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Alison Thompson Responds With Heart
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Conversations
2 August 2022

Alison Thompson Responds With Heart

Photographs supplied by Alison Thompson

I first met Dr Alison Thompson in Sri Lanka in 2005, when we were both involved in Sri Lanka’s tsunami recovery effort. She immediately struck me as someone down-to-earth and highly motivated to get real, practical work done. Alison wasn’t attached to a famous aid organisation, let alone staying in a five-star hotel or shuttled around in a huge Land Rover. She wasn’t someone interested in having meetings about meetings. She is a doer, not a talker: a people-mover who mobilises her people to get the job done. Alison is a full-time trailblazing humanitarian, a first responder. Her Australian passport reads like an atlas. Alison founded Third Wave Volunteers, which has grown into a network of more than 30,000 humanitarian volunteers worldwide. In 2001, she rollerbladed into Ground Zero at the New York World Trade Center, to offer first aid to survivors. This was her moment for an epiphany: Alison would dedicate her life to helping others.

Alison helped oversee the construction of Sri Lanka’s first Tsunami Early Warning System, following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In 2010, after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, she recruited Hollywood actor and humanitarian Sean Penn to assist in the recovery effort. Alison has been at the scene of major natural disasters including cyclones, earthquakes and hurricanes in the Philippines, Nepal and the United States, and was in Greece during the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2010, she was awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for her volunteerism, bravery and contribution to mankind. Her award-winning documentary The Third Wave chronicles her volunteer experience in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami and was screened at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. She followed up with a book, The Third Wave: A Volunteer Story.

This year, Alison has been in Ukraine, where she trains Ukrainian civilians and soldiers in first aid and helps to evacuate orphans from the country. We spoke during a break from her work in Ukraine, when she was at her home in Miami. Her humanity and deep compassion shine a light on service that is both humbling and inspiring.

This story originally ran in issue #70 of Dumbo Feather

Hugh Bohane: I know you’ve only just returned from Ukraine recently so we really appreciate your time.

Dr Alison Thompson: Well thank you for keeping the story alive. This is a civilian war and these are just everyday people that are sent to the front lines. I haven’t felt this feeling around the world, in comradeship, since September 11th in 2001. Sure, there’s been disasters and events around the world, but I never felt the world get behind it like this. Every little kid in school, kids in Europe and in America and I’m sure in Australia have been raising money and baking cookies and all sorts of things. We’re feeling the presence of the world behind us at all the borders. But the aid’s making it inside too. It’s been an amazing feeling of the world coming together in humanity.

We first met in Sri Lanka nearly 20 years ago. The 2004 tsunami.

Wow.

And Sri Lanka is back in the news this week as protests are sweeping the country over the inflation crisis. I was just wondering have you been able to get back to Sri Lanka since 2004, 5 when we were there?

I’ve been in and out of Sri Lanka. We still run the tsunami warning system there and we have a museum and a children’s museum. We interact with all the different schools. Every few days a school will come, and we take them through the museum and we teach them disaster preparedness. We keep responding and responding when things are happening, but people need to be prepared. And it’s bad what’s going on in Sri Lanka and I find that it’s spreading around the world as well. There’s just so many dire situations everywhere that we can feel crippled. And we’ve just come out of this global pandemic. But I keep focusing, I can help these people in front of me. There’s so much going on, but we have to focus on the positive, that there is hope and there are good people out there.

The Third Wave, your volunteer organisation, has the motto, “Everyone is needed. No skills required.”

Yeah.

This story originally ran in issue #70 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #70 of Dumbo Feather

And, “It’s easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it’s leadership to be in the wrong place at the right time.” How important are these two mottos to you when building and recruiting your volunteer base?

