19 Sep 2023
Podcast Ep 2: Mel Bencik's superpower is empathy

Growing up as the child of migrants, Mel Bencik always knew she wanted to work with people from diverse backgrounds. Now a deeply experienced humanitarian, Melissa has worked across Asia, Africa, the Pacific and Australia, predominantly in protection and inclusion. She is also a RedR Australia roster member.  

In this episode, Mel chats with Sally about a wide array of topics—from the power of empathy, to her journey from social worker to humanitarian, and what it means to be a woman working in this challenging sector. 

Find out more about the RedR Australia roster. 

You can also join our conversations on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook 

Host: Sally Cunningham   

Producer, engineer and composer: Jill Farrar 

Episode transcript 

SALLY: In this episode I met with Melissa Bencik, a deeply experienced humanitarian and social worker who's had roles across Asia, Africa, the Pacific and Australia. Mel has worked with the United Nations and international NGOs, predominantly in protection and inclusion. As a RedR Australia roster member, she's deployed twice with the Australian Government's Australia Assists Program—first as a disability and gender inclusion advisor for OCHA in Somalia, and most recently in the last year to Bangladesh as a Child Protection Coordinator for UNICEF. I first met Mel earlier this year, during her deployment in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, she was training local social workers who were supporting both Rohingya refugees and the Bangladesh community. What struck me about Mel was that she was so comfortable and relaxed, working in a complex environment with people who were living in very difficult circumstances. And yet she approached it with grace and focus. For Humanitarian Conversations, our discussion ranged across a wide array of topics, from the power of empathy, to her journey from social worker to humanitarian, to what it means to be a woman working in this challenging sector. But first, I asked Mel to explain what is meant by the term 'protection'. 

MEL: So in terms of protection in a humanitarian response, we know that people like women, children, people with disabilities, people with mental health issues, are more vulnerable than others. So protection is putting some of those mechanisms in place to safeguard those who are more vulnerable in a humanitarian response. It might be legal assistance, it might be case management, it might be counseling for gender-based violence. Under the umbrella of protection, there is child protection, and there's gender-based violence, and then the more broad protection. So it's honing in on those people groups that, again, are more vulnerable than others. In terms of child protection, which is more the area that I've worked in, it'd be looking at things like prevention activities, awareness-raising around risk factors, like child marriage, child labor, things like that. Making sure that those in greater risk or who have experienced, you know, violence or neglect or abuse, are having the interventions to support them and their caregivers. 

SALLY: Thanks, Mel. That's a really great description of protection. So tell us what drives you to do humanitarian work? What are some of the biggest challenges that you find in this particular sector? 

MEL: So it's not like I woke up one day and decided that I'm going to be a humanitarian. Or it's not like I finished uni and I had this vision of the trajectory of my career, you know, leading me to humanitarian work. But I think, you know, just because of who I am, and my own values and the principles that I try and live by, and the passions that I have, and my skills, it's led me to humanitarian work. If we look at some of the humanitarian principles, and they're very much about preventing and alleviating suffering wherever it may be found, these are just things that, to me, are important. I think, one way or another, I knew that I would work overseas or work cross culturally, and that was a passion of mine as well. But you know, from the time that I did my training in social work, I knew that I wanted to work with people and I wanted to work cross culturally, and I wanted to help people, as simple or Pollyanna as that sounds. I think, you know, you have to have humanitarian principles somewhat within you to work as a humanitarian. It's not something that you add on; if you don't believe that you can't really practice it. So in terms of challenges, you know, you're constantly faced with ethical dilemmas, you know, on a daily basis be that in your personal life or, in your work. Things can function very differently to what you're used to seeing here in Australia. There's a bunch of ethical issues that you're confronted with on a regular basis, and that you have to navigate your way through, be that whether it's where you live, cleaners asking you for money, or if it's at work, there may be systems that don't work as coherently as you think they should, or as they could, which may lead to some compromising outcomes sometimes for perfect populations. And of course, that's part of the work that we do as well, to try and strengthen systems or to work with communities and try and enhance some of the systems and processes. But that's also not to say that we have all the right answers, but it's about working with people and trying to find sustainable solutions. 

