Tuesday, May 17, 2016

An urgent appeal for the people of Syria

The scale of the destruction in Syria was brought home to me recently when I watched a video circulating on social media. Taken from a drone, it shows in graphic detail what five years of conflict have done to Syrian cities like Aleppo and Homs.

Those haunting images – houses, streets, entire suburbs reduced to piles of rubble – made me wonder how anyone could still be living in these places. No wonder nearly 5 million Syrians have sought safety across the border. No wonder this war has become the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time and UNHCR’s largest ever relief operation.

For five years, UNHCR has led the international relief effort for Syrians living as refugees in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. We've been working on the frontline, providing protection, relief and services to displaced families living in camps and in the community as urban refugees.

We are also helping the 6.5 million people who are displaced inside Syria and struggling to survive in a warzone. In recent months UNHCR has been able to expand these internal operations, leading cross-line relief missions to deliver essential supplies to people in stricken suburbs of Aleppo and Damascus as well as many hard-to-reach and besieged villages and towns.

I know it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of this crisis. We need to remind ourselves that behind the daunting statistics are the stories of individual people.

People like 4-year-old Ahmed who has never known peace. Born just after the conflict began, this bright little boy has grown up in a collective shelter in the besieged city of Aleppo. His family lives in a tall unfinished building with no walls where he is often exposed to rain and cold winds, as well as the danger of falling to the streets below.

Ahmad was very excited in February when a relief convoy finally made it through to his part of the city. “I am waiting for my parents to get my blanket and winter clothes,” he told my UNHCR colleagues at the distribution centre. “Yes, all I need during this cold weather is that grey blanket and those new clothes. Today I am very happy to get them.”

We hear the stories of so many people like this across the Syrian region.

People like 12-year-old Ivra who, living in a camp in Turkey, is losing all hope of fulfilling her dreams of the future. She used to spend her free time with her friends in Kobane, listening to One Direction and dreaming of becoming a famous singer. She doesn’t know exactly where her friends are now. They are scattered in camps and dwellings across the region. Ivra treasures the time she spends at school in the refugee camp but because the school is so overcrowded, she can only stay there for four hours a day. She doesn’t hold high hopes for where this education could take her.

People like Hamda who, at the age of 106, never imagined she’d be living out her days in a rented room in Lebanon with the power disconnected. “At first we only heard bombing in the distance, but within a few weeks they were upon us,” she says sadly, recalling the day her entire town was destroyed. “Maybe it’s a good thing that God took my eyesight before I saw the destruction of my country.”

These are some of the many thousands of people who will benefit from our new Syria Emergency Appeal. Australia for UNHCR supporters have made a major contribution to the relief effort over the past five years, contributing more than AU$4 million in shelter, essential relief items and vital services like health care and schools for Syrian refugees.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Opinion: The Private Sector Drives Response to Europe’s Refugee Crisis


Last year, as Europe faced a growing number of boat arrivals, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees warned the European Union that the time for talk was over. 

“We are facing a moment of truth,” he said. “Richer nations must acknowledge refugees for the victims they are, fleeing from wars they are unable to prevent or stop. Wealthier countries must decide to shoulder their fair share at home and abroad, or hide behind walls as the chaos spreads across the world.”

Prophetic words indeed, but it took the image of a drowned child to finally galvanise some action.

While the EU continued to argue about what a combined response to the crisis might entail, the heart wrenching photograph of three-year- old Aylan Kurdi lying on a Turkish beach prompted a global outpouring of community compassion and generosity and put the onus on governments and big business to follow suit.

In Germany and Austria, local people greeted refugee families with gifts of food, blankets and children’s toys. In Australia too, the initial response came primarily from the private sector – from individuals like James Wright, a Melbourne father of two, who used social media to encourage his fellow Melbournians to donate their unused fares during the city’s train strike and raised over $41,000 for UNHCR’s relief operations for Syrian refugees. Within days, the Australian government had announced a $20 million contribution towards UNHCR operations for Syria and an increased intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees.

These are the reasons we established Australia for UNHCR fifteen years ago.

UNHCR is the world’s leading agency for refugees. Founded by the United Nations in the wake of World War II, it has a global mandate to assist and protect people fleeing from conflict and work with governments to find durable solutions for them. 

