The humanitarian imperative

Considering all of the suffering Nicole Hark has seen as deputy regional director for Lutheran World Relief, it’s no wonder that she wants to solve the world’s hunger woes.

Focusing on Asia and the Middle East, Hark splits time between the nonprofit’s headquarters in Baltimore and sites in India, Nepal, Indonesia and the Philippines, traveling to some 
of the world’s most impoverished communities. She helps develop sustainable agriculture solutions so rural farmers can feed their families and eventually enter the international marketplace. Those are the lofty, long-term goals, and they’re much easier said than done, says Hark, a 2007 international studies graduate.

“A lot of these places don’t have enough food for 12 months out of the year and are ‘food insecure’ in the classic sense of the phrase,” she says. “It shifts everything else that we want to do — like bringing them electricity and trying to improve their standard of life by giving them technology. We have to get the basics right first and go from there.”

Hark has worked in communities in the aftermath of natural disasters such as the Nepali earthquake and the Indonesian tsunami.

“I’ve gotten a bit more of a reality check the more 
I travel and the more time I spend in these communities. There are some basic needs, and I think that there’s a humanitarian imperative that calls to me,” she says. “How can you possibly not want to ensure that people have enough food to eat?”

It wasn’t by chance that Hark ended up working internationally and focusing on the Middle East. It’s a part of the world she’s always been passionate about, dating back to when she was a kid celebrating the Persian New Year with a close friend’s family.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks had a big impact on her life, as well. Living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., at the time, Hark was startled when a Pakistani classmate’s family business was attacked.

“She was so upset that people didn’t understand the dif­­­­fer­ence between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s still such a misunderstood region of the world, and I want to do whatever little bit I can to help demystify these places,” she says.

The Maryland native chose the University of South Carolina because of its international programs, and as a Rotary Scholar she traveled to Egypt to study Arabic.

“There was such an obvious gap between the poorest of the poor and the people who float back and forth between Egypt and Western Europe and live this fancy lifestyle,” she says. “Of course, this was before the Arab Spring, and so it was a little bit more accentuated.”

That experience opened her eyes to the hardships abroad and eventually led her to the international development work she does today.

“I came to USC thinking about how I could get the international exposure I needed to do this work. I didn’t know what ‘this work’ meant at the time,” she says. “International development as a field wasn’t on my radar but certainly was by the time I left.”

All of those experiences at Carolina — work in the Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs, classes with history professor Ken Perkins and university mentors — exposed Hark to new opportunities and opened doors. Now she just wants to make a difference.

“I want to do this work until there is no more need for this work. I hope that that is possible within my lifetime,” she says. “There’s that gut reaction that you want to make the world a better place for the future, for my child. It gives me hope for the future of the kids I meet in these countries. I want to have a hand in making their lives better in whatever little way.”

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