Learning from the Ebola Response in cities: Communication and engagement

‘We must turn this crisis into an opportunity’ (Roache et al., 2014: 15)

Check out these reflections on working with urban communities in times of crisis, a central theme in future urban humanitarian responses.

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“When done well, communication improves the effectiveness of assessment and response. It can allow people to make informed decisions, prevent dangerous behaviour, address confusion and unrest and align expectations.” – Campbell & Miranda Morel, 2017



Five Places to Return To

– Response to the Daily Post The Wanderer

There is no way I can list the top five places I want to visit because I have no top 5. In my experience, setting a priority list limits the possibilities of surprise, particularly if you have your top five and have already seen photos of them on the internet which will alter your expectations.

So rather than telling you about my top 5 for the future, I am going to tell you about five places I had never thought of visiting until they crossed my path. I made a leap of faith without knowing what to expect from them and they blew me away.

1. The Labyrinth in the Jungle


This is a park on the outskirt of a town called Xilitla, north of Mexico City. It is a labyrinth built in to a jungle, made up of surrealist sculptures designed by an English artist named Edward James.

2. A City of Colour


San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico, is my hometown and it takes my breath away every time I go back. The city is full of colour in all senses, on the walls and in the people. Sadly it is also filled with tourists who come to the city to visit the Zapatista and Indigenous communities, which are quickly being exploited. Hopefully eco tourism and conscious tourism will rise quickly before these communities become extinct. Nevertheless, to me it will always be my childhood.

3. Temple of Spirits


Angkor Wat, Cambodia. I am used to be someone who regarded spiritualism with a great deal of scepticism, but this place changed my life. I am not religious and I never will be, I have walked in to many churches and a couple of mosques and was only ever able to appreciate the architecture. However here, I was able to appreciate something else, something I cannot name because I cannot identify what it was, nor do I want to. But whatever it was, it inspired me.

4. Surreal Berlin


Ohhh Berlin, you are such a wonderful place. It is here where I learnt to appreciate the beauty of Europe. Berlin is unique.

5. Occupied Rome


Rome is a beautiful city. Occupied Rome is something else, it is a side of the city that as a mainstream tourist you will probably never see. But what lies behind it is a wonderful mix of life, culture, art, music, food, and politics! Yesss! I love it and will always go back to it!

As I said, I never knew or thought I would experience these places and yet when I did they made me who I am in some way or another. I hope I continue to do it this way, with no expectations, no presumptions, just enjoying what it is, when it is.

Do you speak Terrorish?

[Dear Politician,

Why? Why do we risk our lives? All while you are in a safe place, surrounded by your family.

-A Secrete Aid Worker]

I wrote this article last week and since, I read this from which I have taken the above quote. It sets a precedent for the following:

Two weeks ago I had a conversation with an outsider for the Daily Post about not wanting to be an insider, not wanting to follow the lead on this ‘war’ against terrorism. Instead, I spoke of wanting to be a part of the conversation that is searching for an alternative that engages with the issue of terrorism but doesn’t necessarily mean violence.

I was happy to see that a couple of readers coincided and even followed up with emails. One particular email commented, ‘yes, we feel impotent and I feel solidarity with your position but I ask myself, what to do when you have before you a person whose only objective is to eliminate many other people…who wants to know absolutely nothing about dialogue and education and only wants to know about Kalashnikovs and explosives?’ This question came accompanied with a second comment which is that the bombs that attack Syria today are directed at oil production plants and military training camps, unlike those that attacked Paris which were aimed at civilians.

[Although, having said this, the recent attack to an MSF hospital near Damascus would prove otherwise. Even if it was an apparent ‘accident’, there is no excuse.]

The above is a question that most of us have asked ourselves lately, and along with the comment about attacking civilians or not, it is absolutely valid. However, what I’ve noticed in my humble 24 years of being on this earth, is that when we individually or collectively experience moments of high stress and fear from terrorism, the easiest option is to put up a defence and attack back in the hope that the perpetrator will fall back. Unfortunately the reality is that the perpetrator usually ends up retaliating, and we fall right in to that vicious cycle I spoke of last time.

After WWII, countries in Europe chose Diplomacy to deal with conflict and avoid precisely what France and other countries are suggesting we do today. This is not just proxy war tactics, which we are used too; these guys are going to hit right back in our own territory, within Europe. It’s evident that everyone is nervous and on their toes, particularly with this whole Schengen discussion. Greater border controls between countries and greater rivalry about whether we should fight the Assad regime or ISIS is causing a bunch of tensions that are driving countries to shoot down military planes because they ‘must’, for security reasons. I suppose I don’t need to name any names.

Anyways, amongst the chaos, there are a couple of things I have observed and would like to contribute in an attempt to respond to these comments, and perhaps encourage new ones.

Before I go in to my thoughts as a not-at-all expert and a mere observer, I’d like to reiterate something that a single individual struggling amongst this chaos said in a speech reported on Wednesday the 25th of November:

“We Europeans will show our free life is stronger than any terror” –

Merkel, I am so with you.

Merkel has in a very direct and synthesised way, summarised what I want to say…


Let’s first talk about Security:

I am in no way contradicting the fact that Europe needs to be very cautious. But I’m pretty sure putting up fences everywhere is not the way to go about it.

First of all, I’m pretty sure a barbed-wire fence isn’t going to stop anyone who is running away from the police, let alone a whole continent that is looking for you to lock you up. It wouldn’t stop me anyways, and I’m not the most fearless of people.

Second of all, fences don’t just represent a physical barrier that you can only cross with more difficulty. They have several additional repercussions. More fences = more divisions. More divisions = more hostility. More hostility = more marginalization. More marginalization = A more encouraging environment for the rise of extremism. It’s a pretty simple equation really. Or am I missing something?

