From treating Ebola patients in Liberia to supporting child literacy projects in Cambodia, read on for the inspiring stories of seven individuals giving back beyond their borders.

Celine Schmitt. (Photo: Brian Sokol)

Celine Schmitt

Age: 34

Hometown: Saverne, France

Current location: Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I’ve been in the DRC since July 2013 and will stay for two years.

Job description: Senior regional external relations officer/spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency in the DRC.

Why are you working abroad? One of the reasons I do what I do is a bit sentimental and linked to the stories I heard as a child. As a kid, my grandfathers used to tell me stories of World War II, how they suffered and how they were helped by the Red Cross or ordinary people they met during the war. One of my grandfathers turned 18 on the battlefield. He had nothing to eat, but on that particular day, he met a woman living in a nearby village. He told her that it was his 18th birthday. Despite the fact that she had very little to eat herself, she prepared a rice cake for him. He was more than 60 years old when he told me the story and he was still crying, remembering that day.

What are you hopeful for this holiday season? On the professional side, I hope that Christmas and the New Year will not bring a new humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately, they very often start around Christmas. In the DRC, the LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army] attacked villages during Christmas several years in a row in the north of DRC. This year again, there are rumors of attacks of villages in DRC’s North Kivu [Eastern DRC] by armed groups. On the personal side, I hope that my family and friends will have a good holiday season and that I will meet them soon in 2015.

Ariani Soejoeti going to work in a tuk-tuk. (Photo: Ariani Soejoeti)

Ariani Hasanah Soejoeti

Age: 34

Hometown: Jakarta, Indonesia

Current location: Kathmandu, Nepal. I’ve been away from home since Aug. 15 and I plan on being here for two years. My husband will be joining me in February.

Job description: Communications professional currently serving as a United Nations volunteer and assigned to work with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Nepal.

Why are you working abroad? Back in 2006, when I was living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a big earthquake destroyed the city. The tragedy became a turning point in my life and career. I want to give back to society as well as contribute to a just world. I started working as a humanitarian aid worker all over Southeast Asia and later moved to the development sector. This time around, I want to experience South Asia. The opportunity came from the U.N. Volunteer Program. Ultimately, I want to go back to my country and contribute to the development of a better Indonesia.

What are you hopeful for this holiday season? When I started working with IOM, I got a better understanding of what it means to be a migrant and how millions of people migrated, with or without family, to pursue a better life. I hope those who are away from their families and friends (including me) can still enjoy the holiday season by making new friends and making ourselves useful in the surrounding community. Celebrating the holiday season with those who are less fortunate is always good for the soul.

Mike Smith. (Photo: Mike Smith)

Mike Smith

Age: 59

Hometown: Silver Spring, Md.

Current location: Zorzor, Liberia. I’ve been here since early December, and the length of my stay is uncertain, depending on the need; two to three months is the current plan. My wife is back home.

Job description: Emergency room doctor specializing in tropical medicine and currently serving as the senior medical officer for an Ebola treatment unit.

Why are you working abroad? I do what I do out of a desire to help, mostly, mixed with a desire to act as strategically as possible. Working in disasters fulfills that for me. And, I like traveling.

What are you hopeful for this holiday season? Things are really dynamic in this mission, and I’m trying to stay safe. I’m hoping I can make a difference.

Jacole Douglas. (Photo: Jacole Douglas)

Jacole Douglas

Age: 30

Hometown: Plymouth, Minn., and Montana

Current Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I moved to Cambodia in February 2013. I’m not sure how long I’ll be here. Back in the U.S. are my parents and three siblings, who each live in a different state.

Job Description: Program officer at World Education, Inc., supporting education projects in Cambodia that address early-grade reading, educational quality and relevance, youth migration, and financial literacy.

Why are you working abroad? I have many educators in my family, from my great-grandparents to my mom. I was also a high school teacher before shifting to the nonprofit side of education. Because of my lineage and experience, I’ve always understood the value and importance of education. This ingrained commitment to education, coupled with my experience as a classroom teacher, drives my interest in working on projects that improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged populations.

What are you hopeful for this holiday season? I’m hopeful that some of our new projects—early literacy promotion for grades one to three—will continue to have the impact on learning that we anticipate in communities across Cambodia. My hope is to get kids in Cambodia to read for pleasure.

Mike Rekart and pharmacy staff. (Photo: Mike Rekart)

Michael Loius Rekart

Age: 67

Hometown: Vancouver, British Columbia

Current location: Bo, Sierra Leone. I left Vancouver on Dec. 1, spent four days training and briefing in Amsterdam, and arrived at Bo on Dec. 8. I am scheduled to leave on Jan. 16. At home I have a 24-year-old daughter in her first year at Harvard Law School and a 23-year-old son living in Victoria, British Columbia, and volunteering while he applies to medical school. I also have a 92-year-old father in Ohio and five siblings around the world.