SALLY: Yeah, that all makes a lot of sense. I think with experience, the humanitarian sector shows you that we may not be working to solve problems, but we're definitely there to alleviate suffering and face those challenges as best that we can. You touched on the fact that you started your career as a social worker. With that in mind, how did you transfer those skills and experience to move into the humanitarian sector, and child protection and disability inclusion? 

MEL: When I was doing my social work degree, I didn't quite know where I'd end up or exactly what I wanted to do. Prior to that, I thought I'd be a teacher for many years and then sort of the later years of high school, I realised I didn't want to have to be involved with behavior management every day. So then I thought, "Oh, I could do social work. And that's going to be a good foundation for whatever it is that I move into". And then I thought, "I'd like to do some work in schools, like school social work", but that didn't last too long. And I had a friend that worked for the Red Cross at the time. And she said, "Oh, we look for social workers sometimes". And I kind of had never associated the Red Cross with social workers. But I ended up there. And I did a lot of work with refugees and asylum seekers here in Australia, and also in offshore detention. And that was something I was very passionate about. And my parents are migrants, they migrated to Australia in the late 60s. And so I think just hearing their stories as well, in terms of some of the challenges they faced as migrants, I grew up with that. And I just knew that I always wanted to work with people from other cultures. I did a study tour to Bangladesh back in 2004. And sort of everyone in my group at the time was like, pointing at me, like, you're gonna end up back doing this sort of work. And I'm like, "What do you mean? Like, what can you see? I don't know what you mean, okay? Doesn't everyone want to do this sort of work?" You just think sometimes  

SALLY: It chooses you.  

MEL: Yeah. But you also think the things that are natural to you or that your interests and passions, you kind of think other people have the same, but then you look around the room? And they're like, "No, we don't want to do this." I'm like, "oh, so why are you here right now?" But again, one thing leads to the other. And I think we have a number of moments in our lives where we might have a conversation that triggers something for us, or we might watch a documentary, or we might have a trip. And these are all sort of arrows that sometimes point us in the direction that we should be going, which I think ultimately is a, you know, our vocation. And I think a lot of that is based on our individual interests and passions and values. So a bit of a transition, but I ended up then working in the development sector, and then have now moved into the humanitarian space. And I think the social work background has really been foundational to all of this. And I think through that training, you know, you definitely develop some technical skills. But I think often social work and those sort of soft skills can get a bad rap. And it's nice to see that in more recent years that even these kind of questions are coming up in interviews with employers - that people are recognising how valuable the soft skills are. Like being able to talk to people, being able to listen, and being able to have empathy, being able to understand other cultures; these sorts of things are now highly valuable. And again, many of these things were kind of natural to me, I guess, or enhanced through my training. And again, I thought that most people could do it. But then you see the person next to you who can't hold a conversation you like, "Okay, this is a skill, it's not something that everybody has." So I think I've been able to pull a lot of those things along and have obviously assisted me in the work that I'm now doing. And through social work, I did a lot of casework. 12 years of direct case practice, as I said, with refugees and asylum seekers, mainly also working with families who had children with disability. So when I ended up on the RedR roster, the first deployment I did was as a disability inclusion advisor with OCHA Somalia. And that was in 2020. It ended up being a remote placement due to COVID. But I was able to carry that out remotely from Australia anyway. And now I recently completed a deployment as a social work specialist, actually, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, was able to train up government social workers in child protection case management. So I sort of thought I left the case management behind - had done that for 12 years and felt, "Okay, it's time to move on from that". But I was now able to bring that back together with the humanitarian work and sort of marry those two things, which was really nice. So training local governments, social workers in Bangladesh. 

SALLY: You mentioned empathy before. Do you think that this is an important part of being in the sector? Has this helped you in your work? 