To me, it feels like the consequence of these fences are more dangerous than the few cuts and bruises you cant get from crossing them, which you’ll do anyways. In fact, not only are we causing greater division but we are also creating the precise conditions (for extremist rise of power for example) that will eventually lead to our own demise; an idea inspired from journalist Airlene Tickner who reminds us that ‘he who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind’.

Information sharing on the other hand has proved to be very difficult but has also allowed Brussels to arrest up to 16 individuals who are suspected of taking part in terrorist plotting. Whilst I’m not sure I’d want my city to be on lock-down as Brussels has been for several days now, information sharing does sound like an interesting and effective pre-emptive approach. If only more countries would comply.

Finally, from what I have seen and heard on the media, the registration of the refugees (that so many countries fear), who are coming and going, hasn’t been a major priority. Although there are less refugees coming across the Mediterranean today than there were three weeks ago, it is never too late to invest in capacity building for registration strategies so that we are aware of who and where unknown individuals are. Rather than trying to stop something that cannot be stopped, lets invest in being fully informed about its presence.

Now let’s talk about Unity

According to an ex-ISIS hostage, Nicolas Hénin, what ISIS fears most is unity, not airstrikes. Last time I checked, it was the lack of both physical and metaphorical fences that brought European countries together. So it would appear that we are turning away from unity and striking back. Thus our response is precisely how ISIS wants it to be because that is what they know and understand.

Nicolas also asks, has anyone stopped to ask themselves, why France? Why now?

He suggests that it is possibly because France is a “…place where divisions could be sown easily”. In a sense, I sort of get what he means. Thinking back to the peak of the refugee crisis, how was France doing? In general, multicultural appreciation and inclusion are not known to be amongst France’s strengths. Perhaps ISIS thought ‘Hey! This is a perfect time to contribute to those tensions, let’s make the French break!’

It appears to have worked. Muslim communities are increasingly expressing their fears towards their ill treatment in a country they call their own. What alternative will they search for? Or anyone for that matter? Personally I enjoy living free but I also enjoy living in a society where if not perfectly socially inclusive, then, where efforts are being made to bring people together, not tear them apart. And I’m not muslim.

What about Freedom?

To choose to risk one’s life is not an easy decision, it must originate from a very difficult reality. Any alternative will seem like a good option and I’m pretty sure somewhere in that thought process, the word ‘freedom’ resonates.

I’d like to go back to Merkel’s point, that our freedom is stronger than the power of any series of terrorist acts. ISIS seems to be wanting to take away that freedom and by demonstrating to them that their attempts are failing miserably, what better way than to keep living and showing it off to them? Even better yet, what better way than to keep living it and invite everyone else to join the party?

ISIS needs people to support them, otherwise who will carry their bombs and weapons, who will infiltrate social media, who will commit suicide in their name? Just list any socio-political movement; the power is in its people.

What we have seen is that extremism emerges amongst people who feel marginalised from society, isolated and unwanted, so they turn to the only force that does not treat them like the outcast. Soren Seelow says that it appears most frequently amongst young adolescents and adults, at a time when their identity is questioned due to the lack of social, economic and political opportunities they have, which makes them feel flawed and failed. Radical Islam can cross their path in their search for a better future and present an ideal that allows them to understand and embrace their own identity. I know it sounds dramatic but I completely understand this feeling because I’m going through it myself at the age of 24. Identity crisis? Yep, story of my life right now.

So what do you do when you have before you a person whose only objective is to eliminate many other people? Well realistically, we are not just talking about one person; we are talking about one ideology and its many followers. So, ensuring that those who are wondering what to do with their lives, young or old, are able to access the opportunities that the ‘free’ world offers, I’d say that’s sounds pretty pragmatic.

Today, now, is the time to start investing more in education, in employability of the young and in social justice and inclusion. The refugee influx is decreasing, those who have arrived safely at their destination are looking to settle for the winter, they are looking to begin reconstructing their lives from scratch, now is the time to build the foundations for those who might or might not be marginalised, discriminated against or outcast in the future. Which reminds me, check this out!

Nevertheless, whilst one might agree with Merkel, she seems to be standing alone amongst her European counterparts. Why?! Nonetheless, she is speaking the same language that I am adhering to, that of an alternative. She is standing alone but very strong.

And the bombs?

Going back to the initial comment, question and to conclude this very long reflection, this final question is actually inspired by an even greater issue, what about the world we are trying to create using these bombs?

Another important question, which I’d like you to answer for yourself is: when someone places a bomb in your city or country, does it matter to you who placed it there? Honestly whoever the hell it was I’d be angry and frustrated and sad and so many more things. Who cares whether it was ISIS or France, in my eyes, they are both evil.

So what world, what society are we trying to create by placing more bombs, by stooping to that level, by turning politics in to violence? Are we trying to create a world where they will be synonyms? Are we going to be proud of that?


I’m not exactly sure how to answer these questions n’or am I saying I have answered the initial ones.

What I do know is that we actually know very little about the ISIS group, in fact we only know what they have been willing to show us. They definitely know a lot more about us than us about them. As Afshin Shahi Director of the Centre for Study of Political Islam at Bradford University argues, in order to overcome a group such as ISIS we have to understand the group and its motivations first. Whilst we know very little about this group, one thing that is clear is that violence and bombs is the language it speaks, it appears to be the only language it understands.

So I ask, if these people don’t want to hear anything about freedom and education and only want to know about kalashnikovs and explosives so that they can retaliate, as if it was all a game; well how about we try to respond with a language they don’t understand, one they don’t know how to handle, something that is completely new and foreign to them, which will catch them off guard and which will make them stumble?