'I am you and you are me': UNHCR staff draw on first-hand knowledge of displacement
On World Humanitarian Day, we talked to three colleagues whose own experience of being forced to flee their homes inspires and informs their work.
Oleksandra Lytvynenko, an assistant protection officer in UNHCR's field office in Dnipro, Ukraine, has been forced to flee her home twice.
© Courtesy of Oleksandra Lytvynenko
Mohamed Alkalifa Ag Mohamed knows that a few simple questions can mean the difference between hope and despair for people who have just fled their homes.
His family had spent years opening their door to fellow Malians displaced first by drought and later by violence before having to flee their own home when conflict broke out in Mali again in 2012.
After escaping to Mauritania and settling near M’bera refugee camp, Mohamed began visiting the centres receiving newly arrived refugees and observing how they were greeted by humanitarian workers.
"At these moments, I realized the importance of a few expressions, such as, ‘Are you comfortable? Please have some rest. How can I help you? Please have some water...’.”
"I saw the relief on many refugees' faces who felt safer as they felt understood ... It reminded me of what I felt when I arrived," said Mohamed, who returned to Mali after six years and now works as a communications assistant for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Mohamed is one of the many colleagues working at UNHCR who has personal experience with forced displacement – and one of hundreds of thousands of humanitarians around the world celebrated each 19 August, on World Humanitarian Day. The UN General Assembly chose the day in honour of the Brazilian diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello and 20 others killed in a bomb attack on the UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad on 19 August 2003.
Oleksandra Lytvynenko, an assistant protection officer in UNHCR’s field office in Dnipro, Ukraine, has been forced to flee her home twice. The first time she fled fighting between government and pro-Russian forces in her hometown of Luhansk in 2014, she packed only a few summer clothes, thinking she would be gone a few weeks at most. She never returned.
"The second time, I understood that I will not come back."
Living as an internally displaced person in the city of Sievierodonetsk, she initially struggled to find work, but her background working with children and families for local authorities in Luhansk led her to a job with UNHCR. By the time Russia invaded Ukraine in February, she was the head of the field unit in Sievierodonetsk. After several weeks organizing distributions of food, shelter materials and other essentials by day, and sleeping in a bunker at night, she and her team evacuated to Dnipro.
“The second time [I fled], I knew what to bring, what clothes. I brought a bit of summer, a bit of autumn, a bit of winter – not like the first time,” said Oleksandra. “The second time, I understood that I will not come back.”
Oleksandra draws on her own experience to help the displaced people she works with. Explaining to them that they may never be able to return home is the toughest part of her job, she said, but one for which her own life has prepared her.
“I understand people and that they’ve left behind everything – houses, relatives, everything. But I explain to them that life continues,” she said, adding that she tries to relieve the stress from the job through exercise and spending time with friends.
“I’m a displaced person and it means I have a huge number of displaced people and doubly displaced people among my relatives and friends, and that’s maybe why I feel better if I’m helping people.”
Maha Ganni, 52, an Iraqi resettlement expert for UNHCR based in Panama, was born in Kuwait to Iraqi Christian parents. She and her three siblings – including her identical twin – enjoyed the comforts afforded by their father’s job as an electrical engineer with the Kuwaiti national oil company – a plush home and an English-language high school.
But in 1990, in the middle of their college career – Maha was studying interior decoration in Cyprus while her twin was pursuing a business degree in Jordan – Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait set off what would prove to be a long series of displacements for the Gannis. The family scattered across several continents and it would be four years before Maha saw her parents again.
Unable to return to Cyprus due to sanctions imposed on Iraqi nationals at the time, she applied for asylum in Spain. But she was unable to study there as she could not get her high school diploma certified.
Maha made the best of the instability to learn Spanish (she was already trilingual in Arabic, English, and Chaldean, a Biblical language still spoken by some Iraqi Christians). Those language skills helped land her work as an interpreter for a refugee resettlement programme run by the International Catholic Migration Commission’s affiliate office in Spain. Many of the refugees and other displaced people she met had lived through situations that reminded Maha of her own.
“That’s when I realized just how much a part of me this work is,” she said. “Working with refugees really is my passion. I just don’t see myself doing anything else.”
"When I meet refugees, I tell them, 'I am you and you are me.'"
Working for UNHCR, Maha has lived in Lebanon, Ecuador, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. For the past two years, she has worked as a resettlement expert for UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for the Americas, in Panama, advocating for the resettlement of those forced to flee gang violence and other threats. As a Catholic, each time a refugee is resettled in another country Maha feels one of her prayers has been answered.
“When I meet refugees, I tell them, ‘I am you and you are me.’ That really makes an impact on people because they feel heard. They feel understood. At UNHCR, we want people who feel with refugees, not people who feel sorry for them,” Maha said.
“The very first boss who hired me said he liked to hire refugees because we brought to the table both languages and our experience. I think that’s true.”
Written by Sarah Schafer with additional writing and reporting by Jenny Barchfield, Chadi Ouanes and Kristy Siegfried.