Q&A: Builder from Benin volunteers to help UNHCR in Burundi

News Stories, 9 January 2009

© UNHCR/A.Kirchhof
UN Volunteer Anicet Adjahossou out in the field for UNHCR.

MUYINGA, Burundi, January 9 (UNHCR) Every year, hundreds of people from the UN Volunteers (UNV) programme are assigned to work for the UN refugee agency. Anicet Adjahossou is a typical example. He worked in the construction sector in West Africa for several years before deciding to try something completely different. Last year, the 32-year-old from Benin joined the UNV programme and was sent to work for UNHCR in Burundi, where 10 UNVs work for the agency. Adjahossou is based in the remote Muyinga sub-office, where he helps refugees from neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as Burundian returnees from Tanzania. He recently discussed his experiences with UNHCR External Relations Officer Andreas Kirchhof. Excerpts from the interview:

Why did you become a Volunteer?

I wanted to find out more about humanitarian work. Before, I had been working for some years in the private sector, both for private customers and industry. I was mostly involved in construction, water and sanitation. I said to myself that there is also a social aspect to the work of an engineer; that engineering skills could serve people in need, such as those without decent accommodation.

I had also developed an interest during my career in using cheaper local materials for construction, including wood and mud. This is something that interested me about working with UNHCR.

Tell us about your work with UNHCR

There are two camps for Congolese refugees nearby. I coordinate all the construction projects for these two camps, including houses, classrooms, standpipes and latrines. I am also responsible for a reintegration project for Burundian returnees. We give them building materials to construct small houses. In 2008, with the help of two field assistants, I helped 5,300 vulnerable returnee families to get shelter. This means that more than 26,000 people are now living in better conditions. We also have a reforestation project to counter the effect of cutting trees to construct shelters. We have also started to build a drainage system and to sow special plants to counter soil degradation around the camps.

Is your work with UNHCR similar to your construction work in West Africa?

It is very different. Before, I was working in an office. I was more involved in conceptualizing and drawing up plans, calculating and controlling construction sites. In my previous job, the work was very much focused on the demands of one client and his comfort. Here, we need to put ourselves much more in the shoes of the people we work for. And we can make people happy with little means at our disposal.

Are you in contact with the refugees and returnees?

Yes, we spend quite some time in the field. We try to focus on the most vulnerable cases. For example, a woman who has lost her husband or an elderly person who is too weak to look after themself. We recently went to visit a returnee woman. It was raining and the water was dripping into her shelter. It was difficult for us to help her because the programme for this year had already begun and all the beneficiaries for houses had been selected, but finally we managed to get her into the programme.

How does your job fit into the overall work of UNHCR?

UNHCR is a protection agency. All the activities of UNHCR should follow that logic, and that applies even to engineering. Right from the beginning, UNHCR helps the refugees. The houses built under our programme, the latrines, this is an immediate contribution to the well-being of refugees.... The shelter programme is one of the things that reassure refugees and returnees, because it gives them security.

This town is very isolated. Is it difficult living here?

Yes, it is difficult, but I knew this when I accepted the job. In the beginning, the stress was huge and I felt lonely, but things have become easier. I had already worked in other African countries Mali and Burkina Faso and I knew this kind of situation.

Muyinga is quite remote, but if you want to work with passion then it is just right. It is calm, which is helpful for reflection and creativity. You don't have many constraints and not many other things to do. It is quite a long way from the nearest big town. But I spend three days of the week on the road, meeting our partners and talking to refugees and returnees. This is quite different from being in a city and in an office. Here, you are connected with reality and have a different perspective.

What does it take to be a Volunteer?

One should have an open mind, the capacity to adapt, a bit of courage and a well-balanced character. You work with people from other cultures and you need to get along well with them. And the last characteristic, which is the most important, is professionalism.

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Repatriation

UNHCR works with the country of origin and host countries to help refugees return home.

Related Internet Links

UNHCR is not responsible for the content and availability of external internet sites

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

Burundian humanitarian worker Maggy Barankitse received the 2005 Nansen Refugee Award for her tireless work on behalf of children affected by war, poverty and disease. The Nansen medal was presented at a grand ceremony in Brussels by H.R.H. Princess Mathilde of Belgium and UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Wendy Chamberlin.

Accepting the award, Barankitse said her work was inspired by one single goal: peace. "Accept your fellow man, sit down together, make this world a world of brothers and sisters," she said. "Nothing resists love, that's the message that I want to spread."

Sponsored by UNHCR corporate partner Microsoft, the ceremony and reception at Concert Noble was also attended by Belgium's Minister for Development Co-operation Armand De Decker, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel, renowned Burundian singer Khadja Nin, Congolese refugee and comedian Pie Tshibanda, and French singer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Julien Clerc. Among others.

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

A fresh start; Burundian former refugees begin a new chapter in their lives

Since the end of October more than 26,000 Burundian former refugees have been assisted by UNHCR and its partners to return home from the Mtabila camp in northwest Tanzania. The operation is organized with the Government of Tanzania to help some 35,500 Burundian former refugees go back to Burundi by the end of 2012, when the Mtabila camp officially closes.

Refugee status for most Burundians in Tanzania formally ended in August following individual interviews to assess remaining protection needs. A total of 2,715 people will continue to be hosted as refugees in Tanzania, while the rest, the last of a population of refugees who left Burundi some 20 years ago, must return home. This is not an easy move after having spent most of your life -- and sometimes all of it -- in exile.

While awaiting their turn to join one of the daily convoys to bring them home, Burundian former refugees are preparing themselves for a fresh start…

A fresh start; Burundian former refugees begin a new chapter in their lives

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

Africa is the continent most affected by the tragedy of forced displacement. While millions of refugees were able to return to Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda and South Sudan over the last 15 years, the numbers of internally displaced people continued to grow. At the beginning of 2009, in addition to some 2.3 million refugees, an estimated 11.6 million people were internally displaced by conflict in Africa.

To address forced displacement on the continent, the African Union is organizing a special summit on refugees, returnees and internally displaced people from October 19-23 in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Heads of state and government will look at the challenges and at ways to find solutions to forced displacement. They are also expected to adopt a Convention for the protection and assistance of internally displaced people (IDP) in Africa, which would be the first legally binding instrument on internal displacement with a continental scope. This photo gallery looks at some of the forcibly displaced around Africa, many of whom are helped by UNHCR.

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

Afghanistan: Angelina Jolie Returns to KabulPlay video

Afghanistan: Angelina Jolie Returns to Kabul

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie visits Afghanistan and calls for greater focus to be put on the reintegration of former refugees.
Angelina Jolie in AfghanistanPlay video

Angelina Jolie in Afghanistan

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie visits Afghanistan and calls for greater focus to be put on the reintegration of former refugees.
Burundi: Finding Our PlacePlay video

Burundi: Finding Our Place

More than 75,000 Burundian refugees have returned home this year. One of the biggest challenges they face in restarting their lives is finding a place to live.