On the front lines of humanitarian work for families fleeing conflict

This World Humanitarian Day, UNHCR places the spotlight on Filipino humanitarian workers on the front lines of protecting families on the run from conflict, violence, and persecution.

World Humanitarian Day brings the world together to rally support for people affected by humanitarian crises and pay tribute to aid workers who help them. As fighting in Marawi City rages on, and as global displacement hits record high, UNHCR places the spotlight on four Filipino humanitarian workers on the front lines of protecting families on the run from conflict, violence, and persecution.

Cliff Alvarico

Program Officer and Head of Operations – Iligan City, UNHCR Philippines

Cliff Alvarico (center) is UNHCR Philippines’ Program Officer and concurrently heads the organization’s response to the Marawi displacement crisis. Photo: © UNHCR/V.Villafranca


Being a humanitarian connects directly to me, as a human being. Perhaps nothing can be more fulfilling than being able to demonstrate compassion to the people we serve. This must have been why I have been a humanitarian worker for nearly two decades now, the last seven years of which have been with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

I serve as the Program Officer of the Philippine office, and since the conflict in Marawi broke out nearly three months ago, I concurrently headed our satellite office in Iligan City.

Whenever we do Protection Monitoring in evacuation camps in Iligan City and other municipalities neighboring Marawi City, we provide a listening ear to families who have fled the fighting. We capture what they say and elevate their concerns to the proper forum.

We amplify their voice; protection is all about that. If I were to summarize what protection is without being too technical and legalistic, it’s a matter of listening to displaced families’ pleas. In doing so, we are able to understand what rights are at stake and what their vulnerabilities are. They may not be aware that their rights are being compromised, but we do. We do not confront if they think they are violated. We simply ask them, “How are you now? What are the difficulties you encounter? How are these being addressed? What are your observations? Are you being discriminated against?” For every issue, we try to understand how and where we can effectively respond.

Aside from Protection Monitoring, the most critical role that we play since the beginning of our deployment was to advocate for the protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in this crisis. We reach out to duty-bearers to sensitize them on the humanitarian principle that IDPs right to be protected are paramount from the moment they are displaced until the time they return, resettle or reintegrate. We likewise support the capacities of community-based evacuation camps and host communities to absorb the need of displaced populations.

Threats to life

Alvarico (left) speaks with internally displaced families in Melut Camp in South Sudan. Photo: © UNHCR/T.Yusuf


Every day, aid workers put their lives on the line to provide life-saving assistance to underserved families affected by conflict. However, humanitarians worldwide are increasingly being targeted. In 2016, for example, there were attacks against health workers and facilities in 20 conflict-affected countries, resulting in 863 medical personnel being killed or injured.

When I joined UNHCR’s Emergency Response Team after civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013, I learned first-hand that humanitarian work is fraught with real threats to life, especially when you come face to face with armed actors. You are serving a displaced community or population that could be perceived as a problem. When you negotiate for access to reach them, you are being accused of siding with one party by both parties. Even if you position yourself as a humanitarian worker, you are still being threatened.

Another challenge that humanitarians face is accessing people affected by conflict.

At an emergency hotspot in South Sudan, we found this child who was severely malnourished. I coordinated with our health counterparts and when we came back, the child had already died. There are a lot more stories like these because aid workers are unable to move, and move quickly, due to lack of access.

Once humanitarian access is not provided or cleared, cases like these can be expected. We are talking about lives of people who are in very difficult situations. Imagine dying slowly, and you are helpless because nobody is able to reach you because of security access. The message here is that we do not want to add insult to injury by not providing access. Why not allow humanitarian actors to respond? There is a humanitarian imperative because in all wars, we remain to be human beings. We are all bound by our shared humanity. Wars have rules, and every time these rules are broken, human suffering intensifies and humanitarian need grows.

Despite these challenges, being a humanitarian worker brings me contentment and fulfillment that no other job would.

“Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” This Oscar Schindler quote keeps me going as we humanitarians rise to the challenge of supporting people affected by humanitarian crises.

Aisah Disoma

Field Associate for Protection, UNHCR Philippines

Disoma (right) conducts Protection Monitoring at an evacuation camp in Balo-i, Lanao del Norte. Photo: © UNHCR/Y.Palma


Since fighting erupted in Marawi last May, my typical day revolves around listening to the stories of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and asking about their conditions so we can ensure a targeted response to their needs.

After a long day in the field, I return to our office in Iligan City to summarize the data gathered. Key insights are then consolidated and elevated to government counterparts to help strengthen the overall response to displacement.

What I find especially fulfilling here is the solidarity built with these displaced families. For them, finding a listening ear is already a big thing. An elderly lady told me, in the Maranao language, “I thank Allah for you because you are able to hear my story.” This came to me as a surprise, because what we consider a minor task is a major thing for them. Talking about their ordeal also serves as a debriefing for them, a step towards recovering from the trauma caused by having to flee violence and armed conflict.

Though I find this job worthwhile and very fulfilling, one thing that makes it tough is that I am a Maranao myself. I am among the hundreds of thousands who have been uprooted from our homes in Marawi City. I live with my family in Iligan, and we are part of the home-based IDP population.

Whenever they [IDPs]  tell me their stories, I sometimes realize I am also one of the characters. We sing the same tune and share the same hope that we will be able to return to our homes and live in peace. Serving with UNHCR after Typhoon Yolanda was tough, but this time, it’s tougher because I know the people here and I actually share their plight.

I have never imagined that as a humanitarian worker, I myself would be displaced. But now, I am both an aid worker and an IDP; the responsibility weighs heavily because I represent UNHCR and also my fellow Maranao.

Sometimes, I cannot help but think that I have been given this opportunity to be part of UNHCR’s humanitarian response so that I can also be the voice of IDPs. This way, I will be able to shed light on the issues confronting them, their sentiments, their hopes and dreams, and their plight.

Brenda Escalante

Associate Protection Officer, UNHCR South Sudan

Escalante (center) served as UNHCR Philippines’ national protection officer for six years before being deployed to South Sudan. She was also briefly assigned to Serbia in 2015. Photo: © UNHCR


During a harsh winter in 2015, I was deployed to Serbia for three months to help in the Mediterranean humanitarian crisis. UNHCR was the Republic of Serbia’s main partner in supporting refugees passing through the country to reach safer haven in Europe. Together with its partners, UNHCR provided humanitarian support to ease the difficulties of their journey and to provide counselling about their rights to seek asylum.

The Mediterranean crisis was unique because there were no established camps for refugee families. People were on the go and they stopped only if they needed immediate assistance like food, medical attention or change of clothing. But traditionally, in an emergency, UNHCR works with governments and humanitarian partners by providing protection to affected population through emergency shelter and life-saving non-food items to alleviate the suffering specially those of extremely vulnerable individuals.

One of my tasks was to provide refugees with information about their rights as individuals and asylum seekers. This information helps them make informed decision for their families. It also protects them from abuse and exploitation along the route. Extremely vulnerable individuals were prioritized to ensure they get immediate attention and care from point of entry to exit in a country and also across borders.

It was difficult seeing people fleeing from war, conflict, persecution every day – seemingly without an end in sight and without clear solution of what will happen to them. It’s the survival of the fittest by a population toughened both by hardship from where they came from and by determination of what they want to be in the future. It broke my heart to see families, especially women and children, being pushed back because of their nationality.

The most rewarding part of my job is being inspired by people’s resilience, courage and determination to prevail over their difficulties to provide a dignified life for their families. You get that warm feeling when they smile back after receiving a bottle of water or a pair gloves – simple ubiquitous items that may spell a lot of difference to them after perilous journey.

