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“What does it mean to be humanitarian?” Jessica Choong on finding your calling, personal faith and life as an international aid worker

Jessica Choong is a programme officer with the international Christian humanitarian organisation World Vision and is currently based in Sudan. Here, she shares how God brought her into the line of work, her unchanging love for Malaysia and what she believes the end goal of humanitarian work must be.

“I always wondered, “Is God calling me to this?” when I was exploring different career options back then,” Jessica says with a laugh. She’s dialling in on an early weekend morning for the interview, yet is as prepared as they come. 

Born and raised in Petaling Jaya (PJ), Jessica firmly identifies and resonates with her Malaysian identity. She spent her childhood, school years and tertiary education in PJ, obtaining her degree in international relations from Universiti Malaya.

As an international aid worker, Jessica is used to the nomadic life.

At six years old, her babysitter brought her to church 

“I was first introduced to Jesus and Christianity because my parents allowed our babysitter to bring my sisters and me to church with her on Sundays. They weren’t Christians but they let us go, so I went to Sunday School.”

After her babysitter left, a church uncle would faithfully ferry Jessica, her sisters and cousins to church and back home every week. As she shares this memory, she adds that although they lost touch, her family recently reconnected with this uncle who played a part in her faith journey all those years ago. “It was really nice reconnecting with him again, he’s married with children but even today, sends me encouraging Scripture,” she says.

Although she had been to church from a young age, Jessica found herself getting disinterested in her teens and eventually stopped going to church. It was only at 18 that she stepped into a church hall again, this time of her own will. 

A season of exploration and questioning of her purpose

Throughout her university years, Jessica stayed plugged into her university’s Christian Fellowship (CF), many of whom remain her friends to this day. “My faith really grew then because I was going of my own will. I saw God’s love and at that time, wanted to see how I could begin to serve Him,” she remembers. 

She had chosen the field of international relations because her goal was to work with the United Nations. But after graduation, she found herself working in diverse and unique roles. With a laugh, she lists the various jobs she’s held: music teacher at a government school, worked with children with special needs, became a personal assistant and even a translator at a foreign embassy

“With every new job I always wondered, “Is God calling me to this?” I had questions for myself, always asking if this was what God wanted for me, for my life.”

Her first steps into humanitarian work began on the local front

Jessica (closest to camera) was part of the WVM response effort during the East Coast Floods 2013-14.

In 2010, Jessica joined the International Programmes team at World Vision Malaysia (WVM). Her role was to review and support development and aid projects that WVM was funding. At the time, she also held a side portfolio covering disaster management (DM).

“When I first started, I was looking for a job where I could help others. It was only years later that upon reflection, I could say, “Oh! Maybe, after everything, [humanitarian work] is where God has wanted me to be.”

At WVM, she moved quickly into the field of humanitarian work, specialising in DM and emergency relief. By 2014, she was conducting training, developing strategy and planning how WVM would activate in the event of an emergency. 

From Malaysia to Jordan, Bangladesh to Mozambique

Three years later, Jessica moved into a regional role and became a DM specialist for the WV South Asia and Pacific office, a post she held from 2016 until 2021.

“Throughout my years in DM, I would be sent on short-term deployments for crisis response. I went to Turkey (2013) and Jordan (2014) for the Syria crisis, Bangladesh (2017) for the Rohingya crisis, Indonesia (2018) for the Central Sulawesi earthquake and Mozambique (2021).”

Her travels through the years have shown her the wonder, and pain, of humanitarian work up close. It can be hard to take in or process at times, but Jessica points out that working with a Christian organisation makes a huge difference. 

I’ve been able to merge faith and work, so there’s no difference for me between work and ministry anymore. Expressing my faith openly at work has become normal, we have team devotions…I know that’s not something everyone is able to do. I’m grateful for it,” she says.

Nothing’s as straightforward as it seems, and that goes for humanitarian work

Outdoor classrooms are often just logs set up under makeshift shelters.

Asked to share some highs and lows of being in this line, Jessica recounts a project they were working on in Mozambique, a school-building project funded by the UN.

