For Samuel Girma (F ’17, N ’17), there isn’t anything unusual about famine. Growing up in southern Ethiopia exposed him to numerous droughts and acclimated him to the constancy of food insecurity endemic to his region. He remembers seeing the hunger in the faces of the people that would pass through his village and his own compassion that rose to meet it.
“When my mother gave them some food to eat, they became so pleased. When I saw them feeling very happy and blessing my mother in return, I was filled with a great joy,” Girma said.
These experiences have inspired Girma to devote his life to the humanitarian profession, one that he believes has the power to uplift the lives of those unfairly afflicted with destitution and displacement. It is unsurprising that along the way, he chose to stop at Tufts for a Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance (MAHA).
As a one-year joint degree between The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, the MAHA program has served as a mid-career accelerator since its inaugural graduating class of 1999. Practically, the program is designed to advance mid-career professionals towards senior managerial positions, and it requires candidates to have a minimum of three to five years of experience in the humanitarian field to matriculate, according to the program’s website.
Current MAHA student Paul George, who formerly worked for Save the Children, was drawn to the program by Tufts‘ evidence- and practice-based approach to humanitarian research.
“The Feinstein [International] Center at Tufts is what really brought me here — it produces a large body of field-based research meant to inform and influence responses to humanitarian crisis across the world,” George said.
Daniel Maxwell, Henry J. Leir Professor in Food Security and MAHA program director, noted that many of the program’s 105 alumni have gone on to work for large international aid organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières, CARE, Oxfam, the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the World Food Programme (WFP).
Prior to enrolling in the 2016-17 MAHA cohort, Girma worked for the aid organization World Vision as a humanitarian practitioner for drought-affected people in his native southern Ethiopia. He now works for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), a humanitarian aid organization that operates relief programs in 30 conflict-affected countries around the world.
Girma currently works as the deputy area manager at the DRC’s refugee response program in Gambella, Ethiopia. Ethopia currently supports over 400,000 South Sudanese refugees that have fled across the borders. Political instability has plagued South Sudan since it declared independence in 2011, resulting in a severe lack of security for all ethnic groups across the young country.
While the government of Ethiopia is ultimately responsible for managing the refugee camp’s conditions, as deputy area manager, Girma must observe and respond to the changing needs of a populace already extremely scarred before they arrive at camp.
“All refugees have already experienced one or more traumatic and horrific event during the conflict in their flight — family separation, death of parents, abduction of children, forced recruitment, burning of their home and properties,” he said.
Though the refugee camp that Girma works in is designed to be a safe haven for those fleeing violence, the sheer mass of arrivals into Ethiopia continually complicates the level of basic provisions such as food, water and shelter that aid organizations can provide, as a March 7 press release from the WFP showed.
Dauntingly, the South Sudanese mass exodus represents just a minuscule portion of the 22.5 million refugees, which makes up only a third of the 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide as of 2017, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Internal conflict and prolonged periods of drought have become increasingly common throughout sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East, further exacerbating the ability for aid organizations to meet the needs of swelling displaced populations.
Notably, these geographic trends also mirror the MAHA student population. Though students come from all over the world, representation has recently skewed toward East African countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, according to Maxwell.
The MAHA core courses strongly emphasize the importance of standardized metrics in the field, including the Core Humanitarian Standard and the Sphere Handbook, which practitioners use as a baseline for implementing standards of optimal water and sanitation practices, shelter materials and construction, as well as calorie provision. These courses prepare students with a framework of metrics and standards to confront the rapidly evolving humanitarian landscape. The program also offers courses that provide critical insight into forced migration and nutrition in emergencies, taught by faculty members from across the Friedman and Fletcher schools, including Professors Karen Jacobsen and Erin Boyd.
Maxwell explained that while standards and principles remain crucial throughout the duration of a crisis, complex emergencies most often require a skill set skewed toward human ingenuity and adaptability — in other words, skills that are incredibly difficult to teach. He noted that MAHA students often feel stretched by the sheer complexity of what they are learning about, but to date, everyone has successfully completed the program.
“Often, the students are in for a rude awakening when they realize the program is like running a marathon at sprinting speed,” Maxwell said.
To enlighten students to the realities and hardships of a humanitarian career, MAHA students can also enroll in the course International Humanitarian Response, which immerses students in a weekend-long field simulation.
Political and climatic shifts in the humanitarian landscape have begun to warrant broader course offerings in protection principles, food security and internal management, which the program and the Feinstein International Center are working to bring to fruition, according to Maxwell.
Out in the field, Girma shared about the actual, life-threatening dangers that he and other humanitarian workers face while separated from their families for months on end and confronting the most destitute of circumstances that humanity has to offer.
“[The] lion is real, crocodile is real,” he said.
Beyond the intensive education that he received in the MAHA program, Girma spoke of the importance of possessing a special combination of hope and grit, not only to make positive change, but to believe that his effort is worthwhile.
“It is really rewarding to be there and making changes happen in their lives,” he said.