ABDI ISMAIL ISSE MC/MPA 2017 counted 21 air strikes that night in July. The bombs, landing near his Red Cross office in Saada, in northern Yemen, caused every wall and window to shake.
“We had Red Cross flags on the roof to minimize the possibility of a mistake and no one in our office was hurt,” Ismail Isse said. “But there were airplanes hovering overhead and you held your breath because at any moment a bomb or missile could land.”
Others weren’t so lucky: dozens of civilians, including many children, were killed in and around Saada during the bombing campaign that became another gruesome chapter in a civil war that has raged since 2015. Ismail Isse was in Yemen to direct delivery of humanitarian aid in the war-ravaged country where basic public services, including health care, drinking water, and food have collapsed due to the conflict.
At the beginning of 2018 Ismail Isse moved to a new position in Iraq, another difficult assignment in a lifetime full of them. His career with the Red Cross has focused on bringing some measure of help and security to those living under the most difficult conditions. It had also been the natural continuation of a very personal journey that began with a childhood in Somalia marked by Ismail Isse’s own flight from a civil war, and which saw him separated from his family, living in refugee camps, and eventually relocating to another country.
WORKING IN HIGH-RISK TROUBLE SPOTS is part of Ismail Isse’s job description. In his nine-year career with the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), he has worked in Liberia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Colombia, Yemen, and now Iraq. He has been beaten, blindfolded, threatened with execution, and seen his car destroyed by an improvised explosive device. He has faced down kidnappers and narrowly avoided an airdrop of herbicide meant for a coca plantation.
Ismail Isse’s job at his various missions was to make sure essential medical care, food, and water arrived to places where the normal distribution of such services has been disrupted. But he was much more than traffic cop. The ICRC counted on him to assess local security and negotiate with warring parties to let them know where and when aid-givers were operating, so as to minimize the risk that his staff would be caught in a cross fire as they passed through disputed territory.
Risks for aid workers like Ismail Isse and others are on the rise, said Patrick Vial MC/MPA 1995, Ismail Isse’s former superior in Somalia and now regional director for Europe and Central Asia at the Geneva-based ICRC, which lost 10 workers to violence in 2017.
“The world in which we work is getting more dangerous because of the fragmentation of the various armed groups,” Vial said. “Twenty years ago, it was a situation of a government in conflict with a single opposition armed group. Now if you look at Syria or Yemen you have dozens of armed groups that fight each other or challenge the government, making it more difficult for us to connect and establish humanitarian dialogue.”
Ismail Isse developed those negotiating skills in tense situations, during “edgy encounters” with the Taliban in Afghanistan, with bejeweled and armed extortion gang leaders in southern Nigeria, and with battle-hardened commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In each case, unusual and unforeseen obstacles had to be overcome.
On his first Red Cross mission in Afghanistan where he was stationed from 2009 to 2010, Ismail Isse had to persuade Taliban leaders and other warlords that he was not an American soldier, which many of his suspicious interlocutors assumed because the only black men many had ever seen were members of the U.S. armed forces.
“When I told them I was a Muslim from Somalia and that my name was Islamic, everything changed,” Ismail Isse said. “Even the Taliban commanders with whom I negotiated invited me to sit and have tea, watermelon, and nuts. The initial interaction was tense but I ended up receiving an incredible level of hospitality from people who had little materially to give.” (The risks in Afghanistan persist, as evidenced last February when six Red Cross employees in a convoy carrying supplies to an Afghan region hit by snowstorms were killed by suspected Islamic State rebels.)
In Colombia, where the Red Cross gave aid to isolated jungle communities cut off by civil conflict, Ismail Isse faced another challenge. He had to regain the trust of FARC rebels that had been shattered by the government’s illegal use of Red Cross insignia in a dramatic 2008 operation to rescue hostages (the emblems had been used by government commandos to fool rebels into thinking they were on a humanitarian mission).
“It was dangerous,” Ismail Isse said. “This was before the FARC entered into peace negotiations, when the government was still bombing rebel military camps. There were also fumigation airplanes flying above. There was always the danger of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or walking through mine fields, since we travelled mainly on foot or by mule. But it was extremely rewarding. I got a behind the scenes look at a long-standing conflict and had access to commanders of both sides. I was present at an incredible point in history.”
Ismail Isse’s ability to inspire trust and size up the political situation on the ground has helped make him an excellent humanitarian, said the ICRC’s Vial. “His team spirit, his capacity to work in harmony with other colleagues, his ability to connect and adapt with various cultures are all great strengths of his,” he said. “He is also a good analyst of political and social situations and can communicate and share that in oral and written form in a very nice way.”
Ismail Isse’s own experience allows him to connect in a special way to those whose lives have been upended by conflict. In Liberia, Ismail Isse worked at a large refugee camp that was scaling down after receiving thousands of displaced Ivory Coast residents fleeing civil war. Although most Ivorians had returned home, many unaccompanied minors were still there and one of Ismail Isse’s key tasks was to reunite them with their families.
