The Cork man helping to provide emergency shelter for refugees


Getting a roof over one’s head is often the first thing that people think of after being forced to flee from their home. That makes the provision of shelter a priority for UNHCR.

Stockpiles of tents are kept at Dubai, Copenhagen and Durban, ready to be deployed at short notice to emergencies when they happen. Lightweight emergency tents lend themselves easily to this task, as they are compact and can be deployed more readily. Canvas models take longer to make. However, they have a longer shelf life.

Assessing the needs in different contexts is a challenging role, but one which Cork man John Wain has eagerly taken up. After almost two decades in the humanitarian sector, where he specialised in post-disaster reconstruction, he now works in the Shelter and Settlement Section of UNHCR in Geneva.

The Irish know what it’s like to be displaced from our own country - this gives us a unique association with UNHCR’s peoples of concern.

1. What attracted you to working with UNHCR? Do you consider it rewarding work?

I have worked in the humanitarian sector since 1995, my area of expertise is post disaster reconstruction. I supplemented my primary degree with a MSc in post disaster mitigation and reconstruction. During my time working in post disaster contexts, I encountered UNHCR, for example in South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Haiti and Kenya, and always admired the organisation’s ethos. The provision of shelter is one of UNHCR’s priorities and the Shelter and Settlement Section (SSS in DPSM) is evolving as a highly professional section. An opportunity arose for me to join the section in early 2013, it was always a goal of mine to work with such a dedicated shelter unit and I jumped at the opportunity. The Shelter and Settlement Section is growing and developing, and being a part of this exiting section is hugely rewarding.

2. How long have you been based in Geneva and did you have any previous posting with UNHCR? If so, how do they compare?

I am based in Geneva since March 2013. I am new to UNHCR having previously spent over ten years with other large and small field based international humanitarian organisations.


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3. Could you give me a brief description of your day-to-day work? 

As Senior Emergency Shelter Officer my main duties and activities include:

  • Provision of assistance to field operations on issues related to emergency shelter throughout all implementation phases.
  • Support country operations through field missions, notably in terms of contingency planning, shelter needs assessments and strategy development.
  • Support the development, maintenance, and dissemination of guidelines.


4. Why, in your view, is Ireland's financial support to UNHCR so important?

Ireland has a long and proud history of provision of development and emergency response assistance. In the past we sent missionaries to the far corners of the globe. In more recent times, our missionaries have been replaced by suitably qualified dedicated humanitarian workers. Throughout history, Ireland has experienced emigration; this trend is once again on the increase with the current economic crises. The Irish know what it’s like to be displaced from our own country - this gives us a unique association with UNHCR’s peoples of concern. During the Celtic tiger years, Ireland experienced an influx of foreign nations which had a profound effect on our demographic landscape. Ireland is slowly becoming more diverse culturally in part due to this influx. It’s important that Ireland financially understands and supports UNHCR and its core protection mandate.


5. Where in Ireland are you from and what do you miss most about home?

I am from Cork, originally a city boy however; Kinsale is now home whenever we manage to get back there. Sinead is from Leitrim. We miss family and friends, our own house, as well as a sense of community / belonging. Our two boys (aged 5 and 3) were both born overseas and have spent most of their short lives away. We are not sure yet what effect our transient life styles will have on them, schooling is a priority concern and returning to the Irish system might be challenging. I miss the sport, the banter, the sea, the music and the craic!