How I got into Humanitarian Work
Written by: Heidi Cortez, Saving Moses Executive DirectorI regularly hear from people. “Wow, you have one of the most interesting jobs in the world!” It’s true. At Saving Moses, we provide humanitarian assistance for babies and toddlers in areas where the help is most needed but least available. In Asia, we provide loving protection and care for babies and toddlers growing up in the sex industry vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and exploitation. In Sub Saharan Africa, we provide therapeutic milk for babies suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Finally, in the Middle East, we provide birth assistance to pregnant mothers in war-torn countries.
Serving in this position humbles me. My role has taken me around the world, where I have had amazing and sometimes harrowing experiences. I walked through the Favelas of Brazil where my leg brushed against a teenage drug runner’s Ak47 on the narrow pathway, cried with mothers who work in the sex industry and want their baby to be safe, and held a baby in Angola where I could feel every single bone in her body. I have witnessed abuse, starvation, and absolute poverty. I have cried many tears feeling the vicarious trauma of what I saw abroad. I have also celebrated babies cured of malnutrition, born safely, and protected from abuse. This work is both beautiful and heartbreaking.
My global journey started when my parents bought me an atlas of the world. I remember sitting with my friend during recess and writing down every country I wanted to visit, which was practically everyone. This newfound love for the world’s countries was incited by my grandma frequently traveling abroad and bringing home various souvenirs and trinkets. I collected these in a box and would look at them often, excited for the time when I could finally travel. My first “real” trip abroad was to Germany. It was similar to life in the US but different- my curiosity was peaked. I then traveled to South Africa, where I experienced a culture utterly different from my own and loved every minute of it. I was hooked. I pursued my master’s in international business. This experience took me to Israel to work with a nonprofit that addresses education concerns for children living on the periphery. It took me to the Philippines, where I worked with Deutsche Bank on microfinance. It finally brought me to my role now- as the Executive Director of Saving Moses.
I met the founder of Saving Moses through a mutual friend at lunch. We connected instantly at our willingness to try grasshoppers served at an upscale Mexican restaurant. I had just finished my master’s and was working in private education. She asked what I wanted to do. I said I ultimately want to work with children around the world. She had just lost her director and was needing to fill the position. The rest was history. I have been with Saving Moses now for over six years.
As the Executive Director of Saving Moses, I have been privy to a growing and flourishing organization. When I started, we worked in Cambodia and Angola. Since then, we have expanded into Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Venezuela.
Since the beginning of my work, my perspectives have evolved. I used to look at myself as a savior, coming with my western knowledge to save the day. Now, after working with so many wonderful people worldwide and experiencing humbling failure, I have learned to rely on local experience and teams. These people do the real work, and I am here to assist. If you have a passion for global humanitarian work, I would encourage you to really focus on learning about other countries and people. Become a student of the world, listening to a diverse group of voices. The common mistake I see in this work is a rush to solve problems with little understanding of the entire context. We often hear comments about our programs that distill complicated systemic issues into simple solutions. This is easy to do as an outsider looking in, but the best humanitarian work comes along side the local people who understand the political, socio economic, and cultural issues of their country to work together in solving complicated problems. Good humanitarian work is embedded in a humble, empathetic posture.
Now, my eyes are set on growing Saving Moses. I want to see our programs expand in areas where the neonatal and infant mortality rates are among the world’s highest. I want to implement a research team that will help inform our programs and help educate others on the plight of the world’s most vulnerable babies and toddlers. We have come so far, but on this journey we have so much farther to go! We won’t stop until we see a bright future for all babies no matter where they are born.