Elise Letanosky, a Windermere native, has worked in humanitarian aid since she was 24, but not a week goes by where she doesn’t miss her family, friends and Publix subs.
WINDERMERE – Having worked overseas since 2014 as a humanitarian aid worker amid refugee camps and in post-natural disaster and conflict areas, Elise Letanosky, 32, is all too familiar with the heart-wrenching refugee stories most of us only read about in newspapers.
But that's how she likes it.
Despite her original desire to become a criminal defense lawyer or a politician as a young girl, Letanosky, who grew up in Windermere, gradually grew interested in international issues and eventually studied international relations at Rollins College. She went on to earn a master's degree in development and humanitarian assistance before she relocated to another country to do what she could to improve the lives of others.
"I always knew I wanted to have a job that positively impacted other people and not just myself," Letanosky said. "I was never interested in making a lot of money – I knew I just wanted a job that would let me help – and I know this sounds so ridiculous – help make the world a better place in some way."
And that's what she's aimed to accomplish for the past eight years as an aid worker. Having first worked for a think tank in Washington, D.C., starting at the age of 24, Letanosky quickly realized she preferred a more hands-on role on the other side of the world.
"It was very interesting work, but think tanks are basically paid to study and discuss issues of international affairs," she explained. "And I had a hard time just sitting and hearing about these issues without actively doing something. I remember reading news articles while working at that think tank and hearing about the conditions of refugees around the world, and I really felt I wanted to actively do something, rather than just read about it."
Unable to quell the itch to be placed in a more active role in the field, she soon found herself on a flight to the Philippines once Typhoon Haiyan wrought devastation there, requiring a lot of international aid to fix.
From there, Letanosky moved to Afghanistan and Turkey, serving in several roles with The Council on Foreign Relations, American Red Cross, Relief International and her current employer, Danish Refugee Council – an independent humanitarian organization based in Denmark.
Eight years later, Letanosky now finds herself heading an office in Baghdad, Iraq, where she has been stationed since July. Her duties differ on a daily basis, but her primary responsibility is to oversee the refugee camps for Internally Displaced Persons – refugees who stay within their country but have fled their homes due to conflict.
Many of whom, she said, now live in tents in 120-degree weather with no access to school, potable water or means of acquiring income. Her job, she said, mostly focuses on connecting the individuals to much-needed resources and offering advice so they may legally register as refugees and be eligible for more help.
"I've lived and worked with people from all over the world," she said."And it's been so amazing to have that opportunity to meet people and learn from them – their kindness and their resilience. I really like that you have the chance to see and get a better understanding of the world."
And it's that deeper understanding and admiration for the resilience of others in less fortunate circumstances that have fueled her passion for her work, even when working in locations such as Kabul, Afghanistan, where aid workers and foreigners were specifically targeted and attacked.
"Would I say I feel completely safe all of the time? No. But I do think that for me, the risks are outweighed by the work that I'm doing," she said. "But yes, you do have to push that fear to the back of your mind. You can't wake up every day thinking there's going to be an IED or crossfire or that ISIS will try a terrorist attack. You can't think that every day, you just put it in the back of your mind and focus on the work that you're doing and move forward."