Nearly every day, news of humanitarian crises from all over the world hits our news feeds. These unending stories of loss make us not only plumb into despair, but we also feel that we cannot make any difference to the human cost of these tragedies. Meeting Anupma Sud gives us hope to learn that behind the scenes, there are thousands of civilian humanitarian aid workers—tireless, unassuming people for whom their work is more of a calling than just a job, each working silently and ceaselessly for those affected.
Anupma Sud gave up an established career in high tech to plunge into the world of humanitarian activism. She grew up in Jalandhar, Punjab and got her Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering at the University of Toledo. She then joined Oracle and worked there from 1998 to 2011. For four years after that, she was an independent consultant, after which she entered the field of humanitarian work full-time.
She recently returned from a three-week visit to Iraq, and was busy packing her bags to relocate to northern Nigeria, but she took some time out to speak about her life and work, and shared ideas about what all of us can do even without making drastic changes to our lifestyles.
Right from Anupma’s childhood the seeds of activism were sown. “My family has always helped others,” she says. Her mother, a professor of languages, was a believer in women’s education and often sponsored books for her students. Even as a child, Anupma dreamed of working with the United Nations. Her sisters are active volunteers and her young nephew is one of the founders of Shoe Cyclists (http://shoecyclist.org/), an organization that helps provide shoes to the homeless. At Oracle, she was an active volunteer for company-sponsored volunteer drives and was also involved with Narika, an organization dedicated to helping Indian-American women fight domestic violence.
For many years, she volunteered part-time or did so during sabbaticals from work. “But then,” she says, “I reached a point where I didn’t want to go through life regretting what I had not done. Frequently, we are held back by the fear of the unknown. But it is a wonderful thing, not knowing what the future holds for us. We have to embrace it.” And this sentiment explains her switch to the humanitarian world.
Her graduate work at LSE deepened her knowledge in humanitarian and development studies. Her dissertation was related to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, and her research took her to Rwanda for two weeks, where she conducted interviews with youth born out of wartime rape during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
In Iraq, Anupma worked with Re:Coded, a program funded by the United Nations, New York University and Spark in Iraq. It is a program that trains refugees and displaced citizens in coding to provide them access to careers in technology. With experience in both corporate and humanitarian fields, she assessed the program and recommended strategies to improve it. “Re:Coded was set up by humanitarians,” says Anupama. “But corporates don’t have bleeding hearts. Why would they hire these students unless they can prove that they can not only code, but be independent contractors?” Based on her recommendation, Re:Coded now assigns tech mentors and English tutors to guide them.
Her experience in Iraq was illuminating and fulfilling in many ways. Re:Coded provides hope to the community, and she was impressed by the students who were brilliant and motivated. Given the daily turmoil, the fact that they showed up to study was inspiring. Some commuted two hours each way on the buses arranged for them from refugee camps. One of them had a sick wife and a daughter and yet he attended regularly.
Anupma went on a picnic with the students and the food they brought with them “was unbelievable; here were people who had lost everything, but they shared what little they had with the kind of hospitality that was ten-fold of Indian hospitality!” she says. Soon after our interview, Anupma relocated to Nigeria, as a part of e-Help Africa, where she plans to help set up emergency response programs for cholera and malarial outbreaks in refugee camps.
Traveling to Iraq, Rwanda, Kenya, Bangladesh, Istanbul and now Nigeria has taught her to say with conviction, “We are all more similar than we are different. We all need food, a family, a structure—these are the basics of life.”
But travelling to places that don’t fall under the heading of “safe” and “tourist-friendly,” how does she stay safe? “All the advice comes out of love, and I welcome it because it makes me think,” she says. “I do know that there is an element of danger. But I am not a crazy adventurer, and I take travel advisories seriously.” The most difficult thing she has done was not traveling to war-prone regions.
In December of 2016, she graduated from the London School of Economics (LSE) with a Masters degree in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies. “It was challenging to go back to school after 15 years!” she says. “It was hard to get back to studying, and not easy at all to be a 42-year-old surrounded by smart 25-year-olds!”
And that leads her to give some parting advice for readers. “Chase your dreams, no matter what your age,” says Anupma. She acknowledges the amazing support system in her life the “angels in my life” as she calls them—her sisters and their families her adopted family back in Jalandhar, and her compassionate friends in London.
But not all of us can make such changes to our lives even if we want to. What else can we do, especially at a time when the world is becoming divisive and an air of fear hangs in the air?
“Look out for the community,” she says. “Get involved in grassroots work. Living in fear is not the answer, and complacence is definitely not the need of the hour. Speak up for what you believe in, and use peaceful means of protest—take the cue of Gandhi—and more importantly, do not normalize discriminatory policies and attitudes. Once it is normalized, it takes hundreds of years to break those attitudes as history has shown us.”
Other organizations where one can help
Re:Coded: A program in Iraq which trains refugees and displaced persons to learn coding to secure jobs in high tech.
She also pointed out some other ways to get involved. We in the United Stares can volunteer, but they do need regularity and commitment.
Refugee Transitions: needs volunteers
At Home Humanitarian: needs volunteers
IRC: needs volunteers
Cafe1951: Berkeley coffee shop that supports refugee employment; support establishment by having a coffee!
TechSoup: for tech donations
Shruthi Rao loves books, desserts, trees, and long walks. She enjoys stories in all forms, especially if they contain insights into what motivates fellow humans. www.shruthi-rao.com