Job description: Medical activity manager providing medical services to the Ebola patients at the Bo Ebola Management Centre (EMC), admitting four to seven new Ebola patients per day (many are transferred from the Bo Government Hospital).

Why are you working abroad? I believe that this Ebola epidemic is a global emergency that is unpredictable and capable of becoming a worldwide pandemic. I believe that I can save lives with straightforward supportive medical care such as fluid management. Finally, I believe that older people like me have a special responsibility to work on Ebola because of the small but not-negligible risk involved. I have had a productive career, my children are grown and responsible, and I have a lot of experience and expertise to offer.

What are you hopeful for this holiday season? I have three Christmas wishes, in order of priority: 1) The Ebola epidemic subsides quickly and mankind develops an Ebola vaccine before it reemerges. 2) My son gets into medical school; I know he’ll make a great doctor. 3) I can complete my mission as scheduled and help to save a few lives in the process.

Zaira Alonso with the organization's finance manager, Ernest Knightley. (Photo: Zaira Alonso)

Zaira Alonso

Age: 39

Hometown: Born and raised in Puerto Rico and most recently living in Orlando, Fla.

Current location: Monrovia, Liberia. I was planning on being in Liberia for no more than two years, but here I am, five years later. Time flies. We recently received a four-month extension due to the Ebola crisis, so our project is set to end in February 2015. My parents live in Florida and my brother lives in Massachusetts. I also left my chocolate Labrador behind with my parents. Now I wish I would have just brought her with me.

Job description: Finance and administration director on the Rebuilding Basic Health Services Project for John Snow Inc., a public health management consulting and research organization. He supports the overall financial and administrative management of this project, the largest USAID health project in Liberia.

Why are you working abroad? I work in international development because it is an incredibly rewarding line of work. I truly feel that we are all in this world for a purpose, and we all need to find how we can best use the time we have been given. One of the most gratifying parts of my job is working with the local staff. They are amazing. I’m here to work with them, listen to them, help them, teach and learn from them. I’m the type of person who does whatever is needed to get the job done so that our ultimate objectives are met—even if it’s cleaning the office or moving boxes. We all have to help and chip in.

Liberia, the place I have called home for the last five years, is one of the West African countries affected by the Ebola outbreak. It’s been a very sad time for me for many reasons: among them, seeing the improvements made in the health care system completely collapse and the changes in people and their ability to interact with each other. Liberians are very friendly and they have these incredible handshakes that always make people smile. Now, that is gone. When it all started, and the international community had not yet arrived, I worked with another NGO friend, and we started a supply chain system for the Ebola response supplies. It was intense work that included a lot of packing, moving boxes, organizing, and setting up systems. Of course, I still had my regular job. It was not easy, but I did what I had to do. It was great to help.

What are you hopeful for this holiday season? I’m hopeful that this Ebola epidemic will continue on its declining trajectory to reach zero cases here, in Liberia, and all the other countries affected. Overall, I’m hopeful that people always remember all that they have and how privileged we are for this life and learn to give back to those less fortunate. Everyone should do some act of kindness during this holiday season.

Dominique Valentine (r) working alongside the Medical Director, Dr. Micheline Baguidy. (Photo: Elizabeth Rodgers)

Dominique Valentin

Age: 43

Hometown: New York, N.Y.

Current location: Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I’ve been away from home for four years, and I’ll be here until God decides otherwise. Back home in New York are my mom, my brothers, my cousins, my aunts and uncles. My entire extended family is in New York and Florida.

Job description: Deputy medical program manager for J/P HRO, a nonprofit rebuilding Haiti after the 2010 quake. I develop policies and procedures, determining medical goals and the scope of practice for the clinics and the community.

Why are you working abroad? Working in the humanitarian field has been my lifelong dream. My mother used to take my brother and me to free clinics to receive care because we were poor. The attitude then, it seemed to me, was that because we were getting free or minimal-cost care, people felt obliged to treat us uncaringly. Even as a young child, I knew there could be a better way to treat people even when they were down on their luck. I wanted to be an agent of change. I wanted to be that person who would change your outlook, restore your pride, and empower you to improve your situation. I am blessed to have found my purpose in life. I wanted to touch people with compassion, kindness, and education. I see in me that little girl whose parents could not have made it without social services.

After the earthquake, I made the decision to return to live in Haiti after being in New York for three decades. I am not only giving back to Haiti, but also receiving. It’s the feeling that I get when a parent walks in the clinic with a child who has difficulty breathing and, after receiving quality and compassionate care, this child comes out breathing fine. It’s the child whose life is saved because he was rehydrated quickly, a mother at peace because her child is smiling or playing, or a pregnant woman who comes to the clinic instead of staying at home to deliver her baby because she was sensitized and empowered. Those are priceless rewards to me.

What are you hopeful for this holiday season? Given the current political situation in Haiti with daily demonstrations, I sincerely hope we find peace and resolution this holiday season for the Haitian people.