Oh it’s so important. Because everyone is needed. At Ground Zero in New York in 2001, we just went on our own down there. We had a great bunch of nurses and paramedics and we were washing out firemen’s eyes. And we’d look up and there’s another hundred firemen. But FEMA kept coming around, they’re the official professionals in disasters apparently. And they come around and they say, “Oh no, it’s time for you to leave, thank you for your work, but it’s time for the professionals to take over.” We’d just look up at them and we’d nod our heads. And then we’d get down, keep working. They came around for four or five days and, “Oh we must tell you it’s time to leave,” and we’d just nod our head. They could see how much work we had. The very last time they came around they looked around to see if anyone was listening. They covered their badge and they said, “Please stay. Everyone’s needed.” We knew that, because people needed to bring the water in so we could drink, or bring in medical equipment or whatever we needed. There were iron workers, there were postal workers, there were electricity workers. Everyone was down there.

In the 2004 tsunami people would come through and they’d say, “Look, I don’t have many skills. I got rejected from the Red Cross.” And we’re like, “No, we will take you.” Because there was a need for people to hug the kids or do art with the kids or just get them water. Or get tonight’s food for the village. There’s always a role. And now we’ve even moved into a lot of online volunteering. If you’re at home with four or five kids and you want to volunteer, you can do it online for an hour. So the message of, “Everyone’s needed” is so important. And also about being in the wrong place at the right time. It’s easy to be stuck in some disaster. But I tell volunteers, “Look, come. And get your return ticket. And if you don’t like it, it’s okay! You can go home the next day.” But they don’t. They stay. And they say, “I don’t have many skills.” But then you see them out doing amazing stuff. Twenty thousand-plus volunteers; nobody ends up leaving. They stay and they blossom. And their lives have changed. They get back home, and they call me and they say, “I don’t fit back home into my job. I’m restless and things are weird.” And I’m like, “That’s amazing! Because your eyes are opened. You know what’s going on out there now and you know that you can make a difference.” So that’s behind our two mottos and we stand by them. Because everyone is needed.

So true. What would you tell people who are considering volunteering in disaster hotspots around the world?

There’s a whole grassroots system in place wherever you go in a disaster. From the Rotary, the Lions Club, all of those clubs are already in place. You’ve got universities in place. For example, in Puerto Rico we land, all the aid is stuck on the other side of the country off San Juan. All the boats are stuck. So we go to the other side of the island. We manoeuvred 100 big containers. Got straight to the people. We tapped into the universities. We got thousands and thousands of volunteers sitting around doing nothing from the local universities and that’s how it works. It’s this grassroots movement and we’ve combined with about 180 orgs we know throughout Miami and Florida. When hurricanes hit, we talk to each other. “What’s your strength? You’ve got the water filtration? Okay, we’ve got the solar lights.” And we’re working together. It’s not from the top down.

Fantastic. You’ve chosen possibly one of the toughest career paths a human could take. Outside of the horror that you see in these hotspots, what are the more positive and hopeful events you’ve witnessed amongst all the chaos?

There’s so much beauty left out there in the world, and we arrive and everything’s destroyed. And I know that I can always go home but they can’t. The volunteers are usually amazing because they’re all the same type of people wanting to give. And that’s the ultimate goal in life, giving to others, in service to others. I was training 100 troops last week and they were going off to the front lines, so it was a very sad day. ’Cause we got to know them so well. Coming back from that secret location, we were just crying in the car. And then we look out at the village and there was a lady teaching her daughter in a little red jacket how to ride a bike. A little three-wheeler. Yeah, life goes on. We won’t let this terror overtake us.

When you give an old man a hug or an old woman a hug. And they’re talking to you in their language. You don’t know what they’re saying but you’re smiling at them and you’re hugging them.

Those precious moments really fill us up and they keep us going. The children keep us going, too. We’re playing with a lot of kids, we rescued a lot of kids out of a lot of serious things that were going on in Ukraine. Seeing them laugh and run around again, they’re the moments that capture us. That’s why we stay. We stay for the kids, we stay for love and hope because there’s always hope. Love wins in the end. And we’re seeing it in Ukraine. Because even though it’s eight Russians to one Ukrainian fighter, they’re holding back the lines and this help from around the world is really helping.

