U.N. social media campaign shows humanitarians in conflict

The campaign runs until Aug. 19, which is World Humanitarian Day, and supporters can share as many stories as they want

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Tennis star Maria Sharapova, British mogul Richard Branson and Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai have signed up. So have actor Ashley Judd, Colombian singer Juanes and Brazilian football star Kaka.

They are supporting a new U.N. social media campaign to spotlight 17 stories of survival and humanitarian activism in conflict-torn and disaster-hit countries from Syria and Afghanistan to South Sudan, Nepal and Sierra Leone.

“We're calling on the young and digitally connected to help us push out these compelling stories and give a voice to the voiceless,” U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien said. “I believe we have a shared responsibility to raise awareness and help to inspire humanity on these global issues.”

What the U.N. and its humanitarian partners are asking is for Facebook and Twitter users to go to the website www.worldhumanitarianday.org and sign up to allow the World Humanitarian Day #ShareHumanity" href="/en/tools/tags.html?tags=b07f08a1-d44f-40b9-a7ac-d9e799545f46&tagLabel=ShareHumanity">#ShareHumanity app to post one of the 17 stories on their chosen social media feed for six hours starting Wednesday.

The campaign runs until Aug. 19, which is World Humanitarian Day, and supporters can share as many stories as they want during the eight days. People can also just use the hashtag #ShareHumanity" href="/en/tools/tags.html?tags=b07f08a1-d44f-40b9-a7ac-d9e799545f46&tagLabel=ShareHumanity">#ShareHumanity and plug the campaign. The U.N. does not gain access to anyone's contact list.

Kieran Dwyer, chief of communications for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the ultimate goal is to spur action “to create a mass core of support for humanitarian life-saving action in the world today.”

The U.N. also hopes that people inspired by the stories of men, women and children “who have hit the worst days of their life, and have come through them” will follow up by donating to the U.N. fund for global emergencies, to U.N. humanitarian efforts in individual countries, or to non-governmental organizations working to help the needy, he said.

Dwyer said the U.N. humanitarian office needs $20 billion this year to keep 100 million people in need alive - double what it asked for in 2009 - and so far it's received less than 30 percent. That means “a lot of lost lives because we don't have the aid to keep them alive,” he said.

The stories range from a circus school in Jordan for Syrian refugees teaching children skills like juggling and acrobatics to an organization called Skateistan in Afghanistan that teaches Afghan girls and boys how to skateboard and a team of health works in South Sudan that defied conflict and flooding and walked on foot, crossing five rivers, to immunize youngsters against polio.

Oliver Percovich, who founded Skateistan in the Afghan capital Kabul, has used the fun of skateboarding to promote education and leadership skills, expanding the program to Cambodia and South Africa and reaching over 3,200 youngsters last year, many marginalized and over 40 percent girls. Skateboarding is now the largest female sports federation in Afghanistan, he said.

Percovich said in an email that it's important to remind people “that our shared humanity is more important than our individual differences.” On a practical note, he said Skateistan, which now gets 80 percent of its funding from large government donors, hopes the social media campaign will expand the number of individual donors.

The campaign also features gripping individual stories: A 12-year-old Nigerian girl whose father was killed by Boko Haram extremists and who rescued her 10-year-old brother who was left for dead in a makeshift grave after being attacked with a machete; a Sherpa guide from Nepal who lost his home in the recent earthquake but trekked through the mountains with U.N. relief workers to deliver aid; and an Ebola survivor in Sierra Leone who joined a team promoting safe burials.

One of the most dramatic stories, with video, is Khaled Farah's rescue of a 10-day-old baby buried in rubble after a barrel bomb hit the family's apartment building in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, last year. Farah, a former printer and decorator, is a member of the White Helmets volunteer group founded in March 2013 to help rescue fellow Syrians caught up in the war, which is now in its fifth year.

James Le Mesurier, director of Mayday Rescue which conceived the idea for the White Helmets and trains and supports them, said the organization now has 2,700 volunteers in 110 rescue teams throughout the country and has saved 22,600 people - but 96 of its volunteers have been killed and about 400 have been injured and are unable to work.

What the White Helmets hope the campaign will do is to spread the message “that in the most extraordinary of circumstances, there are ordinary, ordinary people doing the most extraordinary things,” he said. And they also hope for contributions to their “Hero Fund” to help the families of volunteers killed and injured during rescue missions.