I also met a Syrian mother who was traveling with her husband and children. She spoke in Arabic but admitted in a hushed voice that they come from the Bedouin tribe and had to keep their identity secret out of fear of discrimination from other refugees. She and her family had UNHCR registration papers showing they are Syrian refugees. She said they were heading to Germany to seek asylum for the future of their children and medical care for her husband, whose eyesight was deteriorating rapidly. I was totally inspired by her strength and determination to secure the future of her family. Travelling more than 2,000-kilometer to Serbia and forward 1,500 kilometers to Germany is a long feat even for a physically fit person.

Every day, I encounter many stories from refugees like her. Stories of suffering, persecution, insecurity, war and conflict, and being on the run. And yet hope springs eternal for them; there is always a reason to survive and hope.

Escalante (second from right) is one of the Filipino humanitarian workers in South Sudan. Photo: © UNHCR


Corazon Lagamayo

Information Management Officer, UNHCR Shelter and Non-Food Items (NFI) Sectors, Syria

How important is data in providing humanitarian support to families affected by war and conflict? Lagamayo (right) shares the critical role of information management in responding to forced displacement. Photo: © UNHCR


It saddens me to see that what is taboo is already normal to Syrians. For more than six years now, war has become their daily alarm. Being on the run has become their way of life. The only thing they know now is how to flee their homes to escape death. The pain of constantly losing their loved ones and properties, eventually made them forget how to live.

Currently, I am in Damascus, Syria deployed as Information Management Officer for Shelter and Non-Food Items (NFI) Sectors. I used to serve in the Information Management unit of UNHCR in the Philippines.

“Are you willing to take this data crunching job?” I vividly remember this question when I was interviewed for the job some five years ago. When I was with UNHCR Philippines, my job entailed developing the correct tool for data gathering and packaging these information to provide empirical evidence as basis for targeted humanitarian response. I have been doing this job, which I considered a mission, and remain grateful for this opportunity to be offered the job in 2012.

Here in Damascus, I keep an eye in the distribution of core relief items and shelter to support internally displaced families inside Syria. Part of my daily undertaking is to help keep UNHCR’s sector partners well-informed on available stocks, distribution plans and their overall achievement to ensure complementarity of efforts. I also help ensure that the collective endeavor of the sectors is targeted to the most vulnerable groups by performing needs, gaps, and impact analysis.

And because gathering of primary data is challenging in Syria due the restrictive environment here, I rely on secondary data gathering; this is why constant research also defines my typical day in the office. Moreover, I need to make sure that the sectors maintain good coordination with partners hence maintaining a functional information dissemination system became part of my regular routine.

Understanding not just the humanitarian but also the political landscape of the response is a requirement. This, I believe, satisfies our ethos as humanitarian workers to be impartial hence balancing first-hand information we gather and making it work for the people that we serve. At the end of the day, any primary data collection initiative should adhere to the Do No Harm principle of humanitarian assistance.

Despite the challenges at work, being a humanitarian is a very fulfilling job and mission. In the Philippines for example, it is fulfilling to know that with vulnerability mapping, typhoon-affected indigenous people in very remote areas got selected and prioritized for a limited number of solar lanterns.

It is fulfilling to know that with needs assessment results and analysis, displaced population who are outside evacuation centers have been finally recognized by local government as legitimate IDPs. Furthermore, it is fulfilling to know that with displacement trend analysis, many eyes have been awakened and realized that displacement in Mindanao due to conflict is indeed happening and heavily affecting the Mindanaons, and that support is still greatly needed.

The little impact of my work, both tangible and intangible, makes me alive. After all, this is not for me nor for UNHCR; this is for those families who remain displaced in their makeshift tents waiting for somebody to recognize their plight, alleviate their suffering, restore their hopes, and help them regain their dignity.


This World Humanitarian Day, UNHCR invites you to share its commitment to provide life-saving aid to displaced families, protect their rights, restore their hopes, and help them rebuild their lives in safety and dignity. Your gift helps UNHCR and its staff across the world empower the families it serves. Support UNHCR’s work at https://donate.unhcr.ph/humanitarianday.