"People lacking hope feels like a blow in my face"

Farewell interview with CPO Arco van Wessel

This week, Arco van Wessel is leaving ZOA. After six heavy years, of which the last period as Chief Program Officer, he will make the transition into education: as of 1 February, Arco is director of De Passie Utrecht, an Evangelical secondary school. A farewell interview. Or perhaps not? “Maybe someday God will call me back to the field.”

Which experience from your time with ZOA will you always carry with you?
“Immediately I think of a widow in South Sudan, who received a small amount of money from us. The other displaced persons who also received the same amount of eight euros bought food with it. They were free to do that. However, the widow decided to buy cane from it. She made straw mats out of them and sold them again. Therefore, she increased the amount she received, enabling her to repair her roof.
I will also never forget Mosul in northern Iraq. I visited the city shortly after the liberation. The scale of destruction was enormous. Everything, absolutely everything was destroyed. At the same time, you see the movement of vehicles, using the emergency bridge to cross the river once again. People want to rebuild their lives. Our staff there are super motivated to help those people. We build houses, help to re-establish companies, and assist with education, which is very important. Due to the Daesh occupying the area for three years, children have had no education or have been indoctrinated with wrong ideas. They are traumatized. Yes, Mosul will always stay with me. Above all, I have seen that we can have a huge impact there by responding fast, so that we can quickly give people the opportunity to rebuild their lives.”

Hope

“I like to hear people finding hope again through our projects and our work. Last summer I spoke to a Syrian refugee in Jordan. I asked her, “what is your hope for the future?” She replied, “I have no hope”. That was a blow in my face (as we say in Dutch). Because if there is anything we want to bring, it is hope for the people we help. I keep thinking about this. How can we offer hope to such a person?”

What is your legacy? Has ZOA changed under your rule?
“I think a legacy is too big of a claim. ZOA has changed, but we have done that together. ”

Emergency aid

“What has really changed is that we now focus much more on emergency aid. In the past, it was mainly recovery. That was much safer: the financing is longer, which means you have more financial security. That makes it easier to manage and is less risky. If you start with real emergency aid, it must be issued quickly, the financing is short-term and therefore you run risks. Risks in that you employ a lot of people and have to continue paying them even when the financing ends. I like that we have not opted for financial security, but dare to take more risks to help people who need it the most. It also matches the expectations of our donors. Because they know us as a true emergency aid organization. In the past six years, we have made a significant shift. In the past, ’emergency aid’ was only a small part of the job of one person, now we have an entire department. In recent years, you saw how that functioned. We are much faster when something happens in the world. Think, for example, of Indonesia where we went twice quickly in 2018. This enabled us to start immediately providing emergency relief.”

Peace building

“Also in terms of content, there has been a significant shift. Six years ago, for example, we were not structurally engaged in peacebuilding. Now that is an important pillar. In many areas we were already engaged in physical reconstruction after a conflict situation, but now we also encourage people to be able to live together again. These are therefore peace-building projects. We now also have an in house peace-building specialist. It is badly needed, because in the countries where we work there are often chronic conflicts. We see people fall back into a conflict or start a new kind of conflict. We also see returning refugees confronted with other people living on their land or in their homes. This brings another lurking conflict. We then try to convince those involved to live together in peace and harmony, working to help to prevent conflicts and tackle the cause of the problem.
Of course, it is very difficult, but we have some results. It starts at micro level with quarrels within families. Also between farmers who have a conflict over their land borders or a quarrel between two tribes. One tribe does more with livestock, the other with arable farming. The livestock farmers let their cows walk on the land of the arable farmers. This leads to arguments and sometimes even to an armed conflict. We help by providing solutions and making them possible. In the case of the tribes, we propose things such as making a path between the fields, with fences around it. If necessary, we can provide some financial help. That seems to be something small, but it is something between two tribes, which also could have been solved by armed force if they had to do it themselves. I think that’s a nice element of the work that has been added.”

Identity

Where do you see the Christian identity of ZOA?
“We probably drill the same well as a non-Christian organization. You can find the difference mostly in the motivation. For example, when I visited our team in Afghanistan, I realized how difficult situation is to be there. There is little freedom of movement. All they can do is sit in their apartment and in the morning as unobtrusively as possible, go to the office and in the evening as inconspicuously as possible, return to the apartment. When I asked them, “Is this not too heavy for you, don’t you long for another country?” Their answer was, “No, we are doing well here as a team. It is beautiful work that we are able to do here.” That same evening, we were praying with the team and this allowed me to hear where their hearts lie: with the people of Afghanistan. They do not need to go to a country where it is better or easier. In this, I see our identity. That translates into faithfulness and putting people in the centre.”

You are leaving for the Education-sector. Is it a final farewell to our sector, or do we see you back some day?
“I did not expect that I would end up in education, so I don’t know what will happen in the future. However, my wife and I have said to each other that when the children are completely independent of us, who knows, we may go back to the field, somewhere in the world. I have seen so much need. There is a good chance that we will once again feel called to do it again. In the meantime, education is also very interesting. Especially during this era, it is very nice to be able to give Christian education and to be involved in the raising of teenagers. It is a privilege that we have this education-system in the Netherlands. So, I’m going to throw myself into it with a lot of enthusiasm. I do not know how it will go, but I am as of now committed to De Passie. God will lead us, and then we will see where it finally ends.”

Blessing

What blessing do you send to ZOA leaving it behind?
“That God’s presence may remain here. That the Christian identity will stand. That is what I would like to pray for ZOA as a blessing, that they remain very close to God, also as an organization. I am confident that this will happen, because that is also where the hearts of the board, management team, and employees of ZOA are.”

Interview & text by KlaasJan Baas
Photo: Arco van Wessel visiting ZOA-projects in Myanmar