So you’re main M.O. over in Ukraine. Can you tell us a bit about that? Are you mainly training civilians and soldiers?

We’re disaster responders and we have medical expertise. And we were asked by EXITUS who’ve been extracting special needs orphans since 2014 from Ukraine and Romania. They have a whole system set up. I knew that we were going in to rescue these 24 special needs orphans. And it was complicated because most of them had feeding tubes and they needed special medicines every two hours. So I needed to have a nurse or a doctor for each child. And we had a whole plan set up. And we get there and a lot of them were very hard to reach and they were high in Russian territory or Russian areas that were since taken over. So it was very hard in the beginning to manoeuvre the way through Ukraine. We ended up getting a lot of other orphans out as well. Because there were about 1100 that were on the list. But only those first 24 actually had adopted families ready. And then the war hit. So I couldn’t get a lot of them out but we got a lot of other orphans, which we’re staging at the Moldova border. There’s four or five orphanages there that we’re helping. We’re helping look after them, but we help pay for the caretakers and the food and all that sort of stuff. And then we were getting a lot of other women and children out. We’d work out how to get them to borders and to other cities, to get somewhere to stay.

And we realised hang on, there’s so many civilians going to the front lines. We really need to help give them some skills. Because they didn’t know even basic CPR. So we started off going to underground bomb shelters and teaching them how to use a torniquet. How to do wound care, stop the bleed. All the simple stuff that they didn’t know, and it took off. Then we started going into the underground bomb shelters. It was a trainer system, where we would train them and then they would go train others. And it started spreading. Then the military were begging us, “Please, please, show us this combat triage.” So we’d train them. And word got around and we got invited to more areas, then into much more secret areas, where the large commanders were training the civilian troops. Given a uniform and a gun and they were sent to the front lines three or four days later. So we had three or four days to train 100 men. And there were originally four of us, but two of them got sick. So Naomi and I had to turn up in our heart hats, ready to go! We’d divide them into groups of 20 and we just started working. We’d get through that group and the next group would walk in. It was intense training.

We just keep training, and we raise money for torniquets and international first aid kits. It basically has a bandage, a pair of scissors and a torniquet. A torniquet wraps around the arm tightly, and it will stop the bleed. That’s the main need in Ukraine. Everywhere we go. We give it to commanders and they start crying. In military hospitals, they start crying. Front lines. They’ve got video upon video of soldiers in the front line saying, “Thank you for the torniquets.” So that’s what I’m doing now. That is the highest need in the country. You can’t imagine how bad a situation is if torniquets are the number one need.

What an experience. Even the best Hollywood directors couldn’t write a script like this, what you’ve been through there. And to be helping the most vulnerable people, in terrible circumstances. War crimes…

So beautiful, these people. Everyone’s helping each other but the women and children, they’re just… I’ve been all over this great world. There’s something really special about them. The children are resilient, but they’ve seen so much trauma. This is the against the rules of the world.

I’m focused on the mission and taking care of our nurses. First trip, we had a mixture of males and females, which we’ve had on all our missions. But we found that in the end it was easier to manoeuvre with just women. We have our hard hats on. And that originated way back in the aid days. We used to have a little first aid cross so people would bring out their wounded. But in the Syrian crisis we realised we were targets with a cross on our head. So we changed it to hearts. It gets us through every border. When we have men with us, the volunteers are, “Stop!” Because they don’t know who these men are, coming into their country. But when we’re just with our female nurses, we seem to be getting through every door. And we’ve been in very high command centres and secret locations and they seem to trust us. On the last three trips I’ve only been taking female nurses. We spend two weeks in, come back out for a week.

I was also working over there shooting vision for ABC TV. I was impressed with the people I interviewed. They seemed passionate about their country and very resilient. And it sounds like that was your experience as well.

