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How to work for UNHCR


Refugees have skills, ideas, hopes and dreams… They are also tough, resilient and creative, with the energy and drive to shape their own destinies, given the chance. – UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi

Globally, we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. Across the world an unbelievable 65.3 million people have had to leave their homes. More than half of them are children under the age of 18. When we look closely at the figures 21.3 million individuals have become refugees and 10 million people are now stateless being denied a nationality and their basic human rights.

The work of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is now more vital than ever before. It is estimated that almost 34,000 people are forcibly displaced everyday! UNHCR are mandated to support and assist displaced persons in various ways such as immediate emergency assistance, legal protection, administration, community services, public affairs and health.

In 2015 alone, over 1 million people – refugees, displaced persons and other migrants – have made their way to the European Union (EU), either escaping conflict in their country or in search of better economic prospects. By June 2016 around 156,000 people had reached Europe, mainly fleeing the war in Syria. Refugees are distinct from economic migrants, insofar as refugees cannot return to ​their country of origin, because they might face serious threats to their life or freedom. ​

Elizabeth Wilson worked as a UNHCR field worker for several years providing emergency assistance and access to basic rights such as education and healthcare in refugee camps across the world. We caught up with Elizabeth to find out what it is like to work in such settings:

How did you first get involved with UNHCR?

I first started out as a junior professional officer working in the UNHCR Kenya country office. I was there for two years implementing our monitoring and evaluation programmes. I was then moved to Kibondo refugee camp in Tanzania and worked as a field associate coordinating required humanitarian relief materials. For the past year I have been on mission in Greece working in refugee camps there (see map below). I was stationed in Cherso refugee in Northern Greece, which housed around 700 Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish people, mostly families. It can be a very difficult reality for families as they wait to be relocated in another European country. The process itself can take several months with numerous interviews taking place to determine their selected final destination country.

What have been your main responsibilities?

I have mostly worked on protection ensuring adequate shelter in humanitarian emergencies. We distribute tents, plastic sheeting and matting; develop emergency strategies, tools and guidelines. Whilst in Greece I was coordinating the distribution of tents, blankets and solar charged lamps. I was also assisting the coordination of all the respective partner agencies and NGOs in the refugee camp. UNHCR has a long history of collaboration in emergency preparedness and response. In order to provide the crucial aspects of protection and assistance we partner with a variety of actors. This includes operational partners, a wide range of government, UN and NGO partners who contribute expertise and financial resources to the collective response.

What barriers do refugees face accessing their rights?

Fleeing war, conflict, persecution or natural disasters is the most inhumane experience a person can suffer. It is terrifying and can leave entire families with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Therefore, refugees face enormous barriers to accessing their very basic human rights such as food, water and shelter. My work involves a magnitude of patience, resilience and compassion. It is heart breaking to witness children who are refugees, not being allowed to enrol in the local schools of their host countries. For example as they do not yet have official legal status and in some cases cannot leave the refugee camps, they miss out on vital periods of education. This is why the UNHCR supports education programmes in refugee camps so that children can continue to receive a comprehensive education and are not left behind.

What gives you the strength to keep going?

A simple smile across the face of a refugee, it might sound crazy but a smile is what pushes me to keep going. I am inspired to stay focused on my job. When the pressure and stress gets too much and I feel like there is no end to the challenges we encounter on a daily basis I remember those smiles and the hope in their eyes. This winter for example I will remember forever a young Syrian mother came to see me as her baby was sick and had been up all night crying, it was -20 degrees that night with high winds. She came with her baby in her arms and continued to smile and even made jokes. These extraordinary people have taught me to appreciate the little things in life. I really don’t think I have a right to give up.

What has been your most memorable experience?

Listening to the testimonies of refugees and knowing what they have experienced will stay with me forever. Their sheer strength and resilience is overwhelming. I have so many memories, it is very difficult to choose just one.  A major success for me personally happened in Tanzania, when I was able to implement an education programme for young women and girls. Refugee camps can be dangerous places sometimes with lack of security and girls can be very vulnerable. Therefore, I recognised the need to create a safe space for young women and girls to hangout, be themselves, learn, have fun and exchange stories. It was amazing for me to witness the positive impact of creating this girls only safe space. We began to deliver sexual health programmes and also teach girls about menstruation and healthy sanitation. I believe this programme provided these girls with the necessary health information and also helped created positive relationships.

Why do you think the work of UNHCR is so important?

It is essential that the UNHCR exists and continues to function. The world is facing unprecedented conflicts and disasters destroying whole communities and the planet. Now is the time for governments, NGOs, foundations and corporations to work together for the greater good of humanity. UNHCR is a critical instrument for providing the necessary care and support to vulnerable people everywhere. It is a neutral diplomatic agency that can translate across cultures, language and religions.

What advice would you give to a young professional interested in UNHCR?

One of the best ways into any organisation is to apply for an internship. I have many colleagues who started their careers this way. Secondly, just like I did you should take a look at the UN junior professional officer programme. It is highly competitive however if you are successful it is an up hill slope. The work experience, exposure and training you will receive are extremely invaluable. The human rights field is a emotionally charged sphere and can be traumatic, however knowing that you are saving lives and healing emotional scars of people is the greatest reward anyone can experience.

About the author

Marcia Banasko

Marcia Banasko is a Human Rights activist and performer. She holds a bachelor in International Development and Latin American Studies. For several years she worked alongside the United Nations for an international women's rights organisation as their communication and advocacy officer. Marcia has campaigned globally to end child marriage, all forms of violence against women including domestic violence and for women to fully enjoy their sexual reproductive health and rights. She is now the co-founder of One Love Soul, a global humanitarian project for refugees, Roma communities and those most vulnerable, using music, dance and sport to promote human rights and well-being.

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