Table of Contents:
- How this conflict compares to other crises
- How Mercy Corps’ Arnaud Quemin is managing his team in Gaza
- How the Hamas attack on 10/7 impacted society
- Voice memo #1: A Mercy Corps team member shares their experiences inside Gaza
- How this crisis will impact other regional programs
- How Arnaud Quemin focuses on the humanitarian context of the crisis
- Voice memo #2: A Mercy Corps team member shares their experiences inside Gaza
Gaza in crisis
ARNAUD QUEMIN: Safe is a very questionable notion these days in Gaza.
The first week, our team was receiving horrible messages of people who were trapped in basements. They were asking to send people to take them out. We were looking for ways to make that happen and could not.
We had some tragedies in the families of our staff — one lost his wife, another one was wounded with a child.
Emotions are running very high in our team in Palestine and across the region.
BOB SAFIAN: That’s Arnaud Quemin, the Middle East regional director for Mercy Corps, the humanitarian organization that provides aid to people in need in the most dire spots around the world.
That includes the Gaza Strip, which offered a fragile life for residents before the latest round of conflict erupted, and now has become a full-blown crisis.
I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of The Flux Group, and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response.
I wanted to talk to Arnaud because he has a team on the ground in Gaza, who he is trying both to protect and to leverage to help others.
Mercy Corps’ CEO, Tjada McKenna, has been on this show twice before, to talk about the Ukrainian refugee crisis after Russia’s invasion, and earlier this year to talk about a deadly earthquake in Syria and Turkey.
SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian. I’m here with Arnaud Quemin, the Middle East regional director for Mercy Corps. Arnaud is coming to us from Amman, Jordan, as I ask my questions from New York. Arnaud, thanks for joining us.
QUEMIN: Yeah, thanks for having me.
How this conflict compares to other crises
SAFIAN: So, this is a very tense time in the Middle East, although tension is not unusual for the region or for you. You’ve been working there for several years. You previously worked in South Sudan, in Afghanistan, many challenging locations. With Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7th and the subsequent Israeli action in the Gaza Strip, how does this situation today compare to other crises that you’ve experienced?
QUEMIN: There was maybe a form of pattern around Gaza over the past 10 years, but what we’re looking at today is completely out of that pattern, and it’s of a magnitude in terms of the geopolitical rippling effects and consequences that I’ve never seen before. So, it’s a very defining time for the region, and I think for a big part of the world.
SAFIAN: You’re usually based in Beirut, and you relocated to Jordan.
QUEMIN: The first idea is to put people who are not needed in a safer place. But the other part is once you’ve done it, you’re free to go about your job with the team that is on the ground. So if you know you’re going to have to probably evacuate at some point, you’d rather do it earlier rather than later. At the end of the first week of this crisis, I went to talk with our country director in Beirut for our weekly check-up, and we saw that there was a distinct possibility for things to spill over in Lebanon that will have an impact on our ability to communicate and to manage our team. So we thought, okay, let’s do it. And by the end of the afternoon, I was gone actually.
SAFIAN: And so have you done this before, where you have had to relocate so quickly?
QUEMIN: Maybe 20 years ago in a job in Liberia, I had to evacuate twice in the first week, and the second time was in the middle of a pitch battle. So I’m not seeking this kind of situation. But unfortunately it happens and you’d rather do it in an ordered fashion rather than too late.
How Mercy Corps’ Arnaud Quemin is managing his team in Gaza
SAFIAN: So you relocate so that you can continue to stay in best contact with your team. You have team members in Gaza. What are conditions like there now?
QUEMIN: All I know is from the daily trickle of information we manage to get from the team on the ground. The first week we were trying to have a daily headcount that I did not get at the end of every day, and I ended up asking, “why am I not getting this? Because I need to know every day I start the status of our team.” And it’s because we are trying to get a lot of information about their whereabouts, how they’re feeling, et cetera, and it’s too much and basically they don’t respond. So, we decided to have two tiers of check-in every day. One where we just ask them if they are fine and where they are on a WhatsApp questionnaire. And then for the more complex interaction, we have a different channel that we can use at will.
SAFIAN: How many people do you have in Gaza? Are they all safe?
QUEMIN: Safe is a very questionable notion these days in Gaza, but we have about 70 staff plus their families. All of them had to relocate over the past three weeks. For some, we had to look for accommodation for them at the time where it’s very difficult. People who are basically waiting for us to secure a location for them in the south because they were stuck in the northern part, which has become increasingly dangerous. We had some tragedies in the families of our staff, one lost his wife, another one was wounded with a child. Others had relatives wounded.
SAFIAN: When you hear that a team member’s wife has been killed, what can you do?
QUEMIN: It’s actually someone I know. So, we connected with him, remotely providing psychological support, sent different forms of messages and acknowledgement, which is pretty much the extent of what we can do right now. We currently have a core team of a few people who are trying to supply food, finding water, mattress or things like that for the rest of the team because basically that’s the first order of business that they can be stable and have their daily needs covered. But what we can do at this moment is very limited.
