NEW YORK—Hungry boys ambushed Samantha Nutt’s car as she waited for the gate to open. She was waiting to leave Liberia’s transit center for child soldiers. The car rocked. A boy had climbed onto the roof. Others pounded on the hood. As her driver began to pull away, a young boy leaned toward her window and told her that he would rape and set her on fire if she were to return to the center without money.
Nutt went to some of the most violent corners of the world—such as Iraq, Congo, and Darfur, Sudan—to give medical assistance to battered women and children. While she has seen resources marred by red tape and humans inflicting indescribable horrors on one another, she has never given up hope in human goodness.
“Amidst conflict it’s easy to become cynical or self-absorbed,” Nutt said. “But I believe in our capacity to help and support one another.”
Still, there were many times her conviction was tested.
In Somalia, she faced a meandering line of women holding sick infants. But many were already dead.
When she passed through the jungles of Congo in a United Nations Refugee Agency vehicle, she saw two adolescent boys with Kalashnikov rifles preparing to execute a blindfolded man and a small boy.
She shouted at her driver to stop the car. He refused. “What are you going to do?” he asked. Their only options were either to drive on or risk being killed along with the captives.
Such experiences may grate on aid workers—making them doubt the effectiveness of their line of work. Witnessing such scenes may cause them to lose hope in humanity’s ability to ever absolve its crimes. Steadfast, however, Nutt sticks to her convictions: never stop trying.
“After grief there are people who wrap themselves in isolation and self-righteousness, and there are those who take action,” she said. “I try my best to do the latter.”
Through her experiences in war zones, Nutt has not only seen the brutality of modern conflict, but also what sustains it and what people can do to prevent it.
In her book, “Damned Nations,” she provides a critical analysis of the inefficiencies of many nonprofits, as well-developed nations’ investments in selling weapons to the very regions where peacekeepers are sent.
For instance, she has investigated how teachers’ pension funds of Canada and New York state are invested in the arms trade.
Such criticism may result in some political doors closing, but Nutt doesn’t mind.
“You have to confront the truth,” she said. “If that means alienating people who would rather not know, I’m prepared to take that on.”
To put her ideas into action, Nutt founded War Child in 1999, together with her husband Dr. Eric Hoskins.
War Child is a nonprofit that aims to rebuild post-conflict communities by working closely with local organizations, providing support for stable childhoods in order to break the cycle of violence.
Nutt recently launched War Child USA in New York City. The organization was first founded in Canada. Peter Stringham, chairman and chief executive officer of Young & Rubicam Group, is the new founding chair of the War Child USA Board.
Stringham noted that considering the many charities he has been involved in, he hadn’t seen anyone else be as productive with as little money as Nutt has been. “She was really quite creative in finding ways to solve the issues that she saw,” he said.
Having asked Nutt how he could help, Stringham quickly found himself in his new role and set up an official War Child office at Young & Rubicam’s New York venue.
“I think New Yorkers will get their heads around it. New Yorkers are pretty worldly because it’s such a cosmopolitan city. It’s so diverse. There certainly lots of people who are interested and concerned.”
And to harness that concern, just the way Nutt sticks to her convictions, War Child maintains it’s integrity.
“We are a small organization … and we could be making a lot more money by not turning down donations from oil and mining companies,” Nutt said. “But we sincerely believe in a different model.”
One of the groups that War Child partners with is a grass-roots organization founded by Afghan women. Nutt said she wished to keep the group anonymous to protect its members’ safety.
The organization provides resources for thousands of illiterate, destitute women in Afghanistan, many of whom have sold at least one of their daughters to abusive men in order to feed the rest of their children.
The nonprofit provides medical care, literacy training, as well as resources for the women to start their own market-based businesses—such as wedding embroidery, food preservation, and beekeeping.
The organization teaches illiterate women how to read in one year.
“I was surprised to find that three years later, after these women have left the program, a hundred percent of their school-age daughters are still in school,” Nutt said.
“We pressured them to make their girls go to school, but we didn’t know if they would feel inclined to still send their girls to school after they leave the program,” she said.
“After the program, they see the value of literacy and that is very inspiring,” she added. “The cycles are breaking.”
Learning From Trauma
Even in North America, Nutt cannot help but scan every room she enters. She cannot sit with her back to a door. Every time a hand reaches into a bag, Nutt will notice.
There are times when Nutt will wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. “You do wrestle with grief and melancholy,” she said. To this day, she cannot be around fireworks.
Perhaps in some ways, the trauma has brought her closer to people rather than further.
Nutt and her husband have been together for 20 years, and oftentimes in the middle of a fight they will say to one another, “Remember that time we were ambushed together? Remember that time we were evacuated from Congo?”
“I’ve known people who have lost all the people they love, and sometimes all in one violent instant,” Nutt said. “You learn to never lose sight of what is important. People, family, and love is more important than anything else.”