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On World Humanitarian Day, celebrating UNFPA’s humanitarian heroes

19 August 2014
Serbia volunteer Mihailo Mandic
Mihailo Mandic, UNFPA/Red Cross volunteer in Belgrade. Photo: UNFPA Serbia

BELGRADE – Mihailo Mandic became a volunteer when he realized that people in his country needed help following severe flooding.

‘People were needed to help those who were displaced by the floods, and who had settled in evacuation centres,’ he said. ‘I believed that we could make a difference, and we did.’

Mihalio is one of UNFPA’s many humanitarian heroes – aid workers who place themselves in no small measure of peril to serve the most vulnerable, the most impoverished and the most crisis-affected people in the world.

This 19 August is World Humanitarian Day, a day to commemorate the service and sacrifices of humanitarian workers around the world. 'With rising crises worldwide, more financial and human resources are urgently needed to support humanitarian action and protect human rights and dignity,' Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA’s Executive Director, said in a statement. 'As we celebrate World Humanitarian Day, I salute those who respond to crises and work tirelessly to save people in times of deep distress and danger.'

After the extensive flooding in the Balkans, the worst natural disaster to hit the region in more than a century, Mihalio volunteered with the Red Cross. He helped to evacuate people to one of the biggest evacuation centres in Belgrade, and he provided psychosocial support to those who needed it.

He also began working with the UNFPA Country Office in Serbia. Because of the large amount of rainfall and poor infrastructure, rivers were overflowing and nearby towns were threatened. Volunteers were needed to help prepare sandbags to place on the river banks.

‘You can just imagine how much sand was needed for one river, and we had problems with many of them. At another point, there were more than 30,000 relief items stocked in boxes, scattered around the UNFPA office. It felt like a mission impossible for just seven of us volunteers to assemble 3,000 hygiene kits from these items,’ Mihalio said. ‘I knew that we needed to work fast to get help to people in need. But to my surprise, we did all the work in just a few days. It wasn’t easy working in the sun all day, but we worked as a team and that gave us power to persist.’

In addition to the day-to-day challenges and pressures, aid workers often bear witness to heart-breaking tragedies. Mihailo says he has been forever changed by his experience. ‘Talking with people who had lost everything during the floods left a deep mark on me,’ he said. But the work left him with positive impressions too.

‘I will never forget the moment when I felt the power of community organizing,’ Mihailo said. ‘So many people were giving their belongings to others, so many were working hard to respond to the disaster, so many just felt bad because others were in trouble. The power of people is so huge. Too bad we don’t use it that often.’

Read more about humanitarian heroes working in South Sudan, Syria, Myanmar, and other conflict- or disaster-hit places around the world.