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City Weekend

Meet the Hong Kong Red Cross worker who does not let tragedy stand in her way

Karen Poon Hiu-yee has been helping coordinate aid efforts in disaster-hit countries since 2008

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 October, 2017, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 October, 2017, 5:31pm

After seeing first-hand people lose their homes and loved ones in natural disasters, humanitarian worker Karen Poon Hiu-yee has come to realise that the world is not always fair.

But the 38 year old, who has spent a decade coordinating international relief work, is committed to improving the lives of others.

Poon, a senior programme coordinator at the Hong Kong Red Cross, said she was upset to see millions of people in Bangladesh affected by multiple natural disasters during her one-month mission there in August and September this year.

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In May, Cyclone Mora hit the country’s southeastern coast, killing at least six people. And since then the country of 163 million people, a third of whom live in poverty, has endured more cyclones and heavy rain.

“A thing I’ve learned from my field work is that hard work doesn’t always pay off,” Poon said. “Not every working family there is lucky enough to have at least three basic meals a day like us. They may be farming hard trying to provide the best for their children, but their hard work could easily be swept away by a flood.”

Poon, who has been to Bangladesh four times, said the flooding there was “worse than she had expected” when she visited the country in August.

According to the Red Cross, it was the worst it has been in the last three decades.

Poon said the most memorable moment during her mission came after she spent two hours taking a small boat from the downtown area of Kurigram, in the country’s north, to a small island. There, she came across a mother with her two daughters and son. They were running out of clean water.

The mother, sitting next to one of her daughters, who had been suffering from a fever for two weeks, looked helpless when Poon and her three colleagues arrived.

Poon said the mother couldn’t even afford to pay a few dollars to go into the city to take her daughter to a doctor. Her husband was farming elsewhere and had no mobile phone for her to call him on.

But, Poon said, this mother was just one of many victims in Bangladesh. Many families were in urgent need of shelter, food, water and other daily necessities.

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“A lot of them were a bit hesitant to tell me how they felt and what they wanted when I first approached them,” she said. “But after a few chats, they kind of opened up, and I could tell from their eyes that they felt quite powerless and helpless.”

“I’m sure everyone on my team was very upset when we saw what was happening there,” she added.

Poon, a fine arts and linguistics graduate from the University of Hong Kong, joined the Hong Kong Red Cross in 2008.

Later that year, she worked on relief and reconstruction after the Sichuan earthquake, which killed more than 80,000 people. Over the past 10 years with the Red Cross, apart from Hong Kong, Poon has been stationed in Chengdu, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur.

“I chose fine art only because I thought I didn’t have to study much,” she joked. “But seriously, my heart is all about helping other people.”

She said her interest in humanitarian work was sparked at a young age when she saw many Hongkongers offer help and donations to people in Rwanda, Africa, which was trying to rebuild its economy after the genocide of the 1990s.

Poon said her family had always been supportive of her career.

“Whenever I go on a mission overseas, my brother will always call me to make sure I’m still alive,” she said with a laugh.

But, after working in so many disastrous and dangerous locations, Poon shows no sign of slowing down. Her next goal is to help people in the Middle East and Africa.

“When I heard about how other, poorer, countries were doing at a young age, I felt like they were very far away from where I was living. But until I got into the field and saw all these people suffering with my own eyes, I realised that a lot of people in the world are not as lucky as me but need help,” she said. “I hope my work can influence people in Hong Kong to help others.”

Hong Kong Red Cross appeals for donations to support its humanitarian relief services. The public can transfer their donations to its HSBC account at 002-205490-006.