No Ordinary Volunteer: Jeroen Aanraad

Jeroen is one of our Instant Network Volunteers. He has deployed for multiple Instant Network Schools and Instant Network Emergency Response missions including:  Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya (2015), Lavrio refugee camp, Greece (2017), and in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, Mozambique (2019).

I have always had a passion for travel. Experiencing great adventures, unique communities, and the majesty of nature around the world.

So imagine you work for a tech company but want to do more than the day job. It can be quite difficult to find that perfect opportunity. Somewhere in the spring of 2014 I received a ‘slightly out of the box’ mail from the CTO of Vodafone Netherlands with an announcement that the Vodafone Foundation was looking for new volunteers for the Instant Network programme.

Terms like ‘emergency communication’, ‘supporting affected people’ and ‘new innovations for Schools in refugee camps’ jumped out at me. These were the key selling points that led me to  step up and volunteer.

All volunteers are well trained to be ready for a possible call-out.  We use several tools to try and get ahead of potential catastrophic natural disasters. We often receive ‘alarms’ prior to  the actual ‘touching land’ moment of major cyclones for example. This gives us some time to prepare for a possible call-out. In terms of earthquakes, that is still really hard to predict and so when a major event like that happens we have to respond extremely quickly. In 2019 what started as a lower grade storm over Mozambique quickly turned into a major cyclone.  It ‘boomeranged’ twice over the Beira region with enormous amounts of water and heavy wind damage. Vast amounts of water gathered in the delta region of Beira resulting in massive floods that covered a few hundred square kilometers in 1.5 – 2 meters of water. When I received the deployment call I knew instantly I had to hand over my regular work to my colleagues at the office and must be ready within 24h for a possible deployment.

After 35-40 hours of traveling to the impacted region we flew over the city and could already see the damage and flooded land as far the eye could see. It didn’t seem real. That much water and no houses visible…. We knew it was really bad. Many Mozambican villages across the Beira region consist of simply built homes that don’t stand a chance when faced with the full force of a cyclone. (Gusts of up to 280kmph).

Along the main city roads, sturdier houses still stood but were heavily damaged. Further inland vital communications antennas were bent like toothpicks and many fixed line infrastructures had washed away in landslides. Much of the population was affected, many people were left with no means of communications and concerned that they could not reach loved ones.

Inland Mozambique was nearly inhabitable for at least 2 weeks. In many ways life changed for the people, either they lost everything and were queuing in line to wait for food distributions, or scrambled to find bits and pieces to rebuild a new house. Farming would not be possible for the next few years and 90% of the cattle drowned. Truly devastating for many families.

In our dedicated team of 4 volunteers we each had our key jobs to ensure safety and wellbeing, formulating a plan and surveying the changing needs hour by hour. We set up the Instant Network equipment at the airport to help speed up the aid support delivered by NGOs, Search And Rescue teams and media comms. Alongside providing free wifi for the local community affected by the cyclone. We visited schools to provide free phone calls and phone charging solutions (and to help retrieve phone numbers) for people who could not contact loved ones. We connected an isolated village (Buzi) of around 2000 citizens to 2G after 14 days of total isolation.

Volunteering for Vodafone Foundation’s Instant Network will change your life and put things in perspective.

My parents don’t necessarily like the fact I’m deploying to these high risk environments but they are extremely proud of what we manage to achieve. When you get back home, a good sleep is needed to recover on a physical level, however to process the experiences takes more time. I find retelling and sharing my stories is a key way to process emotional experiences. When I return home I often start right away to write down our experiences, setting up slide packs with photos to share and process the mission’s events.  We have a close group of volunteers and know we can rely on each other to speak to and support each other.