In honour of World Humanitarian Day on August 19, we asked three UNHCR field workers to tell us what drives them
Australian humanitarian worker Phoebe Goodwin has just moved to Geneva to take up her new role as a program management and support officer at UNHCR
You always wanted to work in the humanitarian sector, so why did you train to be an architect?
When I was in Year 9 or 10, I told my parents I was going to be an aid worker in Africa as soon as I finished school. They’ve always been incredibly supportive but my dad, who’s an architect too, suggested I could perhaps get a tertiary education first – and that architecture has an important social aspect. I studied at the University of Sydney, then interned here in Geneva, before starting work for UNHCR in 2015, in the DRC.
What kind of work did you do in the DRCongo?
We were designing household shelters – so, semi-permanent or permanent structures – for former Congolese refugees returning home from neighbouring countries, like Uganda. Often, their villages had burned to the ground, so we created not only houses but also community infrastructure such as communal buildings, schools and clinics.
You were in Bangladesh at the height of the Rohingya crisis – what was it like to be in a situation where there’s suddenly an influx of thousands of refugees?
It was fast-paced and exhausting! I was there for six months and worked every day in the refugee settlements – I didn’t have a day off until the last month. There was a lot of adrenaline but it was really rewarding as we were actively, tangibly helping people. On one particular occasion, when we had to temporarily house new arrivals in schools because the transit/reception centres were already full, we had to walk families kilometres from the overcrowded schools to the empty plots of land where they could build their shelters from the kits we provided. I was helping people carry their belongings, and their babies, along the way; you really feel you’re having an impact.
Is there a memory from one of your postings that will always stay with you?
Yes! Za’atari camp in Jordan is full of prefab containers, donated by the Gulf States, that have been transformed by refugees into the most amazing structures. I remember one old man decided to bury a prefab in his backyard, take off the roof and fill it with water, so it became a swimming pool for the kids in summer. It was this gorgeous invention, which brought so much joy. Of course, it had to be removed – water is a scarce resource there – but I still didn’t want to see it disappear.
Why did you want to work in the humanitarian sector?
When I was 10 or 11, I read this really corny romance novel set in South Africa, and it talked about apartheid. I remember investigating this strange word and being appalled by it. The more I learned about poverty and inequality, the more upset I became. Why did I get to be born into a loving family, and have a great education, without having to worry about shelter or where I’d find my next meal? I felt that if I was lucky enough to have this privileged life, I should give back. So it was all caused by that ridiculous book, I suppose.
Jean-Nicolas Beuze has been UNHCR’s Representative in Yemen since January 2020
Tell us a little about where you are now
I’m based in Sanaa, the capital, which is in the north of the country, controlled by authorities who seized power and are fighting against the government officially recognised by the international community. Conflict is ongoing, which makes it difficult to reach the people we serve; there are more than 50 active frontlines, and they’re constantly shifting.
Two-thirds of the Yemeni population depends on humanitarian aid. One out of eight Yemenis have been displaced and conditions are among the worst I’ve seen, and I’ve worked in some pretty tough places. One woman I met recently, with five or six children, had absolutely nothing and was sending her children to beg on the street. She told me, ‘Every morning my heart breaks because I have to send my kids out. I know they are close to the conflict. I know they might be hit by a stray bullet, or step on a landmine. But I’ve no other choice. Or we don’t eat.’
How are you helping women in a situation like this?
We helped this woman by giving her cash assistance, which she said saved her. Women are particularly vulnerable; if a woman is on her own, she is more at risk of being forced to reduce food intake, marry her daughters off or send her boys to join an armed group.
Why did you choose to take a posting in Yemen?
First, I think it's really the curiosity. I'm somebody very curious about others, about different ways of looking at life. So, a country like Yemen is fascinating because it has a long history, a strong culture and a tribal dimension that appealed to me. It’s a beautiful country in terms of the setting; the sea, the mountains, the desert. I think there is also something more personal.
I look for challenges. I'm not interested in jobs or functions that I can do with my eyes closed. I get very impatient very quickly and I want to make a difference. So, I want those challenges. I want to be confronted with a difficult situation, difficult choices to make , hopefully to be the most supportive to the people we serve. That's what drives me.
Additional reporting here.
Kristin Riis Halvorsen, 43, from Norway, works for UNHCR in southern Mexico
Why did you become a humanitarian 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.
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 part of your job?
It’s quite remarkable, a gift, to be able to go to work every day and feel that what you do is meaningful. We’re close enough to people to see the tangible results of what we do.
And the most challenging moments?
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. It’s a wonderful job, but I’d love not to do it.”
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.