MEL: Yeah, so I think you're implying that empathy is my superpower. Again, I don't think empathy is a skill that you can learn, necessarily, I think it's a muscle that you can try and maybe strengthen. But I think it's almost one of those things that maybe you have it or you don't. And I think it's definitely helped me trying to understand other people—trying to get a sense of where they're at. You know, empathy is putting yourself in someone else's shoes. So I think if you can do that, to some extent, and envision what things are like for them, it can also lead to maybe sustainable approaches and things, rather than just coming in completely with your own worldview, and being willing to budge or understand what's actually happening for that other person. I think for me, and maybe for other empaths, it can come with high levels of sensitivity as well. And sometimes that can be challenging, too. Because, you know, you do feel like you have big emotions and you can take on board what someone else is going through and you have to work out how to manage that, how to unpack that; sometimes how to store that, sometimes when to bring it out. When to, you know, when to sort of deal with it and that sort of thing.  

SALLY: And even if empathy is the superpower you need to do this work authentically, it doesn't mean you're impenetrable. So I mean, how do you manage? Seeing what you see? Knowing what you know? It's an impossible answer to an impossible question. But can you give us a little bit of insight on how can you manage some of those really, really tough things? 

MEL: So, yeah, I think it can definitely be a superpower. It can definitely help and it can get you alongside people maybe more quickly, and people appreciate that and they respect that you're willing to sit alongside them. So I think it can definitely assist but it needs to be genuine, you know. I don't think you can fake empathy. But you know, it can also make things tough too, because, you know, you're faced with so many ethical dilemmas on a regular basis. That's tough as well, you know, when you're in that environment, day in, day out, and you're just faced with a whole bunch of big life questions. But that grows us, that makes us who we are. That's humanity. We can't just be comfortable our whole life, when we know that there are people living very differently to us. We have to do something with that. For me, I'm quite a verbal processor generally. So for me to be able to talk to people about it really helps. Be that a trusted friend, or a counselor or a supervisor, if there's something big that I really need to work through for me, it can help to talk to someone. Sometimes I journal and write things down, or do yoga or meditate or go for a walk. I think it depends on the individual. You know, sometimes it's about exercising and getting into a different headspace. But I think it's important to keep active and try and have balance as well, and not be all consumed in your work. Even though, you know, your environment is often part of the challenge in some of these contexts as well. But I think then having breaks and being able to sometimes get out, change your scenery, change your environment, think about your own self care, that's crucial. Practice what you preach. Again, as a social worker, I tell people that I work with about self care all the time. And so to me, that's something that I really try and live by. It will be so easy to be all consumed with the work and the society in which you're living. And yes, you need to be to some extent, because that's your life for the time that you're there. But again, you need to remember your roots, you know, what's important to you - your family, your friends, connect with them, don't neglect those things. Because again, if your cup isn't full, how are you going to give to other people? It's very true. And your cup is not going to overfill if it's empty, so make sure that you do look after yourself. And if you need help, ask for it. And if you need to speak to a counselor, those services are there. There's nothing to be ashamed of. And I think it's really important that people do those checks on a regular basis. And you don't have to be a martyr and there's no glory in burning out. Again, you're not going to be of any use to anyone once you're burnt out. That's not a rung on the board. You need to check yourself before you get anywhere close to that. And if you need to tap out and you need to have a year off or five years off, just do it, you can get back into the race if you need to, or you change paths and you use those skills in a different way. 

SALLY: Yeah, that's some really good advice. What would you tell someone who wants to come into the sector? What has been your experience broadly? And what advice would you give them? 

