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Messenger of hope
by Edward Mishaud

06 July 2003

Bonn, Germany: Every day, UN Volunteers get beyond the headlines and 30-second sound bites to see first-hand peoples’ lives devastated by war, floods, droughts and other disasters.

Of the 5,000 UN Volunteers on the ground every year, nearly 1,000 work in crisis situations tending to the sick, feeding the hungry and protecting the vulnerable. Living and working in some of the world’s most difficult places, UN Volunteers help the UN and its agencies such as the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP) address the challenging situations facing those in dire need.

Over the past decade, dealing with emergency humanitarian relief, post-crisis recovery and support to peacekeeping operations has expanded to account for one third of UNV’s global programme. "While it’s sad that our work in these areas keeps growing, it does reflect the state of world affairs, especially in Africa," says Kevin Gilroy, UNV’s Chief of Special Operations. "UN Volunteers respond to people’s needs within the communities by providing direct support to those people and by involving them in changing their situation."

Improving the situation of others is something Ghanaian UN Volunteer Edem Wosornu takes seriously. As a lawyer with UNHCR in Sudan, she spends up to eight hours a day in 40-degree temperatures and isolated refugee camps interviewing Eritrean refugees to determine if they should be allowed to remain in the country.

" Most of the time we interview in special stations we set up, but there are times when we must go to their home," she says. "Visiting them really puts so much into perspective because all they have is what you see – a few piles of clothes and other belongings – that’s it. It definitely puts you in their shoes."

With more than 300,000 Eritrean refugees in Sudan, making a judicious decision requires patience, cultural understanding and the ability to work in a stressful environment. Thankfully, she can share the caseload. Since last September, 68 UNV lawyers have joined UNHCR to review refugee claims.

" The conditions of working in Sudan are difficult and should not be underestimated," says Francesco Motta, head of UNHCR’s refugee status determination project based in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. "UN Volunteers work in extreme weather, which is exacerbated by a dearth of suitable living conditions, clean food and water and the need to work and live in refugee camps in remote areas."

Edem strives to remain alert and thoughtfully receptive. "It is tough work because their future lies in your hands," she says. "You hear every possible scenario and situation. Some fear going back because they don’t want to be killed. It is a difficult job, it is so easy to get exhausted."

Also working to improve the lives of refugees is Malawian UN Volunteer Jimmy Mbendela. Since 1999, he has been living in Namibia’s Osire refugee camp. During this time, he has taken on many tasks, from starting a vegetable farm to monitoring the movement of refugees. His newest assignment, and by far the most challenging, is organizing the repatriation of 7,000 Angolans who will head home in the coming months.

He says this sort of exercise requires much planning to arrange ground transportation and ensure that the returnees have a place to live. Since April, he has been in direct contact with Angolan and Namibian government officials and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to prepare them to receive the refugees. "Our main concern is [that] we don’t want this to turn into a revolving door situation and see the refugees come back into Namibia or go elsewhere," he says.

One of his most satisfying tasks, however, was mobilizing the refugees to take an active role in improving their own lives.

" We transformed this place," he says. "A number of the refugees farm the vegetable garden where we sell produce to the local kindergarten, which in turn feeds the children. They teach at the schools they helped build… they volunteered [to take part in] these initiatives."

Outside of being placed directly in refugee camps, UN Volunteers also work in field stations to monitor refugees as they cross borders. Since 2000, UN Volunteers with UNHCR have been assisting Colombian refugees crossing over from Colombia to Ecuador and Venezuela to escape intense fighting between government forces and armed guerrillas. At the start of this year, more than 5,100 Colombians sought protection in Ecuador. UN Volunteers with UNHCR work with the Ecuadorian Government to provide training to help its employees cope with the refugees.

José Euceda, UNHCR Representative in Ecuador, says he is not surprised UN Volunteers play such a vital role in the operation. "I have worked with UNHCR in six countries, on three different continents. Everywhere I have been I have found UN Volunteers with exceptional capabilities and with a firm conviction of helping others," he says, noting that two UN Volunteers are currently heading UNHCR’s most important field offices close to the Colombian border.

UN Volunteers with UNHCR and OCHA are also strengthening Colombia’s institutions and civil society organizations involved with internally displaced persons (IDPs). Through the work of UN Volunteers in improving government policies related to IDPs and conducting more effective public awareness campaigns, the rights and needs of IDPs are resonating throughout the country. In order to monitor the immediate needs of women, children and other vulnerable groups within the IDP population, UNV field officers identify their specific needs and ensure that these are addressed.

Thousands of kilometres from Latin America, UN Volunteers in Mozambique are assisting children after a cyclone destroyed their school in early 2003. The UNV country team, in collaboration with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Mozambique’s National Volunteer Committee and the National Red Cross, will build a new school to house 181 students in Nampwa-Mutocota village in Nampula Province. With US$41,000 in funding from the Swiss Government, the initiative will involve 35 volunteers from the National Volunteer Committee and one UN Volunteer team supervisor. The school is expected to be completed by September.

While many UN Volunteers in relief situations work as doctors and lawyers, some take stock of food rations, monitor the movement of refugees, or, as in the case of Filipino UN Volunteer Carlos Cerezo, ensure facilities are well maintained.

Stationed in Pikit, Mindanao, Carlos works in the best interests of more than 750 families displaced from their homes by fierce fighting between Filipino soldiers and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels.

Carlos is one of 25 UN Volunteers working in Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines. He is in charge of setting up and managing database programmes and systems that monitor the movement of the IDPs. He also created a hazard mapping system that identifies areas prone to conflict. With this system, he can predict the number of people affected by future conflicts.

Outside of his regular duties, he was asked to set up three medical clinics within the evacuation centres. To better manage these facilities, he decided to place a tent and sleep within the centre. He says his constant presence turned out to be a positive one that encouraged spontaneous volunteer action.

" There was a time while I was digging a canal to drain stagnant water and people were just watching me," he says. "When they realized that what I am doing is of benefit to them, they helped me finish the digging."

Since then, he says volunteers guard the emergency medical centre and four local doctors signed on to support the medical mission. He says leading by example captured the community’s spirit.

He hopes for continued support beyond that of the community. Recent reports of continued fighting concern him, as he knows more families will need assistance. While he is devoted to the people, he wants the conflict to come to a peaceful resolution.

" With the unstable peace [situation], the big battle the evacuees are facing now is how to survive in the evacuation centres," he says. "Resources are depleting, some NGOs are no longer visible in the area, but thank God the UN is here. UN Volunteers are ready to face the challenge."

UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)