Aid worker Kevin Byrne reflects with Kevin Jenkinson on 30-years helping the world’s poorest people
Seasoned aid worker Kevin Byrne has been on the frontline of many of the world’s largest human catastrophes with Concern Worldwide – which has been fighting extreme poverty for 50 years.
Known affectionately as ‘the Clareman with the Dublin accent,’ Kevin (59), originally from Sixmilebridge, but living in Rathmines, has seen the worst of humanity, but is and has worked with the best of it too in his 30-years with Ireland’s largest aid agency.
Former spray painter Kevin, who joined Concern in November, 1988 under the leadership of the late Fr Aengus Finucane CSSp, has gone from working directly with starving people – and often during major conflicts – in countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, to back in the organisation’s headquarters on Camden Street, Dublin in the ‘donor care’ team, assisting those making generous donations.
He was in Jordan for the refugee crisis during the Gulf War in Iraq – when fighter jets used to terrify those in the camp – and in Liberia during a hunger crisis in 1991 before responding to famine in Somalia and managing a refugee camp in Tanzania just over the border with Rwanda in 1994, arriving just a week after the bloody genocide that resulted in over 800,000 people being killed.
Above his desk today hangs a photograph of an emaciated child he and others had tried to save from disease and starvation, which was taken by well-known Limerick press photographer Liam Burke during the devastating famine in Somalia in 1991.
“The poor child never made it,” said Kevin, sombrely, as he recalls his experience with Concern.
The boy was pictured leaning forward on the ground after arriving at a feeding centre with his mother and was suffering from chronic diarrhoea. Kevin alerted a Concern nurse to the boy and they desperately tried to bring him back to health, but he sadly passed away after five days.
“He looks about two or 18 months, but that child was five years old,” Kevin recalled. “What you were getting coming in [to the feeding centres] was skin and bone. Like what you see in Yemen now.”
The iconic image of that Somali boy reminds Kevin of the importance of what he and the other staff at Concern are doing as children continue to suffer today from hunger and extreme poverty in countries like Somalia.
Kevin had just worked in Liberia as a logistician helping thousands of starving people who fled conflict there when Fr Finucane asked him and a colleague to travel to Somalia and set up Concern’s relief work there in response to a horrific famine – again caused largely by civil war.
“Liberia was troubled with a lot of starvation, but nothing on the scale of what was happening in Somalia,” said Kevin.
On their stopover in Nairobi, they met Fr Jack Finucane (Aengus’s brother and another legendary figure in Concern) – who had just made an assessment of the needs in Somalia – and were able to get a briefing from him. Upon landing, they quickly realised for themselves how desperate and dangerous the crisis had become. “There were guns everywhere,” said Kevin.
“I remember in the first few days we were squatting in the UN house. We had nowhere else to go while we tried to find a safe place to set up accommodation, which was going to be as near to the UN compound as possible. That was where all the NGOs settled.
“I got a small property there and used the house next door as our stores. We couldn’t take the chance of having the stores near the port because everything there was being looted. They were even shooting the oil drums at the port and burning them.
“I remember I went down to do a food distribution in Mogadishu Port with the UN. We had a former Concern person there…and he was working for the UN World Food Programme and he asked if I would like to go to a food distribution from a warehouse in the port.
“Next thing I heard ping, ping, ping. Now, we were in a jeep and I said, ‘what’s that? He started roaring at the driver and we went 100 miles per hour in reverse. We had to get away from the ricochets coming from fellas shooting nearby.”
Kevin said shooting in Mogadishu only stopped around 6am for breakfast, which was when he took the opportunity to buy cigarettes from a stall about 200 yards from Concern’s building. “It was the only peace I got,” he said.
“The seller would just stand there and stare at me every morning as if was I crazy. I’d walk over and say, ‘packet of cigarettes please’. We’d smile and I’d give him his money and I’d come back. It was just from experience that I knew there was never a shot fired at that time.”
Concern soon set up one of the first feeding centres in a rural area just outside Mogadishu where staff were completely overwhelmed by the numbers of people arriving for food and looking for help to save their children from dying.
“We cleared out an old warehouse that had been abandoned and got local permissions from warlords because there was no functioning government there at all.
“When we opened the feeding centre we expected a couple of hundred people, but there were thousands upon thousands. The word went out that we were there. Bush telegraph. Now, there were four of us there at that time, and Liam Burke the photographer, but we did our best.”
Concern – which had previously worked in Somalia in 1986 – saved thousands of lives during its emergency operation during the 1991-1992 famine.
A total of 32 expatriates worked alongside 1,000 staff recruited locally in Somalia – and in Ireland an incredible IR£15 million was raised by the public.
A visit to Somalia by then President of Ireland Mary Robinson in September, 1992, during which she was brought to tears at a press conference, helped focus the attention of Ireland and the world strongly on the famine.
In 1994, Concern expanded into Central Africa in response to the refugee crisis created by the Rwandan Genocide when Kevin managed a camp in Tanzania just over the border with Rwanda.
From there he witnessed the horrific aftermath of the slaughter with bodies floating down the Kigera River – and his own life came under threat too during several food riots when some men tried to steal food to sell on the black market.
“The genocide happened just a week before I arrived. It was horrific,” he said.
The Clareman said he knew from his first day in Concern that it was where he wanted to work, having previously been unhappy working in the motor trade.
“It wasn’t about the money. I just loved what they were about and I still do,” said Kevin, who also does churchgate collections for Concern in Donnybrook.
“I saw a different side to life and the enthusiasm from the workers and how dedicated they were and we would always remember at that time [in 1988] that if we wanted commercial wages we all knew were the front door was.”
Part of Kevin’s job today is talking to people wishing to make donations to Concern and he said he is proud to inform them of the agency’s high level of good governance and transparency – for which it has won multiple awards – and how nearly 91c in every €1 goes to relief and development work in the 25 countries where Concern works today.
He is also able to say how he has seen for himself where the money is spent and what it is spent on and he also reminds new staff travelling overseas where Concern’s funding comes from.
“No matter who they are or what they are doing I would always tell them: ‘Don’t you forget that the money that is helping us to do that work overseas and whatever expenses you need to incur, that that is coming from a donor and every cent has to be accounted for to the donor.’
“When I am talking to people on the phone and they talk about administration costs I mention the 90.8%, but I also add that I worked for Concern on the ground and I have been there and I can guarantee you we manage our own programmes and projects. We are on the ground and we can see what is happening to donor’s money.”
Kevin is Concern’s Legacy Administrator and he said people can contact him in confidence to discuss any query they may have. This year’s Concern Christmas Appeal is asking members of the public to donate what they can to help provide life-saving emergency nutrition to displaced families in Somalia.
Famine was averted there last year thanks to a large humanitarian response, but the population still faces insecurity and malnutrition, despite better rains.
The aid agency said a €26 donation could provide food sachets to a child for two weeks while €120 could provide an entire family with food for two months.
To support children in Somalia this Christmas visit www.concern.net or call 1850 410 510.