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Holiday Newsletter from Roman

Xmas decorations at the refugee camp in Iquique, Chile, December 2022

Here comes the Holiday Newsletter to my friends. I hope you enjoy reading it!



It is Christmas Eve morning. The sky is blue, not a single cloud on it. It is blazing hot, typically for this part of the year in Central America and I am sitting at the desk in my living room at Panama City’s apartment, looking at the Pacific, listening to jazz styled Christmas Carols. Thinking of the passing year… and what a year it was[1]… full of adventure, joys and preoccupations, some sadness, travels, getting to know new people and some hard work too. 

In November, I turned 50! Realising that I am now over half a century old is a strange sensation, but somehow quite nice and liberating too. But before I get to the birthday celebrations, I will go back to be beginning of the year.

Stereotypically to my work, I entered 2022 on the plane, travelling from Panama City to Brazil’s Salvador (via Sao Paulo) to respond to humanitarian needs caused by the floods in north-eastern provinces of Bahia and Minas Gerais[2]. Working in Brazil was a sweet-bitter experience. On one side, very impressed with my remarkable humanitarian colleagues, but also very frustrated with social and economic injustice, which at the end of the day is responsible for much of the suffering that one sees. Same, old story. It is the poor who are the most vulnerable and it is the poor who take the biggest hit, when disasters strike.

In March, I travelled to Argentina and Paraguay[3], where I travelled at the vast areas of Gran Chaco, looking at the devastations done by the ongoing droughts and the consequent forest fires. Northern Argentina and much of Paraguay are home to various indigenous groups, typically living in hard-to-reach villages, without roads leading to them, with little or no infrastructure of any kind, being totally dependent on what they can produce on their own farms, or fish they can catch in river. Life in Gran Chaco has always been tough for people there, but changes in weather patterns: severe droughts and Armageddon-style storms and floods challenge the livelihoods of these communities even more. I can’t stress enough how much people suffer from not being able to produce enough food for themselves. Crops don’t grow, rivers get dry, animals die of thirst. Consequences are easy to grasp. Entire villages become food insecure, people reduce number of meals, malnutrition soars. Things are bad really.

As I was busy with my work in the Americas, the war in Ukraine broke out, causing massive flow of refugees to many parts of Europe, including my native Poland. As you can guess, for my organisation, the conflict prompted an enormous build-up of humanitarian operations in Ukraine itself, but also support services in neighbouring countries such as Poland, Slovakia, Romania, or Hungary. The needs put an immense stress on all of us in the organisation, and volunteers were called to support the operations from other regions of the world. Naturally, I felt compelled to offer my assistance and after spending a very moving Easter with my family in southern Poland and northern Romania, I headed for a month to western Ukraine to look after some aspects of our functions there[4]. The whole spring visit to Europe was such an emotional experience. Seeing an amazing, and often selfless response from thousands of European families across Poland, Slovakia, and Romania to help out millions of Ukrainians fleeing in search of safety made me feel thrilled in a way. I felt pleased and encouraged to see so many acting humanely, without expecting anything in return. What I experienced in Ukraine itself was a mixture of emotions as well. Being very impressed with how the communities in the west of the country organised themselves to help those fleeing the violence in other parts of Ukraine. I was also extremely angry and sad to hear thousands of heart wrenching stories of people’s personal miseries, loss, and tragedies. Being Polish, the war has some additional bearing as well. In some ways Ukraine resembles Poland a lot. Western Ukraine’s architecture, culture, food, music, customs… are to a large extent very similar to what I am used to at home. Whether I liked it or not, the war touched me being Slavic myself. And although I know that conflicts and wars are horrible to everyone, regardless of where they happen in the world, things were a bit different, given that I felt some personal/cultural connection to the people with whom I worked. To explain a bit better some of my feelings, you may appreciate a short and touching (I felt touch, at least) experience of a meeting with a young boy, during a missile attack on L’viv. Finally, what was wonderful when I worked in L’viv and Uzhorod, was meeting some old humanitarian friends from various parts of the world and getting to know countless new Ukrainian and international colleagues, whom I adored for being brave, selfless, but also very professional and simply wonderful human beings.

