by Nino Meese-Tamuri
It was a scene of a nightmare. Refugees were scattered across the tormented country. Many had lost their home, family and friends. Countless bodies lay in the streets waiting to be buried. The stench of genocide was all too present. This was Rwanda in 1994 and Dave Toycen, CEO and president of WorldVision Canada, was there shortly after the guns became silent. In an exclusive interview with Centennial College students, Toycen described how he deals with working in disaster zones.
“[Back then,] coming back after having been in the genocide area of Rwanda for a few weeks, you’re just relieved [being back on the plane home] because it was so intense. The death and destruction was just so overwhelming,” said Toycen.
In his 36 years of development work, Toycen has been to countless disaster zones across the world and has seen many of these nightmare scenes of human suffering. In order to prevent it taking a toll on him personally, he had to develop coping methods and strategies that work for him.
“If it was still as raw as it was when I first travelled in 1976 and I was still feeling everything the same today, I am not sure if mentally or emotionally I could survive,” said Toycen. “You develop a bit of a callous just so that you can keep your mind on the needs of the people and not on the way you’re feeling. Sometimes the pity we feel is more about the way we’re feeling and not necessarily about the people [themselves].”
Toycen said that over the years he developed a particular coping mechanism that helps him through the emotionally rough stretches on his missions. He said that he feels fortunate to be in a unique position to help. Toycen often reminds himself that through communicating his experiences on the ground to those back home in Canada he may be able to raise enough awareness to initiate relief efforts.
Another major pillar of his coping mechanism is his faith. Toycen, a devout Christian, finds relief in regular prayers, reading the Bible and particularly in reflecting on the story of the life of Christ.
“The story of the life of Christ is a great example to me. There was great humanity there, but there was also great stoicism and willingness to suffer,” outlined Toycen, saying he sees the similarities to his work environment. “Jesus – for Christians – was the son of God and yet despite all the miracles that he did, he still didn’t heal everybody. Even the son of God had to live with the reality of suffering. Even Hecouldn’t fix it all.”
But there are also many surprising and uplifting experiences to be found amidst all the suffering.
“One of the most amazing things to me is the level of generosity that people still have in the middle of disaster,” said Toycen. “I have had these experiences frequently from people, who – from our point of view – have nothing to give because they’re in such a terrible situation.”
On his most recent trip to Mali – a country currently suffering from drought and a widespread famine looming on the horizon – local villagers offered Toycen a basket full of freshly grown vegetables as a thank you gesture. Toycen had to refuse, knowing that there were still hungry children in the community. He instead offered to come back when the harvest is good and accept the gift then. It was a difficult balancing act for Toycen.
“These are things you have to learn. As a westerner, our first reaction is that we mustn’t [accept gifts] because they need it. But, it’s very important to allow people who are poor by our standards to express what they have to give to you,” said Toycen. “I discovered that people can be incredibly poor, but it’s amazing how creative they can be of finding something that offers hospitality to you. It is an extremely important value in most developing world cultures.”
However, Toycen’s ultimate tool in his coping methods arsenal is being a deep sleeper.
“I can sleep anywhere which can be quite helpful in my line of work,” said Toycen. Thankfully for Toycen, the horrifying images of his work don’t haunt him in his dreams: “I don’t recall ever to have had a nightmare about my work.”