Islamic Relief’s Martin Cottingham reflects on a World Humanitarian Day unlike any other, as our inspiring humanitarian heroes face down Covid-19 to help vulnerable people.

Martin Cottingham, Director of External Relations and Advocacy for Islamic Relief.

Levis Mwalimu stood for everything that is brightest and best about Islamic Relief. This modest and unassuming young Kenyan was passionate about serving humanity. He worked as a Livelihoods Officer for Islamic Relief Kenya and was pivotal in developing an innovative water project that fills dry, dusty fields with bountiful crops of fruit and vegetables using solar power and water-saving drip irrigation.

In October 2016 militants used a rocket-propelled grenade to force their way into the compound in Mandera where Levis was living, and started shooting. Levis died in a hail of bullets along with his Islamic Relief colleague, Evans Araka, and four others.

I never got to meet Levis but two years ago I met a number of his colleagues, his still-grieving mother Mwaka, his widow Mary and their orphaned son Erick. It was heartbreaking to witness the gaping hole that Levis’s murder has left in all their lives.

But it was also humbling to hear words of forgiveness for his killers, and incredibly uplifting to see how his legacy lives on and inspires others.

Remembering our fallen humanitarian heroes

World Humanitarian Day (August 19) was created for humanitarian heroes like Levis Mwlaimu and Evans Araka. It was inaugurated by the United Nations in 2009 to commemorate those who have lost their lives in the service of humanitarian causes.

It has since become a day to celebrate the living as well as to honour the dead – a time to reflect on the service and sacrifice of so many front-line aid workers.

We have a Wall of Honour at Islamic Relief’s international office in Birmingham, replicated on our website, that tells the stories of those who have lost their lives in service of our mission. There are 14 of them now, six the victims of tragic accidents and eight killed by bombs or bullets in some of the challenging places where Islamic Relief delivers aid – in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Kenya.

Lifesaving work must go on

In recent years it has been my privilege to represent Islamic Relief at a memorial event for World Humanitarian Day at Westminster Abbey in London. After a short interfaith service inside the abbey, people of all faiths and none – and representatives of aid organisations large and small – assemble outside to lay white roses in memory of lost colleagues at the Memorial to the Innocent Victims of Conflict, War and Oppression.

This year, in the grip of Covid-19, there is no service and no large assembly. Instead four members of the steering committee for the event – led by the former Chief Executive of Oxfam, Dame Barbara Stocking – have laid wreaths at the Memorial and posted a video of this simple act of remembrance online.

The steering committee also continues to raise funds and seek a suitable location for a permanent memorial where those killed in service can be commemorated in a lasting way.

Meanwhile, although we may be severely restricted by the pandemic in so many areas of our lives, the message from the UN for World Humanitarian Day 2020 is that the life-saving work of humanitarian aid workers must go on – and those confronting the virus and supporting those affected by it should be in our thoughts and prayers this year.

Saving lives and keeping hope alive

Islamic Relief teams are certainly in the forefront of supporting those in need as the virus spreads – not only with hygiene kits and health education but also with practical support for those struggling economically, keeping hope alive where it might otherwise be lost.

We are one of the main providers of medical assistance in Idlib, northern Syria, for example – supporting eight health facilities and four mobile clinics, and funding the salaries of over 150 medical staff.

We thank all our donors for the vital part they play in supporting such life-saving work, and we welcome your continuing support this World Humanitarian Day. Please donate now.