An interview with our Swedish and Danish colleague Marie Hesselholdt in Aden, Yemen.
Marie Hesselholdt visits two camps outside of Al Ribat in the the Lahj province, north of Aden, for assessment. © UNHCR/Hesham Salem
“Working for UNHCR is not easy, but you learn so much when you listen to the stories of people who have been forced to flee.
I stumbled into UNHCR. I was working with NGOs in former Yugoslavia and was given the opportunity to take up a position with UNHCR. I stayed on because I found the perfect balance – a role where I could provide support and also work with and learn from the displaced populations. I started as a UN Volunteer with UNHCR, continued as a consultant, then later as a Junior Professional Officer and then moved on.
I really appreciate being involved in working as a team to build programmes to support refugees and internally displaced people.
UNHCR, as a protection agency, has a special role to play in humanitarian responses. In Yemen, maintaining a focus on protection is crucial. Ultimately, war is something that happens to people – and displacement is not a choice.”
“In Yemen, we support over 4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and over 100,000 asylum-seekers and refugees. This is in the middle of an ongoing war. For many people on the move from the East and the Horn of Africa – the majority from Somalia and Ethiopia – Yemen is primarily a transit country. Even though we have seen a lower number of people moving during the conflict and especially with the pandemic, we still see a significant number of people moving through.
UNHCR in Yemen provides the full package of assistance, so to speak. The Protection team provides community support and support to persons with specific needs, and we work with gender-based violence and child protection.
The biggest part of our work is with internally displaced persons. In Yemen, there is a dynamic frontline going across the country. Every time fighting moves in one direction or the other, we see new displacement of Yemenis. When that happens, we have to start the emergency response.
We have more than 4.2 million IDPs in Yemen and the vast majority are not newly displaced, but because of the activities at the frontline, they are not able to return.
Over the past six months, we have focused particularly on the situation in Marib, in the very north of the country. It is one of the most active conflict areas in Yemen and one of the places where we have seen the largest displacement. The situation has become quite critical in recent months. We have a field office in Marib, and we support the IDPs with protection and assistance, such as blankets, hygiene kits, cooking utensils and shelter.”
“Some of the best moments are when you have been able to assist someone. When you can see that your work made a difference, for instance when you manage to assist someone in finding a relative or loved one who had disappeared.
It is also always very special when you see refugees being resettled, particularly the moment when you receive the message that today this family got on the plane and left. This is a moment of relief and happiness.
For me, as a Swede working in Yemen, it is special and important that Sweden is one of the few countries that accepts refugees from Yemen for resettlement.
Additionally, as a Protection Officer, some of the dearest moments are when we see the strength of our national and international staff working together. When the local knowledge and experience of the national staff ‘click’ with the toolbox that I carry with me as an international staff member, and we can find solutions together.”
“Yemen is an extremely complex situation. For many of us who work here, it is one of the most complex crises that we have worked in. Yemen is primarily a protection crisis, but it is interlinked with issues such as food insecurity and a very bleak economy.
One of the challenges working here is that even though this is one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, it is also one of the least known crisis in the world. It is a major challenge to raise awareness around the difficulties we see in our daily work when people generally do not know much about Yemen. An internally displaced person is an internally displaced person, and a refugee is a refugee – it doesn’t matter where in the world you find yourself. But when you work in Yemen you want to reinforce that message these days.
As UNHCR, we work with a family of UN agencies and with the larger humanitarian community. The gaps in funding affect us all and mean that the existing services and assistance are not properly complemented by others. It therefore becomes very difficult to move forward beyond instant emergency response and it becomes very difficult to build things up. As a humanitarian community, we feel like we never get to do enough. And we need to prioritize who to provide assistance, as the funding will not cover all. These are very difficult decisions, but decisions that have to be made. We often have to work with what’s available, and not with what we actually need.”
“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.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is present in 135 countries and territories 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.