Stories from the Field: “We see results when refugees are allowed to contribute”

An interview with our Danish colleague Helle Degn in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

“Stories from the Field” is an interview series providing insight into the daily lives of some of our Northern European colleagues, working for the organization all over the world.

Why did you choose to work for UNHCR?

“Humanitarian and development work have always been close to my heart. I worked with communication and campaigning for DanChurchAid for five years but quit my job and moved with my husband to Ethiopia when he was relocated as an advisor to the Danish Embassy in Addis Ababa. I started as Communication Officer at UNHCR last summer.

It was the cause that got me to apply to UNHCR, as refugees are high on the agenda in Ethiopia – and in the world in general. We are seeing historically high levels of forced displacement and Ethiopia is one of the largest host countries for refugees in Africa. Then it’s good to work with UNHCR, because it makes everything very tangible. You can feel how we are making a difference in people’s lives on the ground. It’s very visible when we help by giving people tents, blankets and relief items, or when we make sure children are sent to school.”

How do you describe your work?

“My job covers many forms of communication – from the visuals of taking pictures, producing videos and graphic materials to working with the press and handling missions with media and donors who are going to visit a refugee camp. In addition, I manage our relationship with Betty G, a well-known Ethiopian singer who is our national Goodwill Ambassador. All in all, my tasks range from daily ad-hoc communication and press work to the more comprehensive strategic considerations of how and what we communicate to the Ethiopian audience and media, our donors and other partners and stakeholders – and how we help create global visibility and raise money for UNHCR’s work.

We have more than 750,000 refugees in this country. Refugees from South Sudan make up the largest group, then Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and other countries, and we also have internally displaced people. Ethiopia is generally a country with many challenges – there is a large generation of young people, many do not attend school, there is a shortage of jobs, and some people are starving. Therefore, it is also quite exceptional for Ethiopia to have such progressive refugee legislation, which aims at including refugees in their host communities.  Despite the lack of resources it is a country with an “open door”-policy. It is my feeling that Ethiopia is taking pride it in this, and so they should.

We see results when refugees are allowed to contribute. On one hand, it gives the refugees hope and meaning in their daily life, but it can also drive development in the local communities. We have for example a project in Gambella to secure water supply for both local communities and refugees, which means that the water supply becomes cheaper. It’s win-win for both parties.

All in all, there are many positive developments here in Ethiopia, fully in line with the Global Compact on Refugees. But a large refugee population can also cause understandable concerns and uncertainty in a country that continues to struggle with poverty despite high economic growth in recent years. And that’s something I attempt to address in my communication efforts.”

        Helle Degn in UNHCR

  • Communications Officer in Ethiopia.
  • Degree in political science, diploma degree in journalism.
  • Has worked for UNHCR for almost two years
  • Has previously worked with communication and campaigns for DanChurchAid, Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Danish Broadcasting Corporation.

What are some of the best experiences you have had, working for UNHCR?

“We currently have 26 refugee camps in the country and I produce a lot of the media material from there, and that’s one of the best things about my job: I get to meet the refugees and hear all their personal stories.

Of course, these are also horrific stories of what they have experienced on their way here – and I am still deeply moved to learn what they have been exposed to and what they have fled from – but often we talk about their life now and about the future, which allows me to also hear about the good things. The good and positive experiences about children who can return to school, about families returning to a more normalized life, and about refugees receiving vocational training to better prepare themselves for the future and the life that awaits them. All this really outweighing the grim stories.

I also believe that our cooperation with IKEA Foundation in the Somali region is worth highlighting, because it shows exactly how the inclusion of refugees can be a win-win for both refugees and host communities. One example is the projects of microfinance institutions, allowing refugees to borrow money to start a business and thus start contributing to society. I remember a Somali refugee I met, Musa Yussuf Burey, who had started his own furniture business. His business had become so profitable that he had now begun to employ Ethiopians. It gave him pride that didn’t sit passively and received aid anymore, and at the same time he created jobs.”








Helle Degn produces visual communication, such as pictures and videos, when visiting refugee camps in Ethiopia. © UNHCR Ethiopia








“One of the best things about my job is that I get to meet the refugees and hear all their personal stories,” Helle Degn explains. © UNHCR Ethiopia

What are some of the worst experiences you have had, working for UNHCR? “One of the worst things is that we continue to lack money for our work. This means that we and our partners are forced to make tough priorities all the time, and the consequences of the underfunding are very tangible and concrete. We lack for instance shelters, a form of transitional housing for refugees. Another example is that refugees should receive 2,100 calories a day for an adequate nutrition, but we are below that level in many places. It’s heartbreaking. In addition, the media work itself can be frustrating because it can be difficult to penetrate the global media scene with news on refugees, and we also see many negative narratives about refugees. We are raising awareness about Ethiopia because of the progressive policies here, and a country like Denmark, for example, is one of the major donors, so we have had Danish ministers and the Danish Crown Princess Mary visit recently to see some of our projects. Ethiopia also co-hosted the Global Refugee Forum in December, which created more visibility about the refugee situation in Ethiopia on a global scale.” 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 interview with Danish Anna Leer in Pretoria, South Africa here.  

Read our interview with Grith Nørgaard in Yaounde, Cameroon here.

Read our interview with Charlotte Ridung in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia here