In the field with UNHCR: “Our crisis is certainly a forgotten one”

This is the second interview in the series, “In the field with UNHCR”, providing insight into the daily lives of some of our Danish colleagues, working for the organization all over the world.

Grith Nørgaard in Yaounde, Cameroon

This is the second interview in the series, “In the field with UNHCR”, providing insight into the daily lives of some of our Danish colleagues, working for the organization all over the world.

Why did you choose to work for UNHCR?

“UNHCR was a natural choice for me, since I have been interested in working with refugees since my time in university, and I had already worked on asylum processing in Denmark. When I relocated abroad for family reasons, UNHCR was the obvious extension of my work in Denmark.

It is my impression that we at UNHCR are really strong at establishing ourselves in an emergency, and that we have the capacity to quickly get an emergency operation up and running. In Iraq, I was on one of the first teams sent out. We arrived to a chaotic situation with thousands of internally displaced people, who just drifted around in the streets or lived in abandoned unfinished buildings. But soon after, our coordination led to establishment of camps. At that point you could clearly see the impact and results of UNHCR’s massive work – and see what a big difference we make.”

How would you describe your work?

“Since 2015, I have worked at the country office in Cameroon, who hosts refugees from mainly Central African Republic and Nigeria as well as internally displaced people in the part of the country being ravaged by Boko Haram. Recently, there has also been internally displaced people in the English-speaking regions of the country because of an internal conflict, and some Cameroon citizens have fled to Nigeria.

Approximately 375,000 refugees are hosted in Cameroon. The government has decided on a security reference that the Nigerian refugees have to stay in a refugee camp. Almost 70 % of the Central African refugees live outside of camps in villages in the eastern and very poor part of the country, bordering the Central African Republic. Here the infrastructure is poor and the distances are long, so it’s a challenge to get aid to all of them. And then we also have a group of refugees who have chosen to settle in the two largest cities in Cameroon.

Specifically, I work to protect the rights of refugee children and protect the refugees who have been victims of sexual or gender-based violence. We are handling the children’s cases directly; we experience, for example, children arriving alone, unaccompanied, separated from their close family members during their journey or whose parents have been killed. There are many unfortunate stories, but there is also a lot of resilience. Many of these children show such strength in these incomprehensibly hard situations. They possess an impressive capacity to find a way forward.

“One of the best experiences is to witness the resilience and survivability that the refugees demonstrate in their difficult situations in a new host country.”

When working with victims of gender-based violence, of course, the cases are hard and heavy. Cases of rape, child-marriages, sexual exploitation, sexual abuse of children and violence in marriages are difficult to shake off no matter where in the world you are working. It’s impossible to look at the issues isolated. Part of the work deals with the immediate response to the cases we get to know, where we and our partners help with psychological support and access to doctors, and make sure the women or children are safe. A large part of the work is invested in preventive efforts, for example aimed at making young girls and women aware of their rights and opportunities – in school, within the families and in their communities, but also by supporting initiatives to promote women empowerment.

I’m also involved in the strategic work with new initiatives, such as providing cash-based assistance directly to refugees via their mobile phones so that they can manage the aid themselves instead of receiving food rations or sanitary products, for example. In this way, refugees are provided with a greater self-determination to plan their everyday needs.

I advise refugees, individually and in larger groups, about their rights, for example, how important it is for parents to get birth certificates for their children – and in addition, one of my tasks is to coordinate the work and cooperation with our many partners, including government partners. So the tasks are very versatile.”

  Grith Nørgaard in UNHCR

  • Protection Officer in Cameroon, focusing on children and victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
  • Trained lawyer.
  • Has been working with UNHCR for almost six years.
  • Previously deployed in The Democratic Republic of Congo and has been on an emergency mission to Iraq.
  • Stationed in Geneva headquarters for a period of time.
  • In all positions, she has worked in rights protection for UNHCR’s people of concern.

What is one of the best experiences you have had, working with UNHCR?

“One of the best experiences is to witness the resilience and survivability that the refugees demonstrate in their difficult situations in a new host country. A positive experience, from both Iraq and Cameroon, is the direct cooperation with our volunteer refugee outreach workers who act as our eyes and ears in the refugee communities. They do a lot of work for us, for example, identifying vulnerable families, helping refugees to find the hospitals if there is an acute illness, or arranging families to take care of a child that has been left alone. They can also help us mobilizing refugees quickly if we need to reach many with a message. This, I think, is one of the really big success stories.

It is also positive to engage refugees in planning our annual programs. We include representatives for the refugees in our coordination meetings, and they are then involved when we plan our projects so that they can help determine the priorities, of course, within the budget framework. They are motivated and feel a sense of responsibility when they are included in the dialogue. These representatives are elected democratically, and we promote female leadership. Actually, for the first time, a female leader was recently elected to represent the entire refugee group in the capital.

To me, it has also been very fascinating to cooperate with the government and other partners on a number of women’s centers, offering both marriage counseling, courses and vocational training to promote women’s financial independence, as well as serving in women’s homes for women in crisis situations to be safe with their children. As an example, we’ve had pilot projects with the government to teach women to become entrepreneurs, start a business and support themselves. The centers are located in all parts of the country and offer a promising network for women – including refugee women. The solidarity surpasses nationalities, so whether they are from Congo, Cameroon or Central African Republic, the women have a space to join activities, get education and training, but also receive support and help if they are victims of violence.

I also want to mention the fact that the refugee children in Cameroonian cities are attending the same schools as the Cameroon children. That, in my opinion, is an obvious advantage for an easier integration for refugees in their host country. Vice versa, in the villages where there has been a need to establish new classrooms to accommodate the large number of refugee children, the schools are made available to the local children from the villages to ensure a peaceful coexistence between refugees and the local community.”

What is one of the worst experiences you have had, working with UNHCR?

“The most untold part of my work, and hence the worst experience, is that the needs are often so big that we can only meet a small part of them. It is frustrating. We are limited by a narrow budget that is getting smaller and smaller, and every year we are forced to cut basic services with consequences for the efforts on education and health. Our crisis is certainly among the “forgotten” ones that don’t reach the European media to the extent it ought to. It can be difficult to stay optimistic in situations where I have to tell a refugee in a very precarious situation that our help cannot extend further, that it’s very limited what UNHCR can offer, and that a durable solution to their situation might take many years. Especially in situations with young refugees who have a hope for a better future.

“It can be difficult to stay optimistic in situations where I have to tell a refugee in a very precarious situation that our help cannot extend further.”

But we can only do as much as we are able to – and so it’s important to add that refugees too have a responsibility to protect themselves in their daily lives as much as possible. This is where the so-called community-based protection plays a part. Here, the general idea is to explore how to help the individual or family to improve their situation and create opportunities. This could for example include engaging the children and youth in community associations, schools or other vocational education activities. This would provide them with some skills that they can benefit from in the future or that can create some income for the family.”

Young refugee girls in Cameroon are selling goods they have produced themselves to other refugees and the local community. The girls participate in skills training, providing them with skills and capacities to enhance their economic independence and self-reliance.

Grith Nørgaards own photos from her work with UNHCR. © UNHCR / Grith Nørgaard

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is present in 130 countries around the world, helping men, women and children who have been forced to flee from their homes due to war, violence and persecution. Our headquarters are located in Geneva in Switzerland, but the vast majority of our employees work in the field and in the places in the world where the majority of the world’s refugees are situated.

Learn more about UNHCR’s work here.     

Read our first “In the field with UNHCR” interview with Danish Anna Leer in Pretoria, South Africa here.