Back in Miami, I’m looking at the sky for the rockets to go over, or the chemtrails. That’s what they’re living with every day. It’s not the whole country that’s at war. It’s in the east. You can go through towns and there’s restaurants open and people are doing their everyday things. And then the rocket goes over. The other day I had a moment of that. We were at a big nightclub. The nightclubs are closed, but it’s an aid distribution centre. So we were inside and the bombs started to go and we all raced down to the bomb shelter, way underground. We’re going deeper and deeper and darker and darker. And then I adjusted my eyes. And there’s a lot of women and children sitting there. And Naomi says, “Take a look around you.” And I look and I start laughing my head off! We were in one of those sex dungeons with cages and dildos and whips and chains. And there was a little eight-year-old girl sitting up on the seat with the stirrups, with her legs open, playing on her iPhone. It was so bizarre. And everyone starts laughing, because a sense of humour is the most important thing in these disasters. And it cut the terror of the for the children and everybody. Also, Naomi is a yoga teacher. One night when the bombs were going over, she starts doing yoga and she puts the music on. We had 15 military guys doing yoga in the middle of a bombing.

You were saying tourniquets were something that are really needed. What else can you speak to about what Ukrainians most need? Or what Ukrainians want the world to understand about Ukraine?

Whenever the refugees leave, 10 people rush at them with food and help. They can’t believe that. Because they’ve been indoctrinated for so many years when they were under Soviet rule, of how bad the West is. And they’re coming out and there’s people set up to look after their dogs. But the Ukrainian people are strong, and they hear that the world is with them, and their spirits are high. A lot of people are returning to cities that are continually being bombed. The message is, “We’re strong, we’re not going to give up our land. And please keep supporting us and keep the story alive.”

I’m seeing all the guys in the front lines. If they’re locals, they’re civilians that are now soldiers. They don’t have a helmet or a plate carrier to protect them. They don’t have the right boots. You know, the fisherman has his old shoes on. I know it’s tricky because people want to help humanitarians and I’m a humanitarian, I’m not about fighting, I’m about saving lives. This is about saving lives. A lot of groups won’t help because it’s military. But they’re really civilians who need helmets. And little things like foot powder. These guys go out three months at a time in the same clothes, the same socks and shoes and they’re out in the middle of a field. Little things like care packages that can go to the soldiers are important. All the churches are supporting their civilians who are now soldiers on the front line with food every day. They need to fund the churches so they can keep the food going out in the front. But, you know, prayer is needed. Because I see this going on for a long time.

And what was something or someone you witnessed specifically in Ukraine that restored your faith in humanity? You talked a bit about keeping your sense of humour and sharing some laughter with Ukrainians. Was there anything else?

So many moments. Like we’re staying in a theatre, and here’s Sam, a theatre actor and director. He has so many rooms. And he doesn’t have any money. But he’s feeding 30 policemen every night because the soldiers are out in the fields, and people have had to step up in police roles. They have these long shifts, so he’s feeding them. And he’s helping put up a lot of refugees in his apartments. Every night he’s got a big smile and he’s down there ready with food, saying, “What can I do?” He’s just an amazing human being. We keep meeting these amazing human beings. A lot of women. At all the borders in Romania and Moldova on both sides, we have this great network of women who have really stepped up in strong leadership roles. And they amaze me with the things they get done, you know, to help us get through borders or to get the secret codes to go through certain barricades in war zone areas. And they’re amazing people with everyday jobs. One guy had a very high position and his friend said, “Have a guess what he does in his real life.” And we would guess accountant and lawyer. And this guy who’s in charge of all this aid getting to the front lines, he runs strip joints in Ukraine. From the dungeon we ended up in, to strong women. It’s beautiful to watch.

What are some other international or local grassroots organisations doing good work on the ground, that people can support?

