Touria together with a protection officer from UNHCR’s implementing partner and a refugee volunteer at a women’s centre in Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan. ©UNHCR/Abdulkhaliq Khalif
– Associate Protection Officer in Muyinga, Burundi
– Originally from Stockholm, Sweden
– Studied law with a focus on international law, international humanitarian law and human rights law. Human rights law was her gateway into refugee law and protection
– Started as a Junior Professional Officer (JPO) for UNHCR in Zambia and has also worked in Zimbabwe and Sudan. JPOs are recruited under bilateral agreements between the UN and donor countries.
– Has been with UNHCR for 5 years
Why did you choose to work for UNHCR?
“There are many reasons why I chose to work for UNHCR. First, a strong point of UNHCR is that staff work on the ground, in the field. I wanted to be a part of this and get a deeper insight into this fundamental work, including the registration of asylum seekers, refugee status determination, resettlement, and local integration. Being out in the field really suits me well.
I looked for UNHCR and JPO job postings every day for about four years before finally finding something perfect: Associate Protection Officer for the JPO program with UNHCR in Zambia. When I started in that position, I was exactly where I wanted to be from a professional and personal point of view. You see a lot of hardship and challenges at work, but you also experience such amazing things. For example, observing how access to fundamental rights like documentation and livelihood really makes a difference in people’s lives. From working in the field, you get to understand what it is like for refugees and their needs. So many people in the West do not grasp what a refugee is and that most refugees take refuge in neighbouring countries. And I think people must understand that refugees are just like everyone else and have the same needs.”
How would you describe your work?
“I now work as an Associate Protection Officer in Muyinga, Burundi. Burundi is one of the most extensive operations when it comes to voluntary repatriation. We facilitate voluntary returns for Burundian refugees, in collaboration with the country hosting them. Burundians primarily sought safety in Tanzania, Rwanda, DR Congo and Uganda following the widespread violent clashes caused by political unrest in 2015. So, we assist newly returned people in rebuilding their life here in Burundi. Alongside the work with repatriation, we work primarily with Congolese refugees in the refugee camps. Burundi currently hosts 87,000 refugees.
In this role, I have all sorts of tasks. I engage with the government, support the civil registry and birth registration, promote refugee inclusion in the national system, and distribute goods, food, and shelter kits. We also work with individual cases, including cases of unaccompanied children and gender-based violence survivors. Many of the individual cases I handle, concern gender-based violence. It is a big problem affecting Congolese refugees since rape is used as a weapon of war. On this issue, we work with a partner supporting the identification of the victims, case management, legal aid, as well as medical and psychosocial assistance. So, we try to go through the whole case management cycle, and I have to say it is challenging. It is tricky because gender-based violence is a problem globally and in order to stop it, behavioural changes are needed.”
What are some of the best experiences you’ve had, working for UNHCR?
“What makes me happy is seeing those individual cases being solved. For example, at the border between Burundi and Rwanda, we received a convoy of refugees returning. I saw a police officer standing by the border, and then one of the returnees went to hug him. They were talking and seemed very excited, so I asked my colleague to translate. It turned out the police officer was actually hugging his son, who was returning home after a couple of years in exile as a refugee in Rwanda. The son also had his wife with him and a baby in his arms. The father said, “Welcome back, son, and I’ll see you back home,” before he continued to work. It was one of those memories I’ll cherish and never forget.
Another example is when I worked on a case where a mother was reunited with her daughters. She had found her daughters through a family tracing service and travelled to Zambia from France to be reunited. It was challenging to help them with the visa process because she needed to take her daughters to a French embassy to have their visa treated and be interviewed for family reunification. The problem was that the nearest French embassy is in South Africa, and they did not have birth certificates needed to travel there. Finally, we managed to get them a visa, and they could go with their mother to France. One of the daughters and I share the same birthday, and I still sometimes receive emails from them on my birthday. These small individual cases really mean so much. Even if it is just a drop in the ocean, these individual experiences motivate me in my work.”
What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced, working for UNHCR?
“It is challenging when you see that an operation is severely underfunded, for example right now the operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one of the world’s most underfunded crises. You then see with your own eyes how the level of aid and support is low and how people are struggling. What is so frustrating is that we know that the situation in DRC is not getting better anytime soon.
Something else I find heartbreaking when I go to the refugee camps, is to see how women must deal with menstrual hygiene. When I am on my period and going to a refugee camp, I think it is tricky because I can’t use the restrooms, and there is no running water. It isn’t easy, and these women and girls must go through that every month in a place that is not very sanitary. Menstrual hygiene management is not very high on the agenda. However, it is essential not only concerning hygiene but also for women and girls’ dignity.
A challenging part of working in the field is also to be far away from friends and family. I sometimes feel a bit isolated here, and people do not understand the sacrifices you make when you work in the humanitarian field. It is challenging, and I need breaks now and then. However, it is a choice I made, and I enjoy it.”
“Stories from the Field” is an interview series providing insight into the daily lives of some of our Nordic and Baltic 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.