Jody Sydor has just returned from a whirlwind experience as a Red Cross disaster relief delegate working with Kosovar refugees in Macedonia to her job at UBC.
Her six-month mission to help meet the enormous needs of 300,000 displaced persons had an unexpected impact.
"Before leaving I had a basic understanding of the refugees' plight but couldn't have imagined the incredible and overwhelming generosity of people," says Sydor, UBC's disaster planning co-ordinator. She took a took a leave of absence last June to join the massive relief effort in the Balkans.
Briefings were hurried and vague. "In Ottawa I first heard the phrase, `the situation is changing rapidly.' It was repeated at the International Red Cross headquarters in Geneva and proved so true on my arrival," she recalls. "`Someone will meet you and explain your job,' I was advised as I boarded a plane."
Landing in Greece she was reassured by the sight of a red cross on a vehicle bound for Skopje, Macedonia. Unsure if she would be staying or moving on to Albania or Kosovo, Sydor quickly realized that she would have to interpret and improvise.
"I was assigned a post in southwest Macedonia and told to ensure that appropriate goods reached the appropriate people in the appropriate way," she recalls. "I learned fast."
"One of the first camps I visited housed 45,000 people and to comprehend the magnitude, I thought of UBC with about the same population on a busy day. It was just one refugee camp. Imagine a destitute population the size of Nanaimo suddenly appearing in Vancouver overnight. That's pretty much what happened in Macedonia."
Distributing aid required daily troubleshooting. Food sometimes arrived late or in the wrong quantities. A large supply of cottonseed oil couldn't be used for cooking. Refugees balked at receiving lentils rather than familiar beans.
"Both are nutritional, but displaced persons need to achieve normalcy and strange foods add stress," she explains.
Bright spots are indelibly etched in her memory. Members of Canada's Armed Forces had purchased 50 teddy bears out of their own pockets and asked Sydor to place them with the neediest children in orphanages and hospitals.
"I saw firsthand the very professional operation of our peacekeepers but also caught a glimpse of their individual personalities," she says.
One third of Macedonia's two million people are unemployed. Still, doors were opened everywhere for individuals and families of five, 10 or 15 Kosovars who had fled with what they could carry. Host families willingly shared their small homes with "guests" who would stay for days or months, while 200,000 regrouped in refugee camps.
Sydor says success was built on the quick and generous international response, humanitarians in Macedonia and the distribution network established by the Macedonian Red Cross for Yugoslav conflicts in the early '90s.
Sydor had previously worked for the Canadian Red Cross during the 1997 Manitoba flood and the 1994 Penticton forest fire evacuation. Now she is back on campus developing the university's emergency response capacity.
"My work in Macedonia was a profound reminder of the importance of a basic plan and networks for any emergency," she says. "We all want to react quickly in a crisis as humanitarians. Having good systems in place enables us to do so."