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'They know best what works in their communities'
14 December 2020
Andrea Ingham in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia.
Andrea Ingham in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia.

Andrea Ingham, 47, is originally from Macclesfield, Cheshire. Her current home town is Wells, Somerset. She has been with UNHCR since 2007 and has worked as a protection officer or head of field office in Colombia, Ecuador and Turkey, with emergency stints in Africa. She has just taken up a role in Beirut.

This latest post involves managing teams and setting priorities for refugee support. She is responsible for running a major refugee reception centre, meeting partners, reviewing guidance and provides feedback on needs, project proposals and undertakes monitoring reports. Currently, a large part of that work involves responding to the most desperate refugees and reviewing COVID-19 prevention steps.

I have also met so many inspirational community leaders who I’ve learnt so much from

Andrea has been in some difficult duty stations enduring limited food and water rations and patchy electricity and health services. She was also in a boat accident whilst visiting rural communities in Colombia and found herself in a border town police station just days before it was targeted and badly damaged by a car bomb.

An enduring memory was being among the first responders after an earthquake in Ecuador in 2016. “To see people walking around in shock is perhaps the most surreal moment,” she said. “One night, we left our hotel after a 2 a.m. aftershock as we were concerned about a Tsunami and ended up sleeping on the side of the road on higher land in a 5-car UN convoy. I couldn’t sleep.” She recounted the physical and psychological pressure on her team in Colombia when armed groups were skirmishing for control of the neighbourhoods. “We were being exposed to killings and torture all around us,” she said. “I would have to remind the team this wasn’t normal.”

A highlight was being able to telling a women’s network that they had won UNHCR’s 2014 Nansen refugee prize for outstanding service to refugees. “There were around 25 women crazily celebrating all around me and I was so proud of them when they collected the prize in Geneva.”

“There have also been so many laughs along the way - remembering and sharing funny experiences with colleagues,” she said. “I have also met so many inspirational community leaders who I’ve learnt so much from.”

Andrea has learned that working with and through community groups is the only effective way forwards in refugee support. “They know best what works in their communities and we need to make sure we’re listening and not doing what we think is best.”

“Despite the sacrifices we make by being far from home and far from our families (and sometimes children),” she said, “we need to remember how lucky we are to be doing this job.”

In between assignments, she likes to disconnect in Wells by gardening, going to the local cinema, browsing at the local market and attending the town’s Festival of Literature.

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