Meet a UNHCR field worker who shares what it’s like to work in the field helping some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
On World Humanitarian Day, we come together to advocate for the survival, well-being and dignity of people globally who need humanitarian assistance, and for the safety and security of aid workers who assist them.
At least 82.4 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are nearly 26 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age.
There are also millions of stateless people, who have been denied a nationality and lack access to basic rights such as education, health care, employment and freedom of movement.
At a time when one percent of the world’s population have fled their homes as a result of conflict or persecution, our work at UNHCR is more important than ever before.
UNHCR’s workforce is the backbone of the agency. UNHCR employs more than 17,000 people, of whom around nearly 90 per cent are based in the field.
UNHCR teams work in 135 countries to help the displaced, specialising in a wide range of disciplines, including legal protection, administration, community services, public affairs and health.
During times of displacement, we provide critical emergency assistance in the form of clean water, sanitation and healthcare, as well as shelter, blankets, household goods and sometimes food. We also arrange transport and assistance packages for people who return home, and income-generating projects for those who resettle.
We strive to ensure that everyone has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to eventually return home, integrate or resettle.
Our help transforms broken lives. Meet one of UNHCR’s field workers carrying out this vital work.
Why did you become an aid worker?
For as long as I can remember I’ve cared about justice, or rather, injustice in the world. I was lucky to grow up in a country where there’s a lot of emphasis placed on civil society engagement, and you get involved early. In high school, I raised funds for projects in Afghanistan and South Africa and ensured that visitors from these countries could travel around the region, talk to schools and meet with people. One thing leads to another. When I was studying for my Master’s degree in Colombia, I came across a recruitment page for UNHCR. I read it and thought ‘this is interesting and meaningful’ and I applied. A few months later, I got my first job.
What is the most rewarding or challenging thing about your job?
The most rewarding thing about my job is, it’s quite remarkable, a gift, to be able to wake up every day and go to work and feel that what you do is meaningful. In the past 13 years I’ve never had a day when I woke up and thought ‘why am I doing this again?’, because the work to me is always meaningful. We’re close enough to people to see the tangible results of what we do.
I currently supervise four different teams covering the whole of southern Mexico. My job is making sure that the office can operate. The team has grown from 20 staff when I started in 2018. This year we are set to grow to 150 staff, to respond to a huge growth in the numbers of asylum-seekers, mainly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. People are running for their lives. Ten or 15 years ago it used to be single, able-bodied young men doing this trek across Mexico. Now it’s large family groups. When you see a grandmother, or a seven-month pregnant woman crossing the border, there’s something indicating that the situation back home has just left them really no hope.
For me, the hardest thing is being the person who has to live with the decisions about what we can and cannot do. Sometimes we’re faced with complex, protracted situations where donors at some point start looking elsewhere. In Uganda, it meant sometimes having to stand in front of a woman with four or five children and explain that ‘you’ve been in the country so long, you’re not going to get food anymore.’ For those of us who are close to the people and know their needs so well, to understand that we won’t be able to do everything that’s needed, that’s really heartbreaking. It would have been amazing to live in a world where no one was forced to leave their home.
What was your best day at work?
About a month after I arrived in Tapachula we were able to present a play at the town theatre here. It holds about 1,000 people. With the help of local authorities we were able to fill it with young students from around Tapachula, and we presented a play written by two young women whose parents arrived in Mexico as refugees from Brazil and Argentina, fleeing from dictatorships. When the play ended, the children didn’t know they should applaud. But then they started to clap and cheer. It was so rewarding to reach out to a part of the community we don’t usually reach, with a message of inclusion and understanding.
What was your worst day at work?
The face of this one girl keeps haunting me. It was in Rakhine State, in Myanmar, where we would work very hard to reach the more remote camps for internally displaced people. We would move around by boat to reach these remote locations. There was one camp where the people had been displaced by just a few hundred meters and could see their village, and also the school, although they couldn’t return there. There was this one visit when the children had decided that they would wear their school uniforms. And there was this girl who I already knew, who was sitting in the front row with an impeccable school uniform and she was very well groomed. She was just looking at us with this hope in her eyes, and I just felt incredibly useless. Their school was just 200 metres away and we could not get them back there. We have to look for every possible opportunity to make a difference for that little girl. For every little girl, seeing the years pass and their dreams fade. We should always be looking for ways to do more.
We thank our colleagues in the field who stand in solidarity with displaced people, giving them food, water, shelter and protection when they need it most.
Your support is urgently needed to help the children, women and men refugees around the world.
If you would like to learn more about what it’s like to be a humanitarian worker in some of the world’s most dangerous locations, listen to Awake at Night, a UN podcast with Melissa Fleming.
The majority of funds raised by Australia for UNHCR are directed to UNHCR’s emergency operations, providing the ready funds and resources to respond quickly and effectively in situations of crisis and disaster.