Avah Shneerson speaking to a group of children in the Congo: You can’t save the world, but you can save something on a given day.It seemed like Aya Shneerson was on the fast track to journalistic success. The Haifa-raised Israeli had finished a degree in journalism from Georgia Tech – where her father, a professor at the Technion, was taking part in a professors exchange program – and had joined the CNN team in Atlanta working on the international desk.
But a fortuitous journey to Sudan sent her down an entirely different career path. Today, as head of the UN’s World Food Program in the war-torn Congo, her work has helped to save countless lives in the country’s remote villages.
“Returning to Israel after deciding to leave CNN in 1998, I started to focus on still photography and for my first story, I went to south Sudan on my own,” Shneerson recounted to ISRAEL21c while on a brief vacation back home in Haifa. “Representatives from the World Food Program hosted me there, and I camped with them in the field.”
The WFP is a United Nations humanitarian agency focusing on food relief, distribution, and insecurity. Founded in 1963 as a three-year experimental program, the need was found to be so immense that it was soon turned into a permanent agency. Today, it distributes food to 97 million of the poorest people in the world
“The WFP people in Sudan said they were looking for a spokesperson and that I should apply. I thought it would be exciting to stay there for a while and do a photo essay, so I applied and was immediately hired,” Shneerson told ISRAEL21c.
For the next few years, Shneerson journeyed for the WFP to Sierre Leona, Burundi and Liberia, before arriving in the Congo, where she’s now head of the World Food Program provincial office
“Our main mission is to give food aid – and when we talk about food aid, we’re talking tons – up to 5,000 a month. We don’t just come in and open a soup kitchen and provide food for a day,” she said. “It’s a massive amount of food we’re talking about – we give food to last a month based on kilo calories per person – it’s not one meal at a time.”
And more than any other country she worked in, the Congo was in dire need of that food and aid. From 1997 to 1999, three outbursts of civil conflict led to large-scale looting and killings, which displaced over 800,000 people and provoked an alarming deterioration of the living conditions of the Congolese people. A 2002 stabilization process was jeopardized by a resumption of the fighting between rebel groups and government forces in the southern region of the country, which continues sporadically until today.
“Congo is still suffering from a prolonged war, created mostly by the people themselves. If a village gets attacked, the villagers tend to run away into the jungle, or another village. This creates a big food shortage, and it’s our mission to alleviate that shortage caused by the displacement,” said Shneerson.
Just last year, some 50,000 families fled their homes in the east’s North Kivu province due to fighting between the army and rebel militias, she said.
When she’s not out in the field supervising the food distribution, an average day at the office for Shneerson involves computer work, emails, and managing five offices with over 120 staff people.
“It’s a massive logistic operation getting trucks to move food from the warehouses, loading, unloading. Everything has to be inspected, signed, approved – there’s a lot of movement and coordination with other agencies and with peace keeping missions,” she said.
In addition to immediate food relief, the WFP also provides long-term recovery programs which potentially will help the population in the Congo become more self-sufficient, Shneerson explained.
“We run school feeding programs – in food insecure rural areas, we encourage kids to go to school by providing food incentives there. We also work with malnourished families in programs with other NGOs, supporting both the children and parents, trying to get them back on their feet,” she said.
For Shneerson, working with the WFP in the Congo has been a life-changing experience which has taught her many lessons about getting along in the world. She says it’s not a job for everybody.
“You have to erase everything you considered to be behavioral norms, and you have to be able to live among extreme poverty. And in order to be able to continue to function, you can’t get overwhelmed by everything,” she said.
“And you have to handle being alone – there’s not the entertainment leisure time you’d expect in a normal situation. You can spend days away in the jungle, and when you come back, there’s not very much to do. So you have to learn to focus on the work.”
Coming from Israel has proved advantageous for Shneerson among the local population, she said.
“The native people know I’m from Israel, and to them it’s a positive element because of the religious context. The majority of the people are Christian, and they have a lot of respect and feel close to Israel, which they studied in church,” she said.
Ironically, Shneerson finds her Arab UN colleagues to be the ones she has the most affinity for, and vice versa.
“I find that my closest colleagues are the Arab ones – culturally we’re the most similar, especially the Sudanese. We’re both warm cultures, family-oriented.”
Shneerson’s uncertain how long she can continue at such an intense position in such a volatile country. But she says she still receives immense satisfaction from it, even though the criteria has changed over the years.
“I used to say that if you save just one person, it’s worth it – now I’m not so sure.
The change you enact is going to be small, your small little part. You can’t save the world, but you can save something on a given day. It can be overwhelming though and you can get depressed,” she said.
“I know I can’t stay in countries like this forever,” she concluded, adding with a laugh, “My mom would be happy if I ended up back in Israel.”