MEL: Yeah, I think it takes time. I don't think it's one of those areas that you can necessarily finish high school and just step into the humanitarian space; there's definitely experience or skills that may need to be developed beforehand. So I would say, take the time to volunteer, if you can get overseas do some placements, have conversations with people who have done it, find out how they've done it. You know, I think many of us have got to a point where—I know and I have spoken to others about it—"Alright, do I need to do a master's? Or can I just do it practically?" And again, I think it's different for different people. And I think, you know, if you want to work for the UN, they often do look for a master's and look for a UN language. So you might want to consider those things. But I also have neither of those at the moment. And, you know, I have now found myself working for the UN and you know, working for a roster like RedR. And Australia Assists is often a great way in as well. You build those networks, you build those connections. So I think there's a real need to do a lot of networking, as well as speaking to people, finding out what they do. But take the steps to get there. I don't think it's going to be an overnight process. Again, I touched earlier about the different arrows in our lives, or different events that can sometimes point to things. And I remember when the tsunami in Thailand happened, and that was, you know, at a time where I was finishing uni, I was in my early 20s. And I think it just felt so close to home, you know, because it was in Thailand. And you know, there was so much imagery out there in the media. And then so many people wanted to do something and wanting to help, and I remember I called around a bunch of different organisations being like, "Can I go? What can I do? How can I help?" And they all told me, "You can't just send volunteers now. There's a process. You need to be on our roster. It's not the healthiest way to respond to an emergency by sending strangers." I totally understand why better now. But it's doing the training. It's exposing yourself. But I think, be prepared to take the steps to get there. Learn from others. It may be learning language, if that's the way that you're inclined. Maybe consider what sort of places you'd want to work. I think previously, I didn't think I'd want to work in a war zone, for example. But then, even having worked remotely with OCHA in Somalia, I got to know people. And I got to know the context, be that remotely, but I'd feel way more comfortable and I'd be prepared to go there now. Or I'd be prepared to maybe even go to Afghanistan, because I know people from there. And if you ask the questions of those that are there, it's different than just what you see in the media as well. So it can happen; it may take 10 years, which I think probably happened for me, but it can happen. But it's not going to be overnight. 

SALLY: This is a bit of a big question. How do you think the humanitarian landscape is changing? I guess we're asking from your lens, where you've been and the work that you do. 

MEL: I think a bit of what we've already touched on: awareness of these other areas that really need attention, like disability and gender inclusion, and, you know, enhancing protection and way more focus on sustainability and localisation. It's huge and so necessary. And sometimes I scratch my head, you know, why has this taken so long? But so much better that, of course, there is a realisation now. And recognising that understanding and awareness and skill and experience that local communities have. And again, working together with and empowering and learning from. And I'm glad that we've moved away from this 'doing for' model that I think was a thing of the past, unfortunately, before my time. But you know, just that real move towards localisation and sustainability, which is so key. And if you really want things to continue, and you want things to be genuinely strengthened and owned, then you have to hone in on those areas. And I hope that in the future, and I think there is a bit of a shift as well that people from some of these countries are also going out to other places. And that's huge. There's so much learning that we can have from the Pacific in terms of natural disasters that could again, move to other places and do the work and work with because they get it. Plenty of lived experience. Who are we to go in and say that we've got the right approach? No way. But that's how it was. And I'm so glad that we've moved away from that. 

SALLY: I completely agree with you. What's changed is that these issues of gender, disability inclusion, localisation, they're coming to the front, and we realised that they're critical in prevention. So if we want to build true resilience, working on the prevention side, gives us the greatest strength, when were we hit with disaster?  

MEL: Definitely.  

SALLY: Now, this is really important. As a person who identifies as a woman, what kinds of challenges have you faced working in the humanitarian space? 

MEL: I guess there's a number of challenges that can be gender specific. And I think for me, as a woman, firstly, there can be different safety concerns based on where you are. Depending where you're based, there's different levels of harassment, or there may be different ways of being viewed as a woman, in a very male-dominated culture. As a woman, you may not have the same standing or you may not have the same space. Again, I know, in Bangladesh, I often had to encourage women in training to speak or had to remind male colleagues to not speak on behalf of a woman. For example, if I asked her a question, I wanted her to answer the question. So then also, for me, as a female coming in and facilitating trainings, I did have the respect, but also, I felt that maybe it was less than if I was a male. You know, there are things that I would experience even where I lived being treated in a particular way, because I was a female. But I think also just working in this sort of space, where you're coming and going and you're based, sometimes in volatile environments. Or just sometimes environments that are not even so volatile, but they're just different. And you know, like, I'm 40. Now, there's a biological factor. I always thought that I would have kids, and I've had this conversation with many female friends and colleagues that are of a similar age—that you want to be working in this space, but okay, time's ticking and what if I want to go off and have a family? And how do I fit that into the career? And again, even if I took maternity leave, I can't just nick back off to Afghanistan in three months. It's a bit different to maybe having a job in Melbourne, for example. So you know, I think in some cases, women do have to choose between family or career. And I think in this space, there's additional challenges, because it's not such a comfortable role to go back to, and it's maybe not as easy. So I think there's ways that you can probably make it work, but it's just the reality. Like we have to think about these things. And it's great to hear of course, and I know people where that can happen and there are family duty stations. You know, it can happen and you can make it work. And I guess it's just a personal decision that you have to make, and it's about what's most important to you and take your situation into account as well. It's just interesting to also come home and sort of get on top of life admin and be like, "OK, update my license, do my taxes. Do I need to freeze my eggs?" You know, I hadn't really had to think of that before. Okay, is that life admin? How does that fit in?  