How the Hamas attack on 10/7 impacted society
SAFIAN: Can you paint a picture for us, as far as you know, what the conditions were like there before October 7th and then what they’re like there for them now?
QUEMIN: Before that we had a very fragile society, which has developed ways to be semi-functional in the context of this long standing blockade. For instance, the telecom infrastructure had not been upgraded. So I think it was still 2G or 3G. We were helping farmers to develop agriculture and setting up irrigation, in the south especially. We also had a great program called Gaza Sky Geeks, the immense potential, very tech savvy young people. We were training them, helping them understand what platform existed.
I was impressed by how eager and professional they were, looking for jobs in Australia or in the Gulf, doing some form of content production or coding. And so those were the days before. Basically it was far from perfect, but there was a sense of building things. This whole momentum is obviously gone. The team on the ground, we will probably organize them into a new response team as soon as we can get aid to come from the border. That’s not their skillset, but I understand that they are eager to just get going. But we’re starting from a level of destruction that is absolutely unprecedented, even in Gaza.
SAFIAN: I know some aid has been allowed in, some trucks, but well below certainly what the UN was sending in before. Does that mean, for an organization like Mercy Corps, can you get anything into Gaza?
QUEMIN: The small trucks, that convoy that came through — it’s just a drop in an ocean of needs. They could not organize proper distributions. There were a mass of people showing up, and that became completely unsafe. I was talking with colleagues, this team on the ground, they were like, “don’t say that as a good news because this is a patch, a bandaid.” The last two nights there were lots of air strikes, so people were like, “can we at least have this stop?” The food will reappear at some point, of course.
But for people, their first concern is physically stopping these strikes. Now what can come in at this point? Nothing or very little. We have sent staff in Egypt to establish connections with the local authorities and other NGOs to prepare for a steady pipeline of aid as soon as there is a mechanism put in place. Our NGOs are often not very consulted in the first stage of this negotiation, but we are pushing for that. We know what we’ll need, and that’s very different from what diplomats discuss.
SAFIAN: As I’m listening to you and hearing your tone, it’s like you’re trying to stay patient, and you’re trying to stay upbeat. And at the same time, you’re frustrated, and you don’t really have control over the things you wish you could do.
QUEMIN: I think this crisis actually is an exercise in what agency you have. Even in a natural disaster, you often have an amount of needs that you cannot cover. And so you need to bring what you can and do your best. At this level, we are in a critical case where we cannot even start responding. There’s clearly a lot of energy invested in making it possible. And hopefully this will come in the coming days.
SAFIAN: And your team on the ground there, what are their moods like? I mean it sounds like some people want to contribute and help. There may be other people who are like, “I just want to hide.”
QUEMIN: You’re describing exactly what I was hearing today. Some are completely focused on taking care of their families, and so they will not be available to contribute to the response. Others are like, “okay, what can I do today? Find me something useful please.”
The first days, we were really concerned we would have a complete blackout — out of power, out of internet or telephone. We were topping up their credit on their phone with a telecom company, but the quality of the connection with Gaza has actually decreased. And I’m very afraid that if this trend continues, we will have to increasingly trust them to function by themselves because we won’t be able to interact as much.
SAFIAN: Arnaud is juggling so many things, trying to support those in harm’s way, while also making plans for an uncertain future.
Voice memo #1: A Mercy Corps team member shares their experiences inside Gaza
After the break, we’ll hear how he’s modeling resilience and discipline for his colleagues. But first we have a voice memo from inside Gaza from one of the Mercy Corp team members. The voice memo is in Arabic, the translation you’ll hear is read by an AI, Pi:
PI: We went to buy bread today. We now go out food shopping every 2-3 days. I live in Northern Gaza, but had to leave my home and go to the southern part. We are staying in a family house that is hosting 20 people in a very small apartment. And I consider ourselves lucky because other apartments of the same size are hosting up to 50-60 people, like in 90-100-meter apartments. We went to another area, which is a refugee camp to find a bakery. When we arrived, we found out that the bakery was bombed. We went to another area. We found the bakery, and there is a long line of about 300 people waiting for their turn to get bread.
The area has been targeted previously by airstrikes. It was not safe to wait. Crowds of people have been targeted many times. Yesterday, they targeted a food market that was full of people. I went back to the area we were staying in to buy some groceries. In the store, we continually heard the explosion of the airstrikes. These explosions have become a normal thing to hear.
SAFIAN: Before the break we heard Mercy Corps Middle East regional director Arnaud Quemin outline what his team members inside Gaza are facing, plus some direct insights from one of them.
And you oversee this team also in the West Bank. Are things operational there? What are the conditions now in the West Bank?
QUEMIN: We suspended the first few days. We have a large program for youth, which is currently moving online, because we have some centers for youth, and these centers are not safe anymore. There are some military operations taking place and detention is extremely high. So, some of our staff are really afraid of going out of their home in some neighborhoods. We are trying to reprogram the things we cannot do in Gaza to do it to some extent in the West Bank. But we are working at a lower capacity.
