In a career spanning 18 years with UNHCR, Emergency Response Coordinator Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams has worked on the frontline of refugee crises all over the world.

When a refugee emergency is declared, it is Joung-ah Gedhini Williams' job to launch the global appeal that will help fund UNHCR's emergency response. Now based in Geneva, Joung-ah has worked with UNHCR for over 20 years, bearing witness to some of the greatest refugee crises of our time. On a recent visit to Australia, she spoke of her experiences in conflict zones like Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, and the refugees who continue to inspire her.

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams

How did you first come to work with refugees?

I started my career in Bosnia at the height of the Bosnian war, which was something of a baptism of fire.  I was young and impressionable and had never worked with refugees before. I was at Tusla airbase on the day that 7,000 women and children arrived from Srebenica where they had been forcibly separated from the men. We searched the whole airbase and couldn’t find a single able-bodied man between the ages of about 15 to 75. There were women there who’d lost several sons, their husbands, fathers, brothers — all in one go. As you can imagine, it was etched into my mind. I hadn’t really understood what it meant to be a refugee until then. They had absolutely no control of what happened in their lives. And it happened so quickly, without warning. Within one morning, their village had been burned to the ground and their families were shattered.

You were then deployed to Rwanda with UNHCR, and after that to Kosovo – both of them also monumental humanitarian emergencies.

Yes, I arrived in Rwanda a year after the genocide but it was still deeply distressing. UNHCR was providing lifesaving aid but I wondered what impact we could have on the psyches of the people — there was so much hatred and anger and loss. It was a low point for me.

It was in Kosovo that I realised the importance of 'protection by presence'. Ethnic cleansing was being carried out in many areas at the time. I was in a village when the Serb forces came in, corralled all the men to one side and began putting them onto trucks. As you can imagine, the women and children were beside themselves. We were told the men were just being taken for processing. I was there with a colleague who had also been in Bosnia at the time of the Srebrenica massacre. We got into the trucks and stayed with the men while they were driven to a gymnasium. After four hours they were released and reunited with their families. Many told us they felt safer just having someone there from the outside, from UNHCR, to bear witness. I don’t know what would have happened otherwise. But I do know for a fact that just having UNHCR on the ground in some of the places where we work, where there are no other agencies or ex-pats present – makes a difference.


What do you find most satisfying and inspiring about your work?

The refugees themselves. There are so many individuals who have affected me profoundly. Meeting them has made a difference in me. When I see a picture of a boat loaded with thousands of people who are nameless and faceless in many ways, I know that each one of them could affect me as profoundly as those I have met.

I am also sustained by my colleagues, my UNHCR family. In some of the situations we find ourselves,  you are trusting  your colleagues with your life — literally. So you have this bond, they are your family away from your family. Sometimes you’re in a remote place and it’s just you and these two other people for two years.

You are now based in Geneva as the Emergency Response Coordinator for Private Sector Partnerships. What does that entail?

I am basically the link between UNHCR's headquarters and operations in Geneva, our communications and fundraising divisions and our partners around the world, like Australia for UNHCR.

Can you describe what happens when a crisis escalates and you launch a global emergency appeal?

Before an emergency is declared, I’ve probably been monitoring the situation for some months. Let's use the example of Iraq for which I've been sending out updates now, warning the network that this is something that’s on the horizon. Already, UNHCR has been stepping up its contingency planning and supplementing the staff, resources and relief supplies we have on the ground. I am briefed on the situation, on our current operations, on our existing logistical and supply capacity, the needs, priorities and gaps.

For me to be involved it has to be what we call a Level 3 emergency. This means our teams on the ground are saying “we do not have sufficient capacity; you have to send Emergency Response Teams to help us”. The emergency roster is activated and I give the go-ahead to the network, including partners like Australia for UNHCR, to launch an emergency appeal.

How important is the contribution of our donors?

Critically important. Our single largest pool of general emergency funding comes from individual donors worldwide.

Almost contributions we receive from governments come earmarked for particular emergencies. This can leave other situations —‘silent emergencies’ —seriously underfunded.  Our emergency response to forgotten crises like those in Nigeria, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are as little as 8% funded. That figure — 8% — means cuts to supplies and staffing. You can think of it as us reaching only 8% of the population in need.

Your regular donors are saying 'we trust you, UNHCR, and we want you to use our money, our hard-earned money, where it is most needed'. This, along with your campaigns for countries like Nigeria and the DRC, are extremely important. Without your help, these silent emergencies would be even more forgotten.

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