SALLY: But no, that's that's a very real situation. It's above and beyond the regular call of duty, isn't it? 

MEL: Yeah. For sure. But you know, they're the things that women have to think about. 

SALLY: At least we have choices.  

MEL: Yeah, that's true. Yeah, a lot more than before. 

SALLY: Yeah, so there are definitely challenges as a woman in the sector. But also, as a young person trying to break into the sector—I'm really keen to hear how your pathway took you to the UN. And if you could advise some other young people on what you did that might help them get in as well. 

MEL: I think it was my final year of university, I went to Bangladesh on a study tour. And it was just for a couple of weeks. And we visited some savings groups, women's sewing groups, fish farming projects, things like this, in a group. By the end of that, many people in my group were picking up on some things, thinking that maybe I had what it took, or whatever that means, to do this sort of work. In 2011 I think it was, I went to the Solomon Islands with the Red Cross and Australian volunteer program at the time. So I spent about 11 months volunteering with the blood bank in the Solomon Islands and the Red Cross there. So again, that was another huge learning experience. And it exposed me to the development sector at the time, I guess, and also enabled me to step into some roles and some tasks. It was sort of 'right place at the right time', you know. I ended up doing some project management, that maybe was not necessarily on my PD in the beginning. But you know, I was just sort of filling a gap at the time and working with colleagues in this area. I ended up also working in offshore detention in Manus Island and Nauru. Again, this was the building on the case management skills I'd had as well as exposing me to other contexts and other affected populations. So you know, these things along with other jobs that I'd held, both in Australia and abroad, also having worked in Timor Leste for some time, as well, has led me to where I am. So part of it is taking those opportunities that present themselves and other things are seeking things out. So, you know, I did a few years of volunteering, and there's a stipends involved with that, like a living allowance, but you're not necessarily earning a wage as such. That's a good stepping stone. But I think also, when I was able to get a job that had combined this experience, you know, that was nice to bring all those things together as well. 

SALLY: Such an interesting journey. Now, I think I know the answer to the next question, but can I ask you, do you love your job? 

MEL: I really do love my job. If someone told me right now that I couldn't live or work overseas, it's like losing a limb for me, because I just feel like it's such a big part of who I am. And I'm a humanitarian because of my values. And because of the way that I'm made up—my passions, my skills, it's not the other way around. I love learning about other cultures and being in other places. So I think all of these things combined, yeah, lead me to really enjoy what I do. And despite the challenges and the ethical dilemmas that we've touched on, that we're faced with, some of the other stuff just really overrides it. Who I am makes me interested in in what I'm doing. People sort of say, sometimes, like, Oh, I couldn't do what you do. And it's like, yeah, I couldn't do what you do. I couldn't be an accountant, or a dentist or a vet, or whatever it is. But it's like, we're all different. And I think we need to pay attention to the things that drive us. And I really like working in this space and working with people in this way. Working together, cross culturally, this makes my heart tick. And this is what makes me want to get up and do the work. Yeah, I definitely love what I do and want to keep working this space. 

SALLY: Thank you so much, Mel, this humanitarian work is definitely in you. Thank you so much for your work and effort and being part of the RedR Australian roster. It's been a joy. Thank you. 

MEL: Thanks, Sal. It's been really great to have a chat and be able to share some of that with you and with the listeners. And yeah, I always love speaking to people as well and hearing how they ended up where they are. So keen to hear some of the other podcasts that come out too, and the journeys that others have been on because there's so much to learn from other people's experience. So thanks for having me on today.