'Right now, despite the danger, South Sudan is where I belong'
For the last two years I have been working in South Sudan, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a humanitarian worker. Since the start of the conflict in December 2013, a total of 93 aid workers have been killed. Sixty humanitarian workers were detained in May; of those, 28 have been released so far.
Such news makes my blood run cold — it could so easily be me. This is the reality of life as an aid worker in one of the most conflicted parts of the world.
As an aid worker, we are always prepared for emergencies — we each have a “run bag” packed containing basic items like underwear, a phone charger, a copy of our passport, cash, toothbrush and toothpaste.
Being a female humanitarian worker is even tougher sometimes.
If it sounds difficult to be a humanitarian worker in South Sudan, being a female humanitarian worker is even tougher sometimes. Yet, I’m still here, as well as 85 female UNHCR colleagues working all over the country.
The fear has been with me since I chose to work in Maban county, South Sudan over two years ago. After a series of women aid workers were raped in Juba in 2016, the fright grew even more for many female colleagues.
And yet, despite my own fears, I chose to stay in South Sudan for another two years. Why?
In South Sudan I have witnessed both the best and worst of humanity. I have visited communities where people have nothing, but still manage to keep a huge smile on their faces. It makes me realize what is important in life and the many small things we take for granted — family, friends, education, electricity and even walking outside at night.
But the major reason for extending my tenure here is because of my colleagues, with whom I share each day. There is a tremendous sense of solidarity between us, and we understand that while we live and work under the threat of danger, our lives are bound together.
This is more than just a day job. The horror we see affects us all deeply — but by working together, it can be translated from sadness and anger into something productive.
Among colleagues, we share our stories — about our family, children and also our daily struggles and challenges as women, as humanitarians, and as human beings.
I have heard countless stories from South Sudanese colleagues, mostly mothers who had to live far from their children — many moved their family outside of South Sudan due to security risks. They often tell me that the hardest thing is not fearing for their own lives, but how they feel when their children ask them, “When can I see you next?”
By working together, sadness and anger can be translated into something productive.
Most recently, Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly T. Clements visited South Sudan. It was inspiring to meet the most senior female staff working within UNHCR.
She sat down with refugees and internally displaced women and listened to them speak about security risks, as well as sexual, gender-based and domestic violence. She applauded their resilience and encouraged them to work together to protect each other.
She also took time to reach out to female colleagues, gave us career advice, and let us know that she is there for us if we have any questions. Many female aid workers need mentors and role models, and if the most senior female staff member can make herself available to listen to our challenges and give advice, it can have a huge impact on our careers.
UNHCR has over 450 field locations around the world. In countries where conflict is ongoing, women employees are a minority. “We need more of you in locations like South Sudan, so that we can be an even stronger organization for the people we serve,” Clements said.
It is shocking and deeply saddening to hear about my fellow humanitarians being held hostage or killed. But it won’t stop me as I continue to help refugees and internally displaced people rebuild their homes and lives. Right now, despite the danger, South Sudan is where I belong.
The UN Refugee Agency works in 128 countries helping men, women and children driven from their homes by wars and persecution. Our headquarters are in Geneva, but 87 per cent of our over 15,000 staff are based in the field, helping refugees. This is one of a series of profiles highlighting our staff and their work.