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Q&A with Aid Worker Dominic MacSorley
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There is a reality where some people act not out of self-interest or fear but from a deep, often mysterious impulse to help others. Altruism isn't easily understood. Even think tanks created to explore it can't explain why some of us insist on doing the best of things even in the worst of times. NOW presents a story from Afghanistan — a country in ruins, with millions homeless and hungry and tribal violence still flaring. Irish Aid worker Dominic MacSorley traveled there with his group Concern. His purpose: to help rebuild a nation shattered by war, a nation that's not even his own. We asked him questions about what drives him to help in such a dramatic manner.

Photographer Siobhan Lynam narrates a photo essay about her journey to Afghanistan with Dominic and Concern.

Dominic MacSorley
Dominic MacSorley

Photo Essay
How did you get involved in aid work?

I grew up in Belfast. I come from strong medical family. Father was a doctor, Mother, a nurse; four brothers all doctors; two sisters nurses. I never seemed to know what I wanted to do, except that I didn't want to study medicine. So I drifted into law. I studied at Queens University, qualified and practiced as a solicitor in Belfast for two years. It was an interesting profession but at the age of 25, I wanted to travel, wanted to get out of Belfast, away from the troubles, the depressed economy, the conflict all around me. Like most young, people I just wanted to see more of the world before I settled down. I saw an ad in the local paper for Concern — looking for volunteers to work overseas for two years and I applied. I really only expected to do the two years but became very interested in the work. Quite honestly, I felt I found my niche and so I never went back to law.

How did your background in Belfast influence your work? Do you feel that you have a deeper understanding of the people you're helping?

Only later did I make the connections between what I was doing and where I had grown up. It's ironic in a way that I went overseas to get away from 'the troubles', conflict and prejudice of Northern Ireland...only to end up in more extreme situations of conflict overseas — Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi, Kosovo, Afghanistan. On one level now I see that I was drawn to those situations and felt that I had something to offer from my own experiences. It gave me a deeper understanding of the brutalities of violence and the impact that this has on ordinary peoples lives. It also reminded me that there are no quick fix solutions to ending conflict, it can take decades to end not just the fighting but to bring about a cultural and attitudinal change. Also, we realized the importance of engaging an outside influence to broker peace negotiations (e.g., the US role in Northern Ireland). Interestingly we are now using the experience of conflict management groups from Northern Ireland to work with Concern, with different communities in Kosovo.

What was your first experience in aid work?

I joined Concern in September 1982 and began working in the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand. There were over 350,000 refugees housed in miserable conditions. Concern was conducting a wide range of health, education, construction and social programs. I was responsible for supervising the Youth Training Centre that provided skills training, sports and education opportunities for the youth in the camp. It was the only project of its kind in the camps. It was a great experience. Concern stayed working with these refugees for the 15 years that they stayed in the camps and assisted with the repatriation program when they finally went back to Cambodia in the early 90s.

Tell us about the organization Concern.

Concern Worldwide is an international relief and development organization, working in 29 of the poorest countries of the world. Concern is best known for its immediate emergency response capabilities and its long-term commitment to those most in need.

In conjunction with local communities, Concern's 2,500 experienced personnel implement a wide range of emergency relief and long-term development programs including food security, water and sanitation, credit and savings, agriculture and forestry, primary and adult education.

The recent 2002 emergency operations Concern has responded to include: food distribution and earthquake response in Afghanistan; emergency shelter in the aftermath of the volcano eruption in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo and famine relief in Malawi, southern Africa.

After my 20 years with Concern, I think what has kept me committed and loyal to Concern is its commitment to reaching out to the poorest people and our people are prepared to work in the most difficult of circumstances with poor people and our response to each emergency is unique to that situation, be it famine or war or natural disasters and the response to people is in a caring and very personalized manner, which is respectful of their well-being and dignity. Concern is also very strong on managing its funds in adherence to professional accounting standards with accountants in each field of operation. It's important to demonstrate our commitment to financial accountability to our donors and supporters and also our project beneficiaries. I like that all of our staff are mindful of delivering aid in a caring, but very efficient and effective manner. I guess what is first and foremost in my mind is I sign on to Concern's ethos which is based on a respect for the integrity, dignity and development of all peoples with whom we engage.

Where else have you worked?

I have also worked in:

  • Thailand 1982-85
  • Sudan 1985
  • Thailand 1986-87
  • Somalia 1987-88
  • Cambodia 1991-94
  • Vietnam 1994
  • Rwanda & Democratic Republic of Congo 1994-97
  • Burundi 1997-98
  • Kosovo 1999
  • Afghanistan 2001-02
Can you/should you compare those situations with Afghanistan today?

While every emergency is unique, there are always comparisons that can be drawn with other emergency operations. One refugee camp, sadly, is very similar to another. And regardless of the location, the level of services, they are unnatural. In human environments that strip people of their freedom and self esteem, one hungry child will display the same symptoms as another. But Afghanistan is unique in that its unenviable position as the world's poorest country has come about as a result of a combination of man-made and natural disasters. It has escaped few calamities — 23 years of civil war, four years of drought, recurrent earthquakes, the entire population of women repressed and victimized, no proper functioning medical or educational services.

Afghanistan has also received much more media attention (post September 11) than many of the emergencies that we have been involved in, where hundreds of thousands of lives are lost or severely threatened. Be it an earthquake in India, famine in South Sudan, the years of civil war in Burundi, sadly, many of these emergencies do not get the attention or resources that they equally deserve.

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