"I was destined to work with refugees"

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has nearly 11,000 staff, most of whom work in the field. Meet Robina Kolok, a supply officer from South Sudan on assignment to Bangladesh.

Robina Kolok, Associate Supply Officer, temporarily assigned to Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, from Kenya.
© UNHCR/Mitra Salima Suryono

Name: Robina Kolok, 35, from South Sudan.

Job title: Associate Supply Officer, temporarily assigned to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, from her duty station in Kenya.

Years at UNHCR: Seven, working in South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Why did you become an aid worker?

I think I was destined to work with refugees. I was an urban refugee in Kenya, having left South Sudan when I was very young. I was a UNHCR beneficiary – UNHCR sponsored my primary education. I got to know about UNHCR at an early age.

In addition to that, my mother later joined the World Food Programme in South Sudan. When I went to visit her at work, she would be involved in programmes like food distribution. Seeing people receive the food aid, and how they appreciated what they were receiving, made me want to do what she was doing. I saw the sense of satisfaction she got from her job. It motivated me to follow in her footsteps.

What is the most rewarding/challenging thing about your job?

In just three months, more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled violence in Myanmar to seek safety in Bangladesh. What is shocking to me about this emergency is how fast it has been growing. While it is growing very fast, the resources are not keeping up. We are giving a lot, yet it feels like a drop in the ocean.

Logistically, it means more work for us at our warehouse, because we are bagging up various aid items like jerry cans, plastic sheets, blankets, mosquito nets, cooking pots and solar lanterns. But when it comes to distribution, it is easier. In the camps, refugees have to walk long distances to pick up aid items. So having the items already in kit form makes it easier for them to carry.

Robina at work in the UNHCR warehouse in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.   © UNHCR

The job needs you to be strong, and have an authoritative voice. You are dealing with people, mainly men, from different backgrounds – from labourers to loaders, truck drivers, to managers. You need to have all these characteristics, which I think women have.

What was the best day you had at work?

I had just started my career in the United Nations when we were involved in the repatriation of refugees from Uganda to South Sudan. When I saw them return, they had that feeling of coming home. They had possessions that they brought back with them, and they were so happy to be back in their own land.

We were not doing much for them – we were distributing tools and seedlings – but what I saw in their faces was a hope for a new and better tomorrow. That was the best day of my life. Especially for myself, coming from the same community, it felt like things were changing for the better.

What was the worst day at work?

Actually, it is related to what I said is the best day of my career. It was when I saw that hope begin to crumble in late 2013, when fighting broke out in South Sudan again. I happened to drive along the road exiting town, and there were all these families walking with mattresses on their heads, buckets, all their belongings – leaving South Sudan, trying to cross the border into Uganda. It was just a few years before that they were coming back home, and now they were leaving their home again. That was painful for me.

The UN Refugee Agency works in 130 countries helping men, women and children driven from their homes by wars and persecution. Our headquarters are in Geneva, but 87 per cent of our staff are based in the field, helping refugees. This profile is one in a series highlighting our staff and their work.