Humanitarian Peer Support

Long ago, on the second day of my first mission as a humanitarian for the Red Cross, I found myself getting off an old dilapidated plane on a broken runway, surrounded by deserted mountains in Kabul, Afghanistan. While for me that was a dream come true, for most of my friends and family I had moved into an entirely different, mostly incomprehensible realm.

There were lots of new experiences. For the first time in my life I felt an earthquake: in the clear mountain sun I saw ruins and burned out tanks. At sunset I wondered at the long arched trails of Scud rockets that were fired almost daily.


On weekends I wandered into the almost medieval markets and abandoned palaces from years past, saw camels, oriental carpets and many other exotic treasures.

Those were things and experiences that most of my friends and family could relate to.

Then there were also those things that friends and family could not relate to, no matter how I talked about them: check points with nervous soldiers pointing guns at the Land cruiser we were travelling in. Sometimes there were explosions that would suddenly erupt in the neighborhood. I was listening to the sounds of those explosions and trying to determine if they would come closer or move further away. And then there was the day when several rockets exploded in a busy street and buses full of injured people arrived. That day I was called in to the hospital to help with the emergency response. I had no medical training whatsoever, but my task was straightforward: to be at the triage area close to the entrance and decide who was being let to the front of the queue and who was not. The catch? Because of the limited capacity of the facility, the ones who arrived in the worst condition were to be treated last. And I was assigned to quickly make that assessment…

Two worlds

Ever since, the world around me is divided in two: those I could talk to about such experiences, and those I couldn’t. It soon became clear, there is a community of people out there, who definitely could relate to what I was talking about: fellow humanitarians, my peers!

Ultimately I understood that only those who had gone through the same or similar experiences could really understand, could provide meaningful support and had an open ear. They were willing and able to help me find meaning and put the experienced impressions into a bigger overall context.

Are you a current or former humanitarian aid worker yourself? Have experienced difficulties making yourself understood among people who have never been in a humanitarian context themselves?

Peer Support

You might want to join a peer support group, or set one up. You might want to consider that – not just because you need help – but also because you might be able to provide help to others. You might even consider setting up a peer support group at a humanitarian workplace, where people talk a lot about those kinds of experiences. There, people often carefully skirt around the most painful events – because some things need special attention. They need recognition and a special place where they can talk about it, are acknowledged and difficult experiences sorted out. A peer support group could just be such a place!

If you can, help humanitarian peers in need.

If you like to know the difference between peer support and counselling, download a new resource from CHP: a white paper explaining peer support and how to set up a peer support program in your organization.


The author, Christoph Hensch, started working in 1989 with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for many years and in numerous countries. In 1996 Christoph was injured in an attack on a Red Cross facility. He was awarded the ‘Henri Dunant’ Medal, recognizing his «outstanding service and acts of great devotion» in his humanitarian work.

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