Story by Kathy McPherson
Thirty years into a career that has landed him in Ukraine and other crisis spots around the globe, Phil Oldham is quick to say he didn’t set out to do humanitarian relief work.
He “stumbled into it” in 1990 via a United States Information Agency (USIA) cultural exchange that sent 20 Americans to Vladivostok, a city that had been closed even to Soviet citizens because it was the base of the Soviet Union’s Pacific fleet. It was a good fit for Oldham, who had just graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in Soviet studies and spoke Russian.
When the Soviet Union broke up in December 1991, the U.S. government asked Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to distribute emergency food assistance in Vladivostok. The relief agency looked for people who had been to Vladivostok to staff the program, but “there were only 20 of us in the world, those of us from the USIA exchange,” Oldham said. “Four of us ended up working for CRS, and I have continued with humanitarian work ever since.”
He worked with Catholic Relief Services for 15 years in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ghana, and for other relief organizations in West Africa and in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Oldham stepped back and worked for his alma mater, Middlebury College, in Vermont for six years to give his young family more stability, then returned to relief work about four years ago.
Vermont is home base for the family now, though they have lived in Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ghana. Oldham and his wife, Jen, met when they were both working for CRS in Bosnia. Their son, Jess, is a junior at Fordham University and their daughter, Fiona, graduated from American University in December.
Oldham has been in Europe since March 2022, initially setting up programs in Romania and Poland, and then going into Ukraine in April.
“I've been there pretty much since shortly after the war started — this phase of the war,” he said. “I think a lot of people forget that there has been a war going on since they [Russia] took over Crimea and parts of southeast Ukraine in 2014. It's not been in the press very much because it's been kind of a frozen war, but there have been people dying continuously through those battles. It moved into a new phase in February when Russia invaded and tried to take over the whole country.”
Oldham took on a new role in Ukraine in September, joining the International Medical Corps (IMC) as deputy director for programs.
“We oversee programs in health, mental health, gender-based violence, nutrition, reconstruction of health infrastructure, and water and sanitation,” Oldham explained. “We distribute cash to people who have been affected by the war, internally displaced people, primarily, as opposed to refugees — people that have fled their homes, but have not left their country.”
Oldham said the International Medical Corps has a budget of about $100 million, with seven offices in the country and 400 staffers, 325 of whom are Ukrainian. He is based in Kyiv, but his work takes him all across the country, and physical needs are dire in places that have been recently liberated.
“There's no heat, no water and no electricity,” Oldham said. “We're in the midst of a typical, but very hard, winter without those municipal services. We're trying to distribute winterization materials such as flashlights, solar-powered lights, blankets and stoves, both for heating and for cooking. People have been cooking outside on wood fires. That's still possible, but it's obviously much harder now to forage for the wood, get it to start, and then do that. It's a pretty desperate situation in a lot of these places.”
Oldham said the western two-thirds of Ukraine has not been physically affected by the war, “but is full of internally displaced people that have fled the frontline areas and the occupied areas. A lot of municipal infrastructures like health facilities have been overwhelmed by an influx of people. In Lviv, there are 200,000 people that have come there from other parts of the country. So that's an extra 200,000 people that need health care, need education and need other services.”
He described the population as having extreme mental health needs. “Everyone has been traumatized by this to some degree, so there are 45 million people in need of some sort of psychosocial support. Some have lost their family members, their homes, their jobs, and others have just suffered from the fact that their country's been attacked. But everybody has been traumatized by this in some way, so we are providing direct services with a team of Ukrainian psychologists.”
But that is also problematic. Oldham said about 20 percent of the population has fled the country, including doctors and other health care workers, “so staffing is an issue for now.”
The International Medical Corps is also reconstructing and re-equipping health infrastructure that has been damaged by the war. The organization is importing huge generators that can power a whole hospital.
“We want to make sure health services can continue to be delivered even when there's no electricity, by having a backup power source for hospitals or for hospitals that have been totally put off the grid by extensive damage in some of these formerly occupied areas.”
Oldham said while the IMC office in Kyiv has not lost power, “all of us have experienced daily cuts to electricity, heat and water in our apartments. So far, not for long enough to where it gets unpleasantly cold or where we sit in the dark for too long, but it's an unpredictable and regular part of our day to lose power at home.”
There is much to be done, and Oldham is hoping to stay in Ukraine for several more years.
“I really feel like with my cultural and language skills, this is where I'm meant to be in the world right now,” Oldham said. “I'm hoping to stay through reconstruction, three to five years. You know, otherwise Kyiv is a very nice city. Wonderful people, beautiful, on the banks of the Dnieper River, beautiful onion-domed churches.
“It's a bit of a contradiction because we hear the bombs go off — sometimes they're that close to us — and we see the aftermath of that,” he continued. “But at the same time, I can go to the Nike store and get a new pair of sneakers. I can go to the grocery store and get an avocado from Mexico, a banana from Ecuador or a tangerine from Morocco. There's no shortage of those basic goods in most of the country now. In the areas that have been recently liberated and a lot of that was damaged, those markets haven't returned and food is in short supply, but they will come back quickly.”
While Oldham’s entry into relief work was not intentional, he said “once I got into it, I was very drawn to the work and the sense of purpose, the meaningfulness of it, the challenges and the rewards of operating in complex, sometimes dangerous, operating environments.
“In a place like this [Ukraine], you really see the difference you're making in people's lives. Other places it's harder, like in Congo and Haiti. I was there after the earthquake in Haiti, and I'm not sure if Haiti is better off today. It continues to spiral backwards rather than forwards. … I've remained committed to this work. I cannot foresee doing anything else until I choose to retire, whenever that is.”
Oldham thinks growing up in Durham and attending Durham Academy helped set him on that path.
His father, Newland Oldham, was a Duke physician who did a lot of surgery overseas with Duke and with mission groups, including in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Korea and Saudi Arabia.
And Oldham’s time at DA “was definitely a global, broadening experience. Dave Gould [a longtime history teacher who died in 2016] was one of the more influential teachers in my DA experience. … I think the sense of community and purpose that came out of DA also set the stage for me to be ready to do something like this, even though there wasn't a direct link. As I'm happy to admit, I stumbled into this just because I was a Russian speaker. I stumbled into Russian at Middlebury, but it all worked out.”
He remains committed to humanitarian work.
Looking back on 30 years of international relief work, “I obviously like it and feel it's challenging, rewarding, meaningful and satisfying, even when I'm in places like Haiti where it's maybe not really making a big difference. … But you know, in the end you do your best. You hope you've done something good today when you go to bed, and if you didn't you tried.”