How this crisis will impact other regional programs
SAFIAN: And with all this going on, how do you think about the impact on your other regional programs?
QUEMIN: Let’s start with Lebanon. We have last count with like 20,000 people displaced from the south because of the shelling across the border. Our team went there last week. They’re going back tomorrow if the security allows to see how we can start distributing goods. Lebanon is at the bottom of a terrible economical crisis. This month is the harvest season for olives. If this lasts too long, they will miss a major source of income for many of these families. So we will also need to look for ways to supplement that. Yes, we have programs across the region, and it’s taken a huge chunk of my time as well.
SAFIAN: Whenever, hopefully not too long, but whenever things calm down in Gaza, it’s going to be a mess, right? I mean, the needs are going to be off the charts.
QUEMIN: There will not be enough support for several years to come, to go back to a level of normal. I mean we are of course starting with the immediate needs that are very urgent and very critical, but behind that, there will be an absolute need for reconstruction that will be large scale.
How Arnaud Quemin focuses on the humanitarian context of the crisis
SAFIAN: When there’s a natural disaster, you can be angry, but there’s no one to get angry at. When there are more political things, the frustration can go in other directions. How do you stay neutral in situations like this?
QUEMIN: People had a hard time understanding what’s the posture of a humanitarian in this kind of context. The neutrality and passion that you’re talking about were born out of these impossible situations to create a space for something else than violence. And thank God for that because today, there are people that are concerned with humanity and with helping. They’re not concerned with who is at fault, who is violent, who is legitimate? No, our question is who is humane and who needs help. And that should be respected by everybody.
SAFIAN: And what do you do personally with your own frustration or anger or disappointment in times like this? How do you manage those things? It must get to you sometimes.
QUEMIN: I studied history, so I have a very … I have a fascination for the complexity of human situations. And I try to stick to that approach, like a scientific one, based on empathy and the emotional part about the humanitarian response, but I know that it’s extremely dangerous to fall into any of the logics that are at play there. It requires a lot of discipline because people keep asking you to take sides. And I absolutely have no other desire than to take side for the team I have on the ground that we need to support and the people who are in need of aid.
And I guess that leads sometimes to very short conversations because I cannot continue them. And that’s just the nature of this job. You have different types of organizations. Some are advocacy organizations whose job is to be vocal and to bring a very strong point of view. I’m working for an operational organization, one that is driven by an imperative to deliver. So we have to discipline ourselves to preserve this ability to deliver — whatever we think about it. And I can tell you emotions are running very high in our team in Palestine and across the region. And I have to reassure them that this is all for a good reason. It’s because eventually at the end, we’ll be able to mount a proper response.
SAFIAN: And the emotions are running high, in part because they want to do something and they can’t.
QUEMIN: Because people want to speak up to take a very strong stand. And I totally respect that. It’s just that if we start engaging with this, we might be tagged with one side of the story, and we cannot afford that. We cannot. That’s just as simple as that.
SAFIAN: And for you personally, do you meditate? Do you exercise? What does it take to get yourself to be able to stay neutral and keep those around you calm?
QUEMIN: In a normal time, I would say yes to exercise, meditation, but these past few weeks have been a nonstop tunnel of work. So there’s no spare time, from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed. And I know that it’s the case for dozens, if not hundreds of people around this team. I’m blessed with a group of people I’m interacting with every hour that I have a deep respect for, and I can bounce off ideas and opinions and thoughts and emotions and they do the same. And we manage to basically have some form of support. The team dynamic is probably what keeps me going.
Voice memo #2: A Mercy Corps team member shares their experiences inside Gaza
SAFIAN: Here’s an inside view of what one of those team members in Gaza is facing. We’re withholding their name to protect their safety.
SAFIAN: Now we return to Arnaud. What are your hardest decisions right now?
SAFIAN: For listeners to this — businesses, individuals —if they want to help in this tough time, what can they do?
QUEMIN: The obvious one is to contribute to our core fund. This is extremely precious money. This response in Egypt or the first distribution are going to take place in Lebanon based on these donations. And then, we are new to Egypt. So if there is any partnership we can have with a company that is set up there, we can speed up your procurement process or increase your capacity. We’ve had good partnerships with companies before.
SAFIAN: When your team listens to this, what do you want them to take away?
QUEMIN: That we care for them and that we will act and operate very soon on the ground.
On a purely philosophical level, I think what is at stake is some form of humanity. I cannot fathom the consequences of this escalating further, because if it was the case, we would look into a crisis that would be bigger than anybody has seen in our age.
QUEMIN: Thank you for the opportunity.
SAFIAN: Listening to Arnaud, you can hear the importance of both planning in advance and reacting swiftly in the moment when it comes to managing crisis.
There’s only so much in your control, but whatever is in your control has to be considered, tested, and at times confronted. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
In the end, helping others can help guide you in your choices and form the bedrock for a better future. I’m Bob Safian. Thanks for listening.