Alexander Matheou: Flipping a common humanitarian narrative about a vast, diverse and dynamic region
In this episode, Alexander Matheou challenges a common humanitarian narrative about the Asia Pacific region being “disaster prone.” Yes, it is particularly vulnerable to climate-related events — and it has more than its share of volcanos and earthquakes — but it’s also leading the way in life-saving prevention, preparedness and humanitarian innovation. As IFRC’s regional director for the Asia Pacific region, Matheou talks about the opportunities and leadership this vast, dynamic and diverse region offers the humanitarian world.
A heart and mind for solving universal problems
In a small town in Slovakia’s southwest, Romy Mikušincová grew up dreaming about discovering the origin of the stars and the universe. It was her curiosity, she says, that made her interested in pursuing a career in science – specifically in astrophysics and theoretical physics.
Today, she is living her dream. She studies theoretical physics and astrophysics at the Roma Tre University, where she researches one of the greatest mysteries of astrophysics: black holes. Black holes are created when stars at the end of their life become so dense they collapse in on themselves and even light cannot escape their gravity.
Still, there is much to learn.
“The study of black holesisn’t a time-limited projectbecause we discovernew informationevery day”, she says.“Currently, I’m working on a simulationof black hole surveillanceforIXPE (Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer), a satellite that will be launchedby the end of 2021”.
“Giving purpose to my free time”
The time and effortrequired of a theoretical physics student is immense. But even thatis not the only thing that keeps Romy busy.Just as her passion for science grew as a teenager, Romy began another journey as a volunteer for theSlovak Red Cross.“Volunteering was interesting mainly because I wanted to help others, and to give purpose to my free time,” she says.
These days, that free time is mostly spent ona newprojectthat addresses the needs of young peopleby discussingtopics that arenotoften talked about, but which are key social and humanitarian challenges.
“Our main topics arehate-speech, peer pressure,cyberbullying andgender equality,” says Romy, adding that due to Covid-19 restrictions, most of that work today is online.
The study of black holes may seem like light years from the everyday world of young people and volunteering. But to Romy, there is a clear connection. After all, the scientific method of asking questions, investigation and solving complex problems can also be very useful in the human sphere. “It’s a great advantage when someone from a science background enters the volunteering circle with the mindset of dealing with problems until they are solved,” she explains.
Accomplishing great things
This dual path of science and humanitarian concern is not new to Romy. Milan Holota, the director at Romy’s secondary school, said her preference for science-related subjects was clear early on, as was her desire to make the world around her a better place.
“Her favourite (subjects) were the natural science classes, and she was exceptional in her extracurriculars,” he said, referring to her after-school work with the Red Cross, where she became one of its most active members.
But she did not do all of this on her own. She recalls that the support oftwo women –hermother and her secondary school physics teacher– wereessential to her pursuit of a career in science and research.
This kind of support can be essential for young women and girls interested in science. For many, such a pathis blocked by cultural attitudes that steer girls away from male-dominated topics such as mathematics and science.
Accordingto theUNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS),there is a clear gender gapin the science field –only 30 per centof the world’s researchers are women.It was even less in Romy’s class at university.At the beginning of her university studies,onlya fourth of the studentswere women.
“I thinkit is mainly becausegirls are not encouraged topick careers in naturalscience,” she says.“I want to tell allwomen and girls tobuild strong relationshipswith each other,to stop belittling one anotherand to help one anotherbecause I thinkthat’s how we accomplish truly great things”.
Seeing the world, and helping others, through science
For Eva Turró, science has almost been about much more than a career. Her passion for biology has allowed her tosee the world with different eyes, to understand, respect and take care of the environment and the people around her.
Born into a family ofdoctors,sheremembers as a child watching her grandfatherhelping families as a medicalpractitionerin her hometown in Barcelona, Spain.While medicine became a tradition in herfamily,she chose tolearn about humans and their interaction with the world through a differentlens.
“I thought that it would be a good ideato try and help peoplefrom a biological perspective,” says Turró, who most recently used that approach in her work as an emergency response delegate for the Spanish Red Cross in Mozambique and Honduras following devastating storms in 2019 and 2020.
In the flooding, devastation and disruption that comes after major storms, the household and neighborhood ecosystems that maintain people’s lives is turned upside down. Clean water is suddenly hard to come by. Washing and going to the bathroom can’t be done in the normal way. People are stressed, hungry, sad and they may have to stay in homes or shelters with many others.
It’s a biological environment where diseases and bacteria can thrive and easily spread.
Eva’s job is to use her knowledge of the natural and human world to help people in these situations understand the science and take steps to keep themselves safe. “I get to go into communities and have the chance of explaining things scientifically,” she says. “Things like ‘Why is hand-washing important?’,‘Why do weneed to prevent diseases like diarrhoea?’and ‘Why is it important to treat the water?’”
Her knowledge comes in very handy when helping these communities find or restore access to clean water and sanitation systems, as well as encourage coping tactics that preventthe spread of diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera or other infectious diseases.
The path of science and humanity
While Eva’s desire to help others began at an early age, her particular path became clear after she finished her studies and spent some timetraveling. She soon realizedshe could also help people far from her hometown of Barcelona and so she opted todo something in the humanitarian world.One way to do that was to connect her desire to help others with her scientific leanings.
Her first international assignments were as hygiene promoter in Mozambique after Cyclone Idai in 2019 and in Honduras after two hurricanes, Eta and Iota, smashed into Central America within two weeks of each other in December 2020. Those two storms caused widespread flooding affecting more than 7.5 million people in the region, of which 4 million are in Honduras.
“We worked toreach communities and shelterswhere people have found refuge after the hurricane,” Eva says of her work in Honduras.“Not only through awareness-raising activities,but also distributing menstrual hygiene kits”.
An invaluable opportunity
Eva’s scientific background has allowed hernot onlytoshare whatshe has learned as a biologist, but also to learn from othersandform real bonds with people from many different walks of life.
“To listen to the life stories from all over theworld … To go anywhere in the world, not just as a traveller, but to help others…This is invaluable”.