"Without a doubt, what I love the most is being in contact with the people we help. Some of the most inspiring moments in my life have happened during my time in the field"

Interview with Isabel Ortigosa, Head of Regional Communication Centre in Nairobi

Can you introduce yourself and your role at the ICRC?

I’m currently head of the regional communication centre in Nairobi, which covers 14 countries in East and southern Africa. I joined the ICRC in 2016 as a communications coordinator in Colombia after having worked for various international NGOs and national aid agencies.

Tell us about a rewarding experience with your team?

There are so many. I’ve had fantastic teams, and we have created some successful campaigns, implemented innovative digital strategies and produced content that has been widely used to highlight humanitarian issues. However, what is truly rewarding is when our colleagues tell us how our work has helped them. Perhaps they finally met with a contact thanks to other interviews we made happen or they were invited to speak in parliament following a campaign.

What do you love about your job?

Without a doubt, what I love the most is being in contact with the people we help. Some of the most inspiring moments in my life have happened during my time in the field. It makes me feel re-energized and there is the opportunity to learn from colleagues, particularly those who have gone through so much. Much of what we witness is upsetting and often overwhelming, but it reminds us of the true meaning of our work.

Have you faced any challenges in adapting to different cultures and ways of working?

I always try to find the positives and while there are many, not everything is easy. You always miss family and close friends, and it can be hard not to be a part of important events back home. In a new posting, you have to adapt quickly and deliver results in a short period of time. Taking the time to understand the situation, letting others help you and trusting your new team are important when adapting to a new environment.

What’s it like being an international humanitarian worker and a mother?

Parents in the humanitarian world certainly face challenges, but I am not sure they are so different from those faced by other working parents. There may be quite a lot of travel required and leaving your children when they are small or when you have just relocated can be difficult. You need to be organized and have a good support system in place, but it can be done.

During a field trip deep in the Colombian jungle, I woke up in the night and couldn’t sleep because I’d forgotten to leave instructions for my eldest daughter’s yoga class. Over the years, I have learned to be kinder to myself and to do the best I can because even if it’s not perfect, it will be good enough.

There is room for improvement in terms of organizational policies, but I believe we are on the right track. This pandemic has taught us all the importance of flexibility and that we need to support colleagues with difficult personal situations. That said, I’ve always had an amazing team and a very supportive line manager who is willing to adapt in order to have a healthier work–life balance.

As a manager and a mother, have you encountered any bias in your career?

I haven’t experienced anything myself, but I know people who have. Concerns tend to focus on whether working mothers are available or their level of commitment, but similar concerns about working fathers are rare.

I’ve always had the support of excellent line managers who have never questioned my abilities. In fact, I was hired when I was five months pregnant and I had to be hospitalized barely a week after starting work. When I returned several months later, I felt awful about it. I started my first meeting apologizing to the head of delegation for my absence, even though it was beyond my control. He stopped me and said that he had selected the person he considered best for the position, regardless of personal circumstances and that he had no regrets about his decision. We never discussed it again, but his words touched me in a way I cannot describe.

The idea of combining a humanitarian career with a family may seem impossible. What advice would you give to parents considering working for the ICRC in the field?

It certainly is possible – families like mine are the proof. It may not always be easy though and sometimes you have to make difficult decisions. There is also an element of uncertainty about assignments, but for me personally, it has been worth it.

If you feel drawn to this work, I would certainly recommend trying to make it your career. Your family life will be rich, full of new experiences, and your children will grow up with an openness and a curiosity about the world that will make a difference to their adult lives.