New Zealand Permanent Mission Geneva, Switzerland

Janet Askew: A Kiwi humanitarian on the frontline

Janet Askew is no stranger to conflict, death and dangerous situations. As a New Zealand Red Cross aid worker she faces these on many of her missions, it is how she deals with them that makes her stand out.

Earlier this year Janet was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest Red Cross honour awarded to nurses.
The medal is awarded for exceptional courage and devotion to the victims of armed conflict or natural disaster. It recognises exemplary services and pioneering spirit in the areas of public health and nursing.

Janet is in love with her work. After a variety of nursing roles within New Zealand, she was ready to take on a new challenge. She contacted New Zealand Red Cross and became a part of its aid worker programme which is supported by the New Zealand Government’s Aid Programme. Her first mission took her to South Sudan in 2003.

‘I went there not really knowing what the work was going to offer me but I fell in love with it and have continued to do it for ten years,’ says Janet.
In those ten years Janet has completed five missions and is currently on her sixth in Lebanon supporting refugees and war wounded from the on-going conflict in Syria.

Janet has worked in Indonesia, Cambodia, Sudan and Iraq. She says every mission is different but involves managing health care strategies  and working with medical field officers. Although danger is ever imminent in areas of conflict or disaster she doesn’t worry about it while working.
Janet praises the priority Red Cross puts on the safety of its aid workers, saying they work hard to ensure they always had safe passage. Unfortunately this is a message which she describes as difficult to deliver to all, especially when working in areas of armed conflict.

From 2007 to 2008, Janet worked in Darfur administering vaccinations  in rural areas. During this time she was involved in three armed hold-ups. 
“We had finished our work and were all happy with how well it had gone, we’d vaccinated 6,000 people. Then there was a group of armed men blocking us, my field leader was whipped and a ministry health vaccinator was shot in the leg just a metre from me,” says Janet describing the second, and ‘most frightening’, hold-up.

Even throughout this event she still had others at the forefront of her mind. “My greatest thought was about a mother with a very sick baby we had travelling with us in the convoy. I didn’t want anything to happen to them.”

These events and the situations Janet sees daily as an aid worker can take their toll. After the hold-ups, Janet returned to New Zealand with Post Traumatic Stress and took a year off work. “I found the right counsellor, talked it out and after a year off I went again.”

Her trick to 6 missions in ten years is always taking time between the missions. She says a solid six months back at her home in Gisborne spending time in the garden is just what grounding she needs help her reenergise.

Her passion and commitment for helping others was recognised in the form of the Florence Nightingale Medal and although she is thrilled to have been awarded it she takes it in her stride.

“I don’t do this work thinking I’d like medals for it because the impact and the joy of the work is inside me, not on my chest as a medal. Each day I am fulfilled by my role with Red Cross, I’m just so glad I’m here and doing this work.”

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