“There were just so many challenges, from the rainy season hampering work to road access for materials,” she shares. “The community had been selected because their ‘classroom’ was just logs laid out under dried-up trees. After overcoming so many obstacles, it was gratifying to see the before and after. It reminded me that the pace of work is never as simple as it looks — oh, we have the money, let’s set up the school. The process itself can be long.”

Jessica also reiterated that humanitarian work can be very unpredictable; there are many things outside of your control and diverse stakeholders you have to work with. These include donors, community leaders, the local authorities, your team and community members. 

Classrooms being built so that children have a more conducive learning environment.

As an international aid worker, perspective and discipline help her stay grounded

“When you live a nomadic life and without a partner or family of your own, it’s really just you and yourself. The nature of my job often requires me to plan my life around my work,” Jessica says. She’s made it a point to practise her own spiritual disciplines of quiet time and prayer, which helps grow her faith.

She is also pursuing a course in theological studies to encourage a constant pursuit of Jesus and the Word. “But just because you study theology doesn’t mean you’re strong spiritually,” she remarks. In Malaysia, Jessica attended HTBB in KL and is now attending All Saints’ Cathedral in Khartoum. For fellowship, she joins her UK-based cousin’s online cell meetings.

As she’s often away from home for months at a time, Jessica acknowledges it takes more effort to stay connected with family and friends back home. The lack of her physical presence and time differences can lend to a sense of disconnection. “I need to be intentional both ways, keeping in touch with my community back home and building a community where I am,” she says, adding that video calls are a real blessing. 

A snapshot of Sudanese street food. Moving around means learning to embrace other cultures.

To aspiring humanitarians, Jessica offers three nuggets of wisdom 

Humanitarian work isn’t as glamorous as media and pop culture make it out to be. “There’s this misconception that it’s just a person handing out aid, but there’s so much more happening to make that scene actually happen,” Jessica says. 

The work can be mundane, routine and sometimes, others will reap the rewards of your labour. Often, we want physical change but a big part of the battle is to invoke behavioural change. And that’s all part of the journey toward long-term sustainability. 

With that in mind, Jessica shares three bits and bobs gained from her years of working both locally and internationally, in times of crisis and times of peace.

  1. Take time to speak to people in the field to find out what you really want. There are many areas you can tap into or make a beeline for, that align with your interests and abilities. It’s more than just handouts.
  1. Don’t discount yourself and your skills; you may be surprised that your talents or background can be used in development and humanitarian work. 
  1. Ask yourself this: What does it mean to me, to be humanitarian? This will help you determine whether you can be in this field for the long term. You have to be open to being challenged, stretched and changed, especially in the way you work and do things. In the field, contexts and cultures can be very different from what you’re used to.
After many years in the field, Jessica has learned to be intentional in building friendships.

“How do I consistently show that I’m loving Christ and loving others every day?” 

For this passionate aid worker, following Jesus Christ simply means taking up her cross daily. Every day, she says, we’re given a set number of hours. How are we using the time we are given to love Jesus and others? It has to be a conscious choice, one applied in every part: work, daily life and relationships.

Micah 6:8, she says, is her hope for the wider Christian community. “I believe it’s how we should live, to love mercy, act justly and walk humbly. I hope that we as Christians will live this way because if we do it will overflow into every part of our lives.”

Today, she is working in grants acquisition and reporting at the WV Sudan office, supporting purely life-saving work. It is a fragile context due to political instability, internal conflict and related displacement with increasing humanitarian needs.

The future may be uncertain, but Jesus is assurance enough

On a personal level, the past two years have also given her time to realise that her search for identity is not yet over. She holds Psalm 27:13-14 close to her heart as a reminder to wait on the Lord, find her identity in Him and entrust her future into God’s hands.

Asked about her future plans, Jessica laughs. She is currently exploring a sector in the field and hopes to venture into it one day, but other than that things are unclear.

“It’s hard to answer any questions about my future because I honestly don’t really know. In this line of work, jobs are usually contract-based. There can be no real sense of permanence because donors pull funding, projects close or the ground team is reshuffled. So I really don’t know.” 

However, one thing is certain. No matter where her work takes her, the unmistakably divine moments that have led this PJ girl around the world prove that God has called Jessica to this life. As she lives out her faith in the service of others, her hope is that in everything she does she will love Jesus Christ and others every day.

All images provided by Jessica Choong.

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