I prefer people to send money directly to the Ukrainian people. There’s a mobile clinic hospital. There’s another aid distribution place right in Odessa that they pack every day, and they get stuff out to the front line, like care packages. We spend our money. We’ve raised a lot, but we don’t have any overhead, we’re all volunteers, no one gets paid, we just pay the tax accountant once a year to do our taxes. So anything we have, we’re sending off to the Grace Church, that’s a good one in Odessa. We’re trying to support them on the ground.

I was impressed with World Central Kitchen.

World Central Kitchen’s my favourite. Every disaster we turn up to, they’re right there. In the hurricane Dorian Bahamas disaster, it was a very intense and hot sunny day. And we were searching for the dead, and we came out and we sat down. And then Andrés and Sam From World Central Kitchen turn up with these plates of the most amazing food I’ve ever had. What they do is they find all the restaurants. Then they fund the restaurants with food and groceries and everything. They get them cooking and then they put it under their name. Or they put some of their heads in there to make sure they’re cooking it right. And then they get it into the hardest positions. They really know their stuff, they’re in there and they get the donation food straight to the people. And it tastes amazing. It tastes so good.

Okay. So this question’s a little bit touchy. It’s been mentioned quite a bit in the press that the Ukrainian refugees have received more support and help from European countries than the Syrians received during the refugee crisis that started around 2015.

Wow.

Yeah. Is there anything that speaks to you about this comparison?

I said before I haven’t felt this feeling since September 11th 2001, and I did not feel it in the Syrian crisis. The Syrian crisis had a lot of help from Europe, but not from the whole world. I don’t know why there’s more help. I think ’cause it’s more of a threat to Europe, this situation, and a threat to many of the NATO countries. I don’t have the answers. I try to keep out of the political side and help all humans and humanity. And when you have this love for humanity the whole world is one country. That’s how I feel. People say, “Why are you going all the way over to help them?” Because they’re our fellow mankind and they’re in real need. But I’m sorry, I don’t have the answer about the Syrian crisis.

Yeah. I mean I think it’s important to have a debate about that, for the next time. And hopefully people will be more compassionate to all wars and refugee crises in the future.

There’s sixty million-plus refugees from all different conflicts walking, displaced, all over the world. I’m feeling Nazism rise around the world again. In Greece they were burning down the refugee camps of the Syrians. And then we had all the trouble in France and through Europe. I’m feeling it here in America, ever since this last administration was in. Hatred was on the rise. It seemed like it gave the green flag for hatred. We’re dealing with all that right here. But I’m feeling the right-wing rise all over the world. All through South America there’s dictators now. Richer people from those countries are fleeing to Miami. And even though in certain countries a more democratic side is winning, the right are getting very, very close in their votes. This is a real danger to the world, this authoritarian dictatorship. And I’m feeling it on the rise.

In wars such as this one between Russia and Ukraine, can you think of a peaceful solution moving forward? It’s the 64-million-dollar question obviously. But do you have any theories?

I think we’ve got to tie up this misinformation. It’s so out of hand in America. One side really believes the other side is completely fake news and the other side really believes the other side is completely fake. From COVID to politics to everything. It’s out of hand. And a lot of the Russian people are against this war and they were protesting. But then you’ve got all the ones that have been indoctrinated from such a young age and they are hearing, “No, this is a war also against us. And they are using chemical warfare. And they are killing Russians and wiping out anyone who speaks Russian.”

There’s got to be some solution. Because until then, people’s minds are being played with. We feel it now in America. We have to get back to truth. I don’t know how to do that. So there’s been a major war. And Elon Musk put up the Starlink. Usually during a war the communication’s the first thing that’s taken out. But you can be in the middle of the war zone and get WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, anything. But it’s amazing how the cyberwar is going on and the Ukrainians are winning the cyberwar. And the Russians are trying to take it down, but it hasn’t worked yet.

Yeah, I noticed that myself. I just couldn’t believe it we still had comms.

Yeah.

