Less than a year after opening, Bidibidi in Uganda has fast become one of the largest refugee settlements in the world. Here, Vipawan ‘Winny’ Pongtranggoon gives us a first-hand look at a typical day on the job.
UNHCR staff member Vipawan ‘Winny’ Pongtranggoon with community leaders during a training session at Bidibidi refugee settlement. Photo: © UNHCR/Jannet Oroma
Less than a year after opening, Bidibidi in Uganda has fast become one of the largest refugee settlements in the world. As of June 2017, the settlement hosts more than 270,000 South Sudanese who were forced to flee the ongoing violence at home. Vipawan Pongtranggoon, known to colleagues as ‘Winny,’ is part of UNHCR’s Emergency Response Team, a roster of trained personnel who are deployed during a crisis. This year, Winny spent 2 months working in Bidibidi as a Field Officer. Here, she gives us a first-hand look at a typical day on the job.
6:00 a.m. – The sun is already bright when my alarm goes off. After a quick breakfast, I gather with other staff members for a team meeting at 7:30 a.m. We meet 4 times a week to share information about what’s happening in our areas and to discuss plans. Then, I make calls to NGO and government partners or refugee community leaders. The mobile signal doesn’t often work in the settlement, and I’m there for most of the day.
9:00 a.m. – We drive to Bidibidi, which is now one of the largest refugee settlements in the world. It’s divided into 5 zones. My colleague, Anwar, and I oversee Zone 3, which consists of 16 villages and hosts up to 60,000 refugees. When I arrived in January, Bidibidi was only 6 months old. The staff is limited, so we juggle a lot of tasks and priorities, including the field-monitoring activities. There is a lot of ground to cover, and we have to do it by car. So, the fun part is figuring out how we can get all our work done with just one vehicle!
9.30 a.m. – After I arrive, my first task is to meet with partners who help us deliver assistance to refugees. Different types of events take place on a daily basis that need our presence and support. We have large-scale exercises, such as vaccinations, the renewal of family cards and the distribution of food and other basic necessities, such as soap, tarpaulins, jerry cans, hoes and cooking utensils. These activities usually take place in the morning and finish in the early or late afternoon.
We also visit groups of relocated refugees who have joined their families in Bidibidi, and we check on individuals who have concerns. The concerns cover a wide range, from problems with neighbours to suffering from mental illness. We respond to urgent calls from community leaders on incidents requiring immediate intervention, including any water issues or physical assaults. We work closely with our partner organizations and the government to resolve the many issues that come up.
I also meet with people individually. Being a zone coordinator means always making myself accessible to speak with refugees on any matters concerning their safety and wellbeing.
Most of the refugees I talk to say they fled South Sudan because of the conflict. They witnessed a lot of brutal experiences. Some mentioned people they know, including their own family members, who were killed, raped or forcibly recruited by armed groups. Many said their houses were burnt to the ground and their belongings were looted. Some had injuries that were only treated when they arrived. Most came with just a few possessions.
The saddest moment I experienced was when I was on my way to a collection point near a border. I saw a group of exhausted people walking on the road, the majority of them small children. We stopped to check on them and found they were refugees. The children lagged behind their mothers. Most looked hungry and lifeless, a big contrast from the smiling and laughing children who would wave at us in the settlement. We gave the mothers and children some water and snacks, and arranged for transport to pick them up. That day, I realized the importance of the work we do and how it makes a world of difference to the people we serve.
1.00 p.m. – I take a half-hour lunch break at a small, locally run food shop in the settlement. Sometimes I go without a lunch break, if I have too much work to do. I usually have biscuits, nuts, juice and water in my bag for the driver and me. We need energy to see us through the day.
Before I arrived in Uganda, I was worried about adapting to a new environment. The weather and the living conditions, as well as the threat of malaria, can be very challenging. Mosquitoes are everywhere. Many of us came down with malaria and had to be evacuated. At times, I feel confined because I live in one-half of a pre-fabricated housing container. It’s divided by a thin wall, and another staff member is on the other side. So, there is very little privacy. The town is also quite small. But a friend who was deployed before me gave advice on what to bring. The rest is about being agile, adaptive and flexible. It also helps to maintain a positive outlook and a great sense of humour. Sometimes, unexpected situations occur, but I value those experiences because they help me learn a lot about who I am. Emergency work is tough, but so rewarding. I am also fortunate to receive constant support and advice from team leaders and colleagues. I felt like a part of the team in no time.
1.30 p.m. – I head over to a community dialogue session. Depending on the day, up to 200 refugees can be there, from community leaders to women’s groups to youth groups. I spend many afternoons at these sessions, hearing people voice their concerns and suggestions about the services in the settlement.
5:00 p.m. – We leave the settlement for the day. I sometimes drop by the local market to get personal supplies or stationery. This is the part of the day when I get to relax. I enjoy watching the people at the market, seeing what they buy and how they interact with others, because I gain insights into their daily lives. Food, culture, life – you can find it all at the market.
6:00 p.m. – I return to the office, chat with colleagues, wind down, water the plants, have dinner and write emails. I often stay up late to write reports that I have no time to write during the day. The days are very long. At night, I keep my mobile on so that I can receive calls for emergency assistance. Like the rest of the staff, I work for 7 days straight before getting a day to rest.
Despite the long days, I am passionate about the work. And there is still so much to be done. The needs are great and increasing every day in Uganda. More and more South Sudanese refugees are fleeing for their lives trying to reach safety. They want to get to a place where they don’t have to worry whether they will live until tomorrow. Right now, one of the challenges is a shortage of funds – adequate resources to properly care for and protect people in need. Although Uganda has a generous refugee reception policy, it should not be left to shoulder the burden alone, simply because it is South Sudan’s neighbour. We all have a responsibility to help those in need, those who are less fortunate than us in every single way.