Become a Smaller Target:
Seven ways short termers can lower their profile, not get robbed, and return home alive
By Shane Bennett
The clock ticked relentlessly as I toyed around with the content of the call I’d soon have to make to her dad. “I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve lost your daughter. I’ve lost your daughter. Yes, you’re right, it was my responsibility not to lose her, but I have.” My stomach hurt pretty bad just thinking about it.
Our group had spent the day scattered around the Turkish city we’d come to know and love. We were all due to return to the apartments at 10pm. Sharon didn’t show. I flipped back and forth between fear for her safety and anger that she was probably fine, but just lacked the good sense to get home on time.
Just before official throw-up time, I heard her happy, chatty voice precede her up the stairs. I smiled as she recounted her amazing day then, borrowing language from twenty years into my future life as a parent, I asked her to get ahold of me and let me know next time. After a heavy sigh and about 30 exclamations of “thank you, Jesus!” I fell into bed.
Although the day may come, I am very grateful I haven’t lost a short termer yet. In the few hundreds of short termers I’ve interacted with in some way—led, trained, or cheered on—there have been no deaths or kidnappings and wonderfully few lost wallets, passports, or dreams.
So maybe a key way to stay safe on a short term is to go with me! Say, to care for refugees in Sicily, perhaps? (I was hoping you’d come to that conclusion on your own, but didn’t have the patience to wait!)
But maybe you have other plans for other places. All the same, you still don’t want your companions, especially if they are kids, to die in the process. My friends at Crisis Consulting International share these time-tested starter tips to help you keep a lower profile and stay out of trouble; essentially, how to become a smaller target.
1. “Be wise as serpents…”
Learn all you can about the peculiar risks and dangers of your destination before you go. Seek the wisdom of your local hosts, but also expand on it. Their street smarts lower their risk and may cause them to minimize your danger. Seek additional information from sources such as the U.S. State Department and from the company supplying your travel medical insurance.
2. Make sure you’re insured.
Include reliable international medical and evacuation insurance in the budget. Your church’s insurer probably offers this product or you can find a number of options online (e.g., search at Brigada.org). The cost of a medical evacuation in the case of an accident or illness can easily be tens of thousands of dollars. Without insurance, you may have to come up with that money before an evacuation will be initiated.
3. Be a smaller target by being a bigger one.
There is safety in numbers. Crime studies consistently indicate you are 80-85 percent less likely to be the victim of a crime when you are with at least one other person. Pairs are good; small groups even better.
4. Look local.
As much as possible, blend in. Granted this is harder to do if you’re following point number three, traveling as a group. You can find the balance. Learn from your local hosts what dress is appropriate. Pay special attention to cultural norms. Don’t advertise your citizenship, your religion, or your wealth by wearing clothing that draws attention to you. Consider staying at mission guest houses (or airbnb.com places, a recent favorite of mine) rather than western hotels. If it is safe, use local transport rather than tour buses.
Can I say something specifically to American readers about looking (and sounding) local? If you’re not American, don’t feel excluded, just happy that this may not apply to you.
- No T-shirts! Nothing raises the profile of a short-term team more than wearing brightly colored, matching T-shirts with the name of your church or the ministry you’re visiting. It is not unusual for criminal gangs to have “spotters” at airports watching for this. They look for a group of (wealthy) foreigners and see them as soft targets (easy to prey on).
- Quiet down. I’m sorry, everyone else. We can be so loud. I’m writing this while returning home from a trip to Sicily (wanna go next time?) You may know, Sicilians are no wilting flowers, but Americans are even louder! Remember this: lower and lean. Lower your voice and lean in to talk. Honestly, I don’t know if this will really make you a smaller target, but it will sure make you more pleasant to be around!
5. Keep connected.
Plan for more than one way to communicate with each other and back home. In an emergency, communications are a critical part of staying safe, getting the help and resources you need, and reassuring families and others that you are OK. Cell phones are great (ever wonder what William Carey would have done with an iPhone?) but are not enough on their own! Too many things can disrupt the cellular networks. Consider a satellite phone or a satellite tracker that can send text messages.
6. Minimize material loss.
First, think seriously about leaving your stuff at home! Carry only the cash you need. If you will be using a credit card, take only one. Consider carrying a “throw-away” wallet with outdated identification like expired airline mileage program cards and a small amount of local currency. Secure your “real” money in a wallet around your neck, looped on your belt, or carried inside your pants. And can we all decide ahead of time not to risk our lives to protect or save replaceable assets like cell phones, money, and youth pastors? (Just kidding about youth pastors!)
7. Get training.
Since following these directions could possibly result in you feeling overly safe and secure, can I heartily encourage you to seek the further services of my buds Bob Klamser and John Lites at Crisis Consulting International? They have 30 years of experience helping people prepare for service in shifting security situations.
Three final thoughts:
- What helps you or your groups keep a lower, safer profile? Please share it with the rest of us through the Missions Catalyst website or Facebook page.
- Please forward this article to a couple of people you know who are taking teams somewhere this summer. The more often we bring back everyone we take, the happier I am.
- Here’s my personal tip for keeping safe on a short term project: Stay off of volcanoes, motorbikes, animals (wild or tame), and drugs. Yep, there’s a story for each of these, but you’ll have to come to Sicily with me to hear them!
Image: SpirosK photography (Flikr / Creative Commons)
Editor’s note: Find this article helpful? You might also appreciate these previous columns from Missions Catalyst: