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Jack of all trades: Reporting from Rwanda
by JoAnna Pollonais

During June 2008, over 200 Rwandan Returnees were repatriated from a camp closing in Tanzania. Here they board trucks that will take them to their hometowns. (J. Pollonais/UNV)During June 2008, over 200 Rwandan Returnees were repatriated from a camp closing in Tanzania. Here they board trucks that will take them to their hometowns. (J. Pollonais/UNV)UNV volunteer JoAnna Pollonais from Canada works with UNHCR as an External Relations and Reporting Officer in Rwanda. (J. Pollonais/UNV)UNV volunteer JoAnna Pollonais from Canada works with UNHCR as an External Relations and Reporting Officer in Rwanda. (J. Pollonais/UNV)
17 July 2008

Kigali, Rwanda: When I was offered the opportunity to work with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Rwanda, a country I was familiar with and had hoped to return to, I jumped at the opportunity. Working at the Branch Office in Rwanda's capital, I do not face the same challenges as Field Officers like Wes Wrightson do, but there is no doubt that my job requires a similar amount of dedication, patience and accuracy.

Acting as an organizational and communications focal point in the country for the field offices, regional UNHCR offices and headquarters in Geneva, I often feel like Shiva incarnate, my four arms at the ready as I multi-task with the various reporting and public relations tasks on my plate.

I am required to be a reporter, an advocator, a photographer, an organizer, a messenger and a 'sounding board', and it sometimes feels like there is not enough time in the day to fulfil all of these roles. Despite the workload, however, I am reminded daily about the plight of 55,699 people who felt they had little or no choice when fleeing their homes in search of a better life and have been in limbo ever since. This reminder often takes the edge off of mundane or time-sensitive tasks and brings the magnitude of the situation clearly into focus.

Though I am still a 'new face' around the office, I’ve had to quickly familiarize myself with the organization’s operations in the country and, like a chameleon, shift my form in order to adapt to my various roles. Attending meetings, preparing reports and articles and planning events are my daily tasks and I’ve come to conclude that there is no 'trying' in this type of work.

I have yet to visit all the camps in the country, but I anticipate that as the weeks pass I will get the chance. I expect to be faced with living conditions that would make refugees in Europe recoil in horror and I have already heard many heart-wrenching stories involving the trials and tribulations of refugees who have fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi. I am certain that during my time here I will bear witness to countless more.

Hearing tales like these only intensify and support the need for agencies like UNHCR to continually inform and educate people – the average citizen, civil servants, national and international NGO staff – about the predicament that refugees find themselves in around the world. Nobody really ever chooses to leave family and friends behind and abandon their homes for the unknown; and most did not illegally cross state borders to neighbouring or far-off countries in order to steal jobs, loot, pillage or abuse the social system.

Refugees are often people who have undergone some kind of trauma and have felt the wrath of persecution, poverty and strife in their homelands. They require assistance that comes in the form of food, shelter, psychological and medical support, access to information and education, which can help empower them to take control of lives they left behind years ago.

Success stories of former refugees who are now socially responsible citizens are abundant and, if given half the chance, refugees have the opportunity to take ownership of their lives and make the most of what skills they have learned while in exile.  UNHCR continually works to provide the temporary shelter, security and social programming necessary, which can help refugees make a better life for themselves, whether it is in Rwanda or elsewhere in the world. This is a mandate, I feel I can safely say, that UNV volunteers like Wes and myself can promote, and which we hope can improve the standing of refugees in the long run.

Though I've dabbled with different themes in the field of 'humanitarian development', before becoming a UNV volunteer I spent the last two years working with refugees in both a volunteer and professional capacity. As a Training and Communications Coordinator with the Danish Red Cross in Copenhagen, I facilitated a media project for asylum seekers in Denmark, which allowed them to express their thoughts, grievances and hopes about being a refugee in Europe. The work was often stressful, demanding and tested the last of what patience I had, but at the end of the day, the reward and fulfilment I gained through advocating for their rights outweighed any frustration I may have felt.

Some of the refugees I worked with in Denmark became friends and some – dare I say – even became like family. Whatever stereotypes or prejudices I had regarding asylum seekers melted away as I learned how resourceful, driven and ambitious many of them can be. I felt compelled to campaign on their behalf to the best of my ability because, like you and me, they strive to live the best life possible in terms of economic and social stability, and personal safety.

Unfortunately, refugees have gotten the short end of the stick, because they have to strive harder for the life they desire due to barriers that are clearly out of their control. At the end of the day, the only difference between 'us' and 'them' is a matter of chance.
UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)