Latvian aid worker helps refugees in Iraq

Liene Veide, a Latvian national currently working for UNHCR as a Public Information and External Relations Officer in Dohuk, Iraq, joined the United Nations in 2010.

by Salvadors Merlos, Latvia

Liene graduated from her bachelor’s degree of Social Sciences in Communication at Riga Stradins University in 2005. After working several years in some of the major newspapers in Latvia, in 2007 she travelled to Georgia for a few weeks and fell completely in love with the country and its people. When in 2008 the economic crisis hit Latvia, she decided to make the big step and found a job at “Georgia Today” newspaper: “I packed my stuff, got a one-way ticket and left for Tbilisi, thinking that I will be back in Latvia in a year. Already after some first emails I sent to my mother, she said it’s more than clear that I’ll never go back.”

In Georgia she wrote news articles, mainly on social issues, and as it was late 2008, many were related to South Ossetia. This is how she started to focus on internally displaced people (IDPs), got in touch with some UN agencies and slowly added issues related to Chechen refugees and UNHCR’s activities on birth registration and statelessness, amongst others.

Two years later, Liene got a position as Assistant to the UNHCR External Relations Officer in Georgia. During the three years she spent in that role, she felt that she learnt something new every day, while achieving a better understanding of displacement: “A dream came true. It was very tough sometimes when people were struggling, especially the elderly, but working with refugees for UNHCR helped me to realize the important values in life.”

In July 2013, she moved to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, to work with UNHCR as Associate Public Information Officer for a bit more than a year, where she experienced a major emergency and influx of people. On 17 August alone the Kurdistan Region of Iraq received 13,500 persons fleeing unrest in Syria. The next major wave of people was during the summer of 2014, when more and more Iraqi people were forced to leave their homes.

The UNHCR office in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Duhok asked her to move there to help out and as of September 2014 she became Public Information and External Relations Officer. From January 2014 through 7 May 2015, the IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) identified more than 2.9 million IDPs (494,474 families), dispersed across 3,225 distinct locations in Iraq. “When I’m explaining to refugees that unfortunately UNHCR cannot resettle every displaced person to some well-developed country in the West, their usual answer is ‘it’s ok; it’s more important that you’re actually listening to our stories; telling it to someone already helps and is a relief’. Then I can only watch and admire those people who have gone through the horrible and devastating hours, days and months still have strengths not to give up, start their lives from scratch and making jokes about each other.”

Liene thinks working for UNHCR is a great opportunity to help forcibly displaced refugees. She is also proud of Latvia’s growing commitment to humanitarian aid, as her country has been contributing to UNHCR since 2001 and its unearmarked donations are being used where the need is the greatest, such as the crisis in Syria. However, in her opinion, more should be done, especially regarding a better understanding of refugee issues: “We should always keep in mind our history and even the present times, with so many Latvians working and living abroad. I always tell my friends and relatives that refugees are just people like you or me. In Latvia we need to be open and able to discuss any issue.”