In June, I returned to the Americas, and straight away travelled to Recife of Brazil[5], for yet another flood response, where I had a déjàvu experience… thinking that I was back to January… very familiar situations, once more prompting some mixed feelings of admiration to my colleagues, and disappointment with an overall and overwhelming unfairness around the country.

Later, my professional wanderings took me to Bogota and eastern part of Colombia at the basin of River Orinoco[6], on the border with Venezuela. Among many humanitarian interventions in the country, much of our work in Colombia relates to preparedness to disasters and crisis situations. My mission to the country was precisely that: assess the overall levels of country’s preparedness to disasters on central level and looking at practical solutions applied in the areas along River Orinoco.  I found the trip extremely interesting professionally, but I must admit that I fell in love with the beauty of the places I visited. Absolutely stunning nature and very kind and friendly people. I definitely would like to explore Colombia even more, if I ever have a chance!

The end the year, exposed me to two more humanitarian crises: one in the Dominican Republic and the other one in Chile. I travelled to both countries in December. While in Dominican Republic, together with UN colleagues, we looked at the humanitarian consequences of massive scale expulsions of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian-decent to Haiti. Without going to details, as the memories are still fresh in my mind, the trip shook me to the core, and caused outrage, as well as deep disappointment over how we humans, tend to treat one another. The level of hatred, xenophobia, unfair treatment towards Haitians, who simply try surviving and making lives for themselves and their children bearable distressed me and made me feel helpless and genuinely sad.

The stories of Venezuelans (mainly, but also other nationalities) walking to Chile[7] across the continent show yet another example of human tragedy and misery, but also heroism. Migrants arriving to the country escape from inexplicable cruelty of injustice, and poverty at home, but also abuse, rape, intimidation, and exploitation on the way. Then on the other hand, there are many stories of resilience, human solidarity, and hope. It was good to see that despite many negative sentiments (and at times clear abuse), many Chileans do whatever they can to welcome thousands of Venezuelans to their new homes and show solidarity with less fortunate by denouncing acts of xenophobia and demanding effective and refugee friendly policies.

But except my professional life, I enjoyed a great deal of personal joys and good moments. I toured extensively in 2022 to do sightseeing, visit my friends and family. As such, I managed to travel around Panama a bit (see Album 1), but also to Dominican Republic[8], Argentina[9] (took some time off, after a professional mission to the north of the country) Portugal (with a stopover in New York)[10]. The absolute hit was a visit to Argentinian Patagonia, which overwhelmed me with its beauty to the point of leaving me speechless and humble. Then the trip to Portugal to celebrate my 50th birthday with friends and family let me experiences that I will always cherish and remember (even if Tahir did not make it eventually, as he had lost his travel document just days before the trip!). Portugal is an amazing country, and I am ever so grateful to have it as my adoptive home!

In other news, you may want to know that Tahir is well in Canada and is enjoying his life there very much. He now owns a small carpenter enterprise (yes, you have read it right), which is successful, and is starting his own family with his partner Amna! I can’t describe my delight to know that he is doing so well and seems to be happy.

Finally, you should know that it seems like as of August 2023, I am likely to be moving to Caracas. Although, some more administrative work needs to finalise, it looks like I will be working as ECHO’s Head of Office for Venezuela. Needless to say, how excited I am to be having a chance to work among some of the most amazing and friendly people I know. Clearly, I am aware of the potential challenges (possibly frustrations) that are awaiting, however look forward to this new life’s chapter and adventures!

2022 has been amazing. Challenging, difficult, but also full of joy, professional satisfaction, personal adventures, friends, family, and lots of love!

I am now leaving you with wishes of the most wonderful Christmas and/or holiday and with wishes of prosperity, health, and happiness in 2023!

All the best to all of you!

[1] Album: Panama in 2022
[2] Album: Floods in Bahia Province
[3] Albums: Assessing the impact of fires in northern Argentina; Paraguay: an unknown destination in South America
[4] Albums: Easter and spring break in Europe; Working in Ukraine; An unexpected break at home
[5] Album: Recife foods
[6] Album: Basin of Orinoco River and images of Bogota
[7] Album: Lives of refugees in Chile
[8] Album: The Caribbean vibes of Santo Domingo and charms of eastern part of Hispaniola Island
[9] Album: North, centre and south of Argentina
[10] Albums: Birthday celebrations; Manhattan in four hours