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Kayla Mueller's Death Underscores Risks For Aid Workers Abroad

Random violence in Syria makes it a dangerous place for aid workers. This month, members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent transported Syrians from a rebel area to a part of Aleppo controlled by the Assad regime.
Baraa Al-Halabi
AFP/Getty Images
Random violence in Syria makes it a dangerous place for aid workers. This month, members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent transported Syrians from a rebel area to a part of Aleppo controlled by the Assad regime.

It's a scary time to be an altruistic American abroad. The death of Kayla Mueller of Prescott, Ariz., is a sobering reminder of just how dangerous the world can be for aid workers.

Mueller had a big place in her heart for displaced Syrians. She'd worked with the Danish Refugee Council and other nonprofits.

Family members confirmed Tuesday that Kayla Mueller, 26, had died. Kidnapped in Syria in 2013, she was held by the Islamic State, which reported that she was killed in Jordanian airstrikes.
/ The Mueller Family
The Mueller Family
Family members confirmed Tuesday that Kayla Mueller, 26, had died. Kidnapped in Syria in 2013, she was held by the Islamic State, which reported that she was killed in Jordanian airstrikes.

Then she was kidnapped in 2013, along with a Syrian friend. They had driven to Aleppo, where the friend had a contract to fix the Internet connection at a Doctors Without Borders hospital. The friend — a man — was soon released. Mueller was not. It was confirmed Tuesday that she had died. The self-declared Islamic State, which had held her hostage, claims she was killed during Jordanian airstrikes, although that information has not been verified.

The news sent waves of sorrow through humanitarian groups and the people who work for them — and raised many questions:

How can these groups protect their employees and volunteers? What should the workers find out before signing on? We asked Trevor Hughes of International Relief and Development and Joel Charny of InterAction. The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Is the world a more dangerous place for aid workers today?

Hughes: Fifteen years ago, there was a kind of assumption that being a humanitarian gave you some level of protection. Obviously things have changed.

How so? What's different in the way warring parties view aid workers?

Charny: [The view is] if you're not with us, you're against us. That extends to aid workers as well. And more conflicts involve [parties that] are not members of the United Nations. Or they're countries that have not signed on to the Geneva Convention.

What burden does this put on aid groups?

Hughes: If an aid group isn't in a continuous cycle of evaluation and risk-assessment, they're in more trouble than anyone can imagine.

Is it up to the people on the ground to decide if they're safe or not?

Hughes: I'm a firm believer that people on the ground must be listened to. But there has to be someone qualified to make those determinations back in headquarters.

If you were a new volunteer or aid worker, what questions would you ask of an organization?

Hughes: What I like to tell people a lot is look into the little things. If you're going to be traveling to a field site, ask: Who's going to meet you at the airport, how will you know it's them, how will they know it's you, what happens if you show up and there's no one there? You can see if they have protocols in place and share them. And those questions will get you to the group's security person, because the recruiter won't have those details.

Charny: There's a kind of protocol InterAction has developed for its member groups called the minimum operating security standards, or MOSS. The first question is: Is your organization MOSS-compliant? Can you show me your security plan, your policy in the event that, God forbid, I'm kidnapped?

And what should you ask yourself?

Hughes: If you're going into an extraordinarily violent situation, like Syria, you need to ask yourself if that's the place for volunteers. There's a lot of hurt in this world; a lot of people need help. If you're a doctor with serious wartime emergency room skills and you're going in with an organization that's established clinics in wartime situation, that makes sense. But make sure you're not volunteering blindly or inappropriately.

No one wants to blame the victim, but when it comes to young workers, are they more naive about the threats out there?

Charny: I went to Cambodia in 1980 when there was still a war going on between the Vietnam-backed government and the Khmer Rouge. I was 26, the exact same age as Kayla Mueller. When you're that young, you feel invincible. You want to help people. You don't spend your time preoccupied with everything that could go wrong.

It's up to the organization to say, "Well, time out. Here's what you need to be aware of, and we want you to go through this five-day security training. And we want you to understand that if something terrible goes wrong, this is what we're going to do about it."

You can't depend on people in their 20s to be fully aware of the risks they're undertaking. It's the responsibility of the organization.

Should an aid group consider pulling out of a dangerous country, such as Syria, Somalia or parts of South Sudan?

Charny: We have a lot of jargon in our field, just like any other. One of the terms is "program criticality." It's a fancy way of saying, "Is this program life-saving? Is it really necessary for us to do this program?"

And then you look at the criticality of the program and compare that to the risks in carrying it out. If it's a famine situation and your organization has a credible belief that it can deliver food without threat to its staff, if you're going to be able to save lives through this intervention, the risk calculation is a little more liberal than if you're doing a training program or long-term education initiative and all of a sudden bombs start falling. Then it becomes a lot more difficult to put staff in harm's way.

If it's too risky to bring in foreign aid workers, can you rely on local people to staff the programs?

Charny: It's not fair. It's objectively true that there's less danger for Syrians in Syria and Somalis in Somalia, but at a fundamental level, international relief agencies need to be concerned about the safety and welfare of all staff and not have a bias toward saying they [citizens of the country] are more likely not to be attacked.

Do you think a nonprofit might put staff or volunteers in a dangerous country so it can say it has people on the ground when its does its fundraising?

Charny: I don't think so. I'm pretty cynical, but I'm not that cynical. I think anyone who's working in Syria is not doing it for branding purposes. They're doing it because they're really trying to help.

But could some groups be naive about the risks?

Charny: That can be. At a fundamental level, our community believes that if we act, things can get better. If we don't act, or we ignore a problem, it's almost shameful. We are pushing the envelope. Whether you want to call that naivete or hubris or a martyr complex, there's some truth to that.

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Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.