All these tragedies in the world and a global pandemic and this war on Europe’s doorstep. What keeps you going personally in times of darkness Alison? Where do you get your light from?

Light. I get it from those around me that are about service and helping others and keeping their own light alive. If you go up to the universe and you look down at a very dark world and you see these little sparkles of light. And they’re people that have just remained in love and hope for the world. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had an amazing life. When I went down to the World Trade Center on September 11th I said, “Look, I’ve had an amazing life,” to God or a higher power. I was like, “I’ve had an amazing life. If it’s my time to die, I’m really ready.” And when I did that little prayer I accepted my death. And then I had no fear at all and just filled up with love. And that’s what I continue to do. I do have a higher power. I don’t get stuck in the religious thing about having to go to church and having to do the religious things ’cause religion to me is wars and pain and suffering and what’s been gone on since the beginning of time. But I do have a higher power. I’ve had too many experiences with God, or my higher power, that I can’t deny it. I’ve been in the darkest situations and then something’s happened and led us out to the light. So I stick to that spirituality. But it’s also within us. And I think most people don’t know how to do this stuff. I am really a normal girl next door that just worked out how to do it. And I say to people, you know, mums and schoolteachers are really good at this. Out on the field it’s all about organising people and, “Okay, we need some food and water over here.”

But it’s about challenging yourself and finding something deep inside of you. Volunteers do that when they get on the ground and they’re like, “Oh, wow, I can do this!” So it’s just keeping that alive. And all those little moments you have on the ground, hugging the kids or hugging the grandmas, that bring it to life. And that’s about it. It’s about love in action. ’Cause, you know, sometimes even when there’s all these churches, they’re behind their walls and they’re praying on Sundays and then they do whatever they want during the week. I just wish we could knock down all those stupid walls and everyone just get out there and help. We’re not asking you to go shave your head or chant on some hill. But imagine a world where everybody does their part. That the karma banks are full of blue-chip stocks of compassion! And then we’re all billionaires on the inside. That’s how I feel. I feel like a billionaire on the inside. And it just gets better and better. Even though the world gets worse and worse, there’s always help and there’s always love.

Last question, because we haven’t been kicked off Zoom yet. Was there an event or perhaps a person that influenced you in your life that inspired you to live a life of adventure and danger?

My brothers were like James Bond characters. They would jump off cliffs and eat spiders and do all this crazy stuff. That gave me adventure. My parents were missionaries all through Asia, so I got to live in the jungles and feel at home in developing countries. We were always landing somewhere so that I had to suddenly make friends. I’m most at home where there’s complete chaos and no infrastructure. But also, I got to meet Mother Teresa when I was younger. My dad was speaking at a big conference, 50,000 people and it was Billy Graham and her. She was very, very old. And I remember all her wrinkles on her hands and her face, which is her history. Women work so hard at getting rid of their wrinkles, but that’s the history of your life. And I had a talk with her, and she would get down with the lowest, lowest person with leprosy in the field and she would just beam them with light and love. And she would say because they may have never been loved in their whole lifetime, she didn’t want them to die without ever having that feeling of love. That sticks with me forever, especially in the 2004 tsunami. Getting down with the dirtiest dogs that were dying and we’d help them. We’d give them food. Or the people lying in the streets. And just give them that beam and that was enough. The moment in Haiti that reminded me of that moment with Mother Teresa, we were in the cholera fields and people were dying. And this old man, he was in his 90s. There was nothing more I could do for him. But I just had him in my arms, and we were beaming love to each other. He died in my arms knowing that he was loved. But LeBron James! Basketball player. He lived behind me over here in Miami. He’s a big famous basketballer but he gives so much to other people. And he does so much for the community. It’s a combination of my brothers, my parents, Mother Teresa and LeBron James. But I think the ultimate was my mother, who was unconditional love. I’m just passing it on to others.


You can read this conversation in issue 70 of Dumbo Feather. Pick up your copy online or find us at your local independent retailer. 

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