'For as long as I can, I want to be with UNHCR'
UNHCR has nearly 11,000 staff, most of whom are based in the field. Meet Shirin Aktar, a protection officer who works in Bangladesh.
UNHCR protection officer Shirin Aktar gives Rohingya refugee Suruz Jahan, 75, a tarpaulin in Kutupalong refugee camp.
© UNHCR/Roger Arnold
Name: Shirin Aktar, 36, from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Job title: Protection Associate. Twelve years with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, starting on a temporary contract in 2001 interviewing refugee families from Myanmar, becoming full-time in 2007.
Why did you become an aid worker?
In 2001 I was a student and I started working with a UNHCR team interviewing Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, which is my home. I speak English and the Chittagong dialect, which is similar to Rohingya. We talk like them and we dress like them. When I heard their stories, why they fled, how they are living here, I just said, ‘Yes, I want to be an aid worker.’ I wanted to help.
What is the most rewarding / challenging thing about your job?
As a protection associate, I used to meet with UNHCR’s partners and with community leaders at what were then the two official refugee camps in Bangladesh: Kutupalong and Nayapara. I also work in the area of sexual and gender-based violence, or SGBV. I work mostly with women and children. Around 80-85 per cent of reported cases are of domestic violence. Then there are a smaller number of cases of rape, sexual assault, trafficking and child marriage. We work with the survivors and report the cases to the appropriate authorities. It’s rewarding when I can close a case.
It is challenging because the community’s values are quite conservative. It is socially acceptable to beat your wife. I feel upset and angry when I hear about husbands beating their wives for issues that could be minimized by discussion. They might say, 'She didn’t ask my permission to go to her parents’ house,' or 'She didn’t ask me if she could go out' – silly things. We are working with the communities towards changing that behaviour and mindset, particularly among men and boys. Compared to 12 years ago, there has been so much improvement. Women are participating more, they taking part in decision-making and education. There have been a lot of positive changes, which I am very happy about.
What was your best day at work?
We are currently in the middle of the biggest emergency the region has had in decades. Thousands of people are fleeing to Bangladesh. Children often get separated from their parents in the confusion. In response, we opened a safe space for children at the camps, and information booths to help reunite them with their parents.
In the first weeks of the crisis I got a call from one of our partners at one of the camps, who said, ‘Come, we have a five- to six-year-old girl here. She’s lost her parents and she’s crying.’ Immediately I just ran to our office. She was sitting in a chair and crying. I picked her up and held her. I could see in front of my eyes my daughter’s face and she was crying.
They had become separated along the road to the camp. Straight away we put out a call over the loudspeaker, but couldn’t locate her parents. We then took her to the spot where she lost her mother and father, but we still couldn’t find them. Finally, along the road outside the camp we found them. When I saw them meeting, hugging each other and crying, I thought: 'This is the best day for me.'
What was your worst day?
In the first two weeks of the influx last August-September, there were thousands of people arriving each day. It was the monsoon season and it was raining hard. There were a lot of pregnant women and women with small children out in the open, with nothing.
At first it was overwhelming, but then we got to work. We opened the community centre at the camp for them. There were 400-500 pregnant women in there, as well as women with babies and children. Once they were out of the rain we could start referring them to the medical facilities, and provide food. Now we are getting more support. I wouldn’t say I feel relieved yet, but it is getting better.
When I look to the future, I know what I want: For as long as I can, I want to be with UNHCR.
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 most of our staff are based in the field, helping refugees. This profile is part of a series highlighting our staff and their work.
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