He became particularly attached to an eight-year-old Ivorian boy named Mohammed, or Mo for short, who had crossed over into Liberia alone and who was now stranded there with no identification. After “months and months” of inquiries through the ICRC’s extensive network, Ismail Isse located Mo’s family and arranged a reunion with them across the Ivory Coast border, one of 35 repatriations he managed.
“Mo was very shy and missed his mother a lot,” Ismail Isse said. “It was a happy day when I signed his travel documents and accompanied him to the border and waved goodbye. Needless to say, Mo’s story reminded me of my experience as a refugee, how much I missed my mother when we became separated and the happiness I felt at being reunited with her.”
IN 1989, AT THE ONSET OF A CIVIL WAR that would last more than two decades, Ismail Isse, then just 10, and his family were forced to flee the country. They were swept up in the exodus of 1 million Somalis escaping their homeland’s anarchy and suffering, which had been brought on by brutal clan warfare. Ismail Isse, his father, and a dozen other relatives fled from the city of Baidoa in a crammed open lorry, arriving three days later at the UN-administered Hartisheik refugee camp in Ethiopia, joining 250,000 other displaced Somalis.
Ismail Isse’s mother, who had divorced his father years before and remarried an Italian surgeon doing aid work in Djibouti, became separated from her son in the chaos and had no idea where he was. It would take her nine months to find him. A year later, Ismail Isse, his mother, sister and stepfather moved to a suburb of Milan, Italy, where he attended middle and high school. He later took a degree in development studies and history at the University of London.
“I was plagued with feelings of guilt at having left everyone behind at the Hartisheik camp, where my father and other relatives had to stay for a year-and-a-half before moving back to northern Somalia,” Ismail Isse said. “I arrived in Italy as a full Italian citizen and member of a privileged class, but I felt I didn’t deserve it. I was a little like the soldier who leaves a battlefield, still wanting to be part of the common struggle.”
Those feelings, and having a stepfather who was a role model and committed to humanitarian aid, were decisive factors in Ismail Isse’s decision to go into his line of work. It was a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo with his stepfather—who was there to provide medical care to Rwandan refugees—that sealed his decision. “I helped distribute food and seeing all these hands reach out to me triggered my decision to pursue a career providing assistance to people affected by conflicts,” Ismail Isse said.
In 2013, Ismail Isse’s work with the Red Cross brought him back to Somalia. After a generation lost to bloody clan warfare, a central governing authority was finally being reestablished. For nearly three years, he helped reestablish basic services in areas that had been without them since the early 1990s, managing a $25 million budget and 63 staffers. And he used his negotiating skills, this time with the Al-Shabab rebel group that is allied with Al Qaeda.
“For the first time in my career at the ICRC, I was able to see and hear unfiltered what was going on,” Ismail Isse said. “People in the communities saw me as one of their own and were fully aware I had a position of responsibility. But there was so much pressure to do more, give more food, build more hospitals, more than the available resources would allow. That’s always the challenge.”
Notwithstanding the frustrations, Ismail Isse with his “contextual knowledge” of Somalia and “humanitarian imperative” made his presence felt, said Red Cross colleague Alfonso Verdu Perez.
“All of his work, energy, study, and management of difficult situations had but one goal: to protect and assist people affected by conflict in Somalia," said Perez, now deputy head of the ICRC’s Somalia delegation. “He pushed and pushed to be in the field. For Abdi, the field is as necessary as fresh air. He became a role model for many, including myself.”
Ismail Isse arrived at the Kennedy School in 2016. He was exhausted from his work, but excited to change approach. He wanted his time at the school to help transition his career away from strictly humanitarian aid administration, which he describes as an essential but “short term approach,” toward an emphasis on conflict resolution and “peace building.”
A course on civil wars, taught by Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, a visiting professor, was especially enlightening because it traced the genesis of several conflicts from their political roots and “back-room diplomacy” stages.
“It was the class where I absorbed the most, because it connected the experiences I was exposed to and created a bridge for my ambition to get involved in conflict management and resolution at the multilateral level,” Ismail Isse said.
He will need those analytical skills in his most recent posting, as the Red Cross’s deputy head of delegation in Baghdad. The Red Cross has had a large presence in Iraq ever since the U.S. invasion. It’s also a place of tragic significance for his agency: In 2003, a dozen Red Cross workers were killed in a suicide bombing at its headquarters there.
Ismail Isse will also be taking with him other things he gained from his time at HKS. As an Emirates Leadership Initiative Fellow, he participated in weekly seminars at the Center for Public Leadership where he and others shared professional and personal challenges. During one session, a fellow student’s recitation of President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the Arena” speech resonated deeply with him.
“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” Roosevelt famously said. “The credit belongs to man who is actually in the arena whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
The words hold special meaning for Ismail Isse, providing consolation when the resources at his disposal fall short of the overwhelming needs he encounters.
“On my difficult days in the field, when I feel tired, lonely, and overwhelmed by the sufferings of others,” he says, “I often re-read ‘Man in the Arena.’”
Chris Kraul, a former foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, is a freelance writer based in Bogotá, Colombia.