Celebrate the Team
BEIRUT, Lebanon, December 11 (UNHCR) - As the bombs started falling and tens of thousands of people sought to flee Lebanon this summer, UNHCR's dedicated local staff remained on call while an emergency team was quickly assembled for dispatch to the beleaguered Middle East nation.
Their work and commitment has been recognised in an informal roll of honour that the refugee agency has been keeping since 2000. Celebrate the Team has paid tribute to the work of almost 20 select groups of UNHCR heroes.
In mid-July this year, most people were caught off guard by Israel's massive response to the cross-border kidnapping of two soldiers by Hizbollah militiamen. Air and artillery strikes sent hundreds of thousands of Lebanese fleeing to the north of the country or across the border into Syria.
UNHCR immediately swung into action, despite the fact that local staff weren't spared from the chaos and panic. Some retreated to the mountains for security reasons, many feared travelling the roads because of unexpected bombardments. Some staff lost loved ones. "It is like an old wound, that was just about to heal, is ripped open again," said one colleague.
Despite the renewed trauma, all staff - displaced or not - showed perseverance and a deep wish to help displaced compatriots in need. "It makes it easier to get through the day, to be of help, and not to think too much," said another national staff member.
Geneva put together an emergency team to reinforce staff already on the ground in Lebanon and Syria as it geared up for a multi-million-dollar operation to assist those displaced by the conflict. By the end of the five-week-long war, more than 700,000 Lebanese were displaced inside their country and some 180,000 were sheltered in Syria.
Due to security reasons, it was some time before UNHCR could move supplies and emergency team members into Lebanon. But national staff were soon back at work and teamed up with local officials to determine the needs of the tens of thousands sheltering in the mountains near Beirut. They bought supplies on the local market and distributed them.
Once the border was open, the UNHCR teams were able to open the supply spigot and rush aid to the neediest. Staff worked round-the-clock to reach the vulnerable and let them know that they were not forgotten by the outside world. UNHCR team members, local and international, became a regular and welcome sight to the refugees in Syria and the displaced in Lebanon.
"Whenever UNHCR comes, we are well received," said Tiziana Clerico, community services officer for UNHCR in the southern city of Sidon. "People in the villages really appreciate what we have done for them."
When the conflict ended on August 14 and people rushed back south, our national and emergency staffers were out on the main streets, handing out water, food, blankets and mattresses to the returnees.
UNHCR assessment and aid teams followed the mass of humanity south. Teams based out of the southern coastal city of Tyre made daily trips to flattened towns and villages, most of them littered with cluster bomblets and unexploded ordnance.
Quick to recognise the danger, UNHCR helped the Lebanon arm of the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) with warehouse facilities and trucks for rapid deployment of personnel and removal of munitions. UNHCR staff also worked closely with UNMAS's local community liaison officers and helped to identify areas of greatest need and ensure the prompt distribution of assistance.
In mid-August, High Commissioner António Guterres lauded the "dedication and motivation" of those who had worked on the Lebanon crisis and said "colleagues in the field have been doing an excellent job in providing emergency protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons, as well as in preparing for the return phase."
While almost everyone is back home, their needs continue as they rebuild their shattered cities, towns and villages. "The war is over, but UNHCR's role continues," said Lisbeth Brask Jensen, a field community services officer in Lebanon.
Guterres said the refugee agency was up to the task. "I am confident that everyone involved in this operation will continue to perform with the same high level of dedication and motivation," he said in his message to the staff.