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Ready, willing and able

• For Portland aid workers headed to Iraq, waiting is the hardest part With bags packed, relief volunteers need green light

The wait is emotionally draining.

Just ask Portland registered nurse Jackie Gust and five other medical workers for Portland-based Northwest Medical Teams. Since war began nearly three weeks ago, they have been waiting É then waiting some more É for a call from agency officials to head to northern Iraq to provide medical care and other aid to those affected by the conflict.

Or talk to Cassandra Nelson, a Beaverton native and spokeswoman for Mercy Corps, also based in Portland. For more than a month, Nelson has been in Kuwait City near the border between Kuwait and southeastern Iraq waiting to get the OK from her agency to begin delivering aid into southern Iraq.

'The hardest thing about being here is that the situation is completely dynamic,' said Nelson, in a phone interview Saturday from Kuwait City. 'Every day is an exercise in reacting. Planning is next to nil. It's very stressful for everyone.'

Gust is still waiting here in Portland for the go-ahead to fly to Ankara, Turkey, and then to cross into northern Iraq.

'The wait can be frustrating if you're focused on it,' said Gust, who has been a volunteer on Northwest Medical Teams relief missions in Rwanda, Honduras, El Salvador, Mozambique, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

To keep anxiety at bay, Gust is working on other humanitarian projects Ñ not associated with Northwest Medical Teams Ñ including helping establish a dental clinic in a Honduran village.

Both Portland aid agencies have had programs in Iraq that were operating before the war and that are providing limited help now.

Mercy Corps and a partner organization, Peace Winds Japan, have provided medical care, housing and other aid in the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq since 1996.

As the war progresses and the need for humanitarian aid grows, Mercy Corps is waiting for other areas in Iraq to stabilize, especially in the south, where the agency expects a crisis to develop, said Susan Laarman, Mercy Corps spokeswoman in Portland.

Mercy Corps' decision to move ahead could come this week after receiving a U.N. assessment team's evaluation of security in and around the port city of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq, Nelson said.

Northwest Medical Teams has had staff in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq since 1991. A staff of 24 medical workers has been working in and around the city of Irbil establishing a program aimed at improving the health of Iraqi children.

The agency plans to send a series of medical teams to work in northern Iraq when conditions are safe.

'It's like making a military battle plan,' said Northwest Medical Teams President Bas Vanderzalm. 'Every day brings a new reality, and based on what happens, you've got to make adjustments to that plan.'

Concerns arise over military role

'Sleep is something I don't even remember,' said Nelson, Mercy Corps' communications officer in Kuwait City, which is 10 hours ahead of Portland time.

'Everything revolves around our work. Everyone we speak to talks about the humanitarian response to war. You never get away from it.'

A series of what she called 'interesting' career choices led the 36-year-old Nelson, a Beaverton High School graduate, from her hometown to Kuwait City. She worked for CondŽ Nast Publications in New York City and took other media-related jobs before deciding she was 'pretty bored with what I was doing.'

She took a sabbatical and traveled, then took a job with an international broadcasting company, ending up in Pakistan on Sept. 11, 2001. She produced freelance stories during the war in Afghanistan and organized a project to get food and other supplies to Afghan troops.

Mercy Corps staff heard about her work and hired her as their communications officer in Pakistan and now in Kuwait.

A major concern of workers for Mercy Corps and dozens of other relief agencies, Nelson said, is that Pentagon officials in charge of the military campaign in Iraq will want to control humanitarian relief efforts as well.

'We strongly feel the military should hand that role over to the United Nations,' she said. 'It is important for the safety of our team not to be associated with military actions. We are a nonmilitary organization.'

A decision about U.N. involvement in relief efforts may be made this week, Nelson said.

'I'll be careful'

Gust, an on-call staff nurse at Multnomah County Health Department's travel clinic, said she's not afraid to go to Iraq.

'I'll be careful, vigilant,' said the 54-year-old Gust, who has been to dangerous places before, including a stint last year in Afghanistan where she learned to spot land mines.

'I have no physical problems that will prevent me from doing the work (in Iraq),' said Gust, whose first Northwest Medical Teams assignment was to Rwanda in 1994. 'The emotional strain is the most difficult in these situations Ñ jet lag, going into a war zone, taking care of people who are sick and injured. It's difficult work, but I'm thankful I'm able to do it.'

Besides Gust, five others are part of Northwest Medical Teams' first Iraq response team. They are: volunteers Dr. Mike Pendleton of Hood River, Dr. Catlin Goss of Seattle, and Scott Gotter, a Portland firefighter and paramedic, and staff members Joe DiCarlo, disaster response manager, and nurse Lorie Baker, both of Portland.

What motivates her, Gust said, is her deep religious faith and her desire as a health professional to serve people in crisis.

Late last week Turkey agreed to open a 'humanitarian relief corridor' into Iraq, but Northwest Medical Teams has not yet received official word that its team can cross into Iraq, said DiCarlo, the disaster response manager.

So the agency may send just three people at first Ñ DiCarlo, Baker and Goss Ñ to assess the situation. And Gust may have to wait a bit longer.

But, DiCarlo said, 'once we get across the border and know it will work, we can have Jackie and (the others) on their way in a matter of days.'

Contact Mary Bellotti at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..