Through Australia for UNHCR, Australians are able to support the agency’s emergency and humanitarian programs. Funds raised help refugees in situations of crisis, assisting the work of UNHCR’s teams on the ground and providing emergency relief and shelter items.

In recent weeks, as those desperate scenes from Europe have been beamed around the world, dozens of individual Australians have approached me to ask how they could help. From my experience with our many thousands of donors, Australians do care about refugees and feel a moral responsibility, as citizens of the world, to provide a lifeline for these frightened people fleeing the ravages of war.

The global refugee crisis has become the biggest humanitarian issue of our times and demands a concerted response from us all.

Leading the way in Australia as high profile supporters of UNHCR are firms like Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Australia Post, Colonial First State Global Asset Management, PwC and Perpetual. Other Australian corporates looking for ways to act and support the calls of their employees should find a way to help UNHCR do its essential life-saving work, and help the women and children cast adrift from war-torn nations like Syria.

John W.H. Denton AO is Chief Executive Officer of Corrs Chambers Westgarth Lawyers and the founding Chair of Australia for UNHCR.   

Monday, June 1, 2015

Speech: My life as a refugee - Yarrie Bangurra

Yarrie Bangurra, Special Youth Representative for Australia for UNHR

For those of you who were unable to attend our Mother’s Day Lunch in May, I want to share with you Ms Yarrie Bangura’s deeply moving keynote address including the poem she wrote and recited on the day.  
Australia for UNHCR Special Youth Representative, Yarrie Bangurra

Yarrie reflects on her happy childhood in Sierra Leone before her country descended into civil war in the early 1990s. She tells of her family’s flight from violence, of life in a refugee camp and of her feelings on being resettled in Australia. It is rare to be given an insight into the refugee experience as seen through the eyes of a child. I know that you will find her words as uplifting and inspiring as we in the audience did that day.   
Some of you will have seen Yarrie perform in the hit stage play The Baulkham Hills Ladies Troupe which has enjoyed hugely successful runs in Sydney and London.  

We are delighted that she has agreed to join Australia for UNHCR as a Special Youth Representative.

Please watch Yarrie's inspirational speech, or read the transcript in the text below.

Keynote speech
Ms Yarrie Bangura, Australia for UNHCR
Mother’s Day Lunch, Friday 8 May, The Ivy Ballroom, Sydney

I was a happy bright young girl who lived in a bungalow house with my family. We had a big lounge where we sat as a family to relax and talk, sharing individual opinions in discussion. I had friends and we played together when it was sunset, and outdoor African games that every child my age loved to play but when the night began to settle in we finished our games and went back to our homes. I was blessed with beautiful clothes; my father bought several things when he travelled on ship around the world.  I loved the beautiful nature of life; beautiful trees, breeze and natural foods were all I knew. Life was meaningful and I had huge hopes to study in order to fulfil my dreams; we were living a comfortable life, there was food and my mother even sponsored some children to go to school. Everybody was living in happiness, peace and love; it was fun and everything was wonderful.

Yarrie Bangura with her father and mother at Australia for UNHCR's Mother's Day Lunch.

Then, one day when I was very young, everything changed in a deadly and bloody day that recorded the beginning of war in my country, Sierra Leone. People were killing each other; the young and old ran for safety; children crying because their parents were nowhere to be found or they witnessed their parents being murdered by rebels; hands and legs chopped off in brutal acts with victims left in a pool of their own blood; houses burnt down; and gun shots everywhere. It was a terrible experience to see young teenagers recruited without choice as rebel soldiers; young, innocent children who had their bright futures stolen from them and turned in to horrible pawns of war. 

Streets became empty and quiet like a graveyard, animals silent in the street, heavy smoke from gunfire and houses on fire. The only loud voices were the rebels and their loud music rejoicing in their actions. It was an inhuman and barbaric experience. My mother and father knew our family must escape.

After a long journey, we reached Kalya refugee camp, and it was a moment I remember with joy because UNHCR supplied the refugees with tents, groundnut oil, maize and a blanket. The only thing we saw otherwise were refugees and bushes in the unfriendly environment. There were no buildings, only the tents, and people at the camp were sad because of their experience escaping the war. There seemed to be little hope for the future, we all had to do our best to survive; and not long after arriving I was ill, shivering and my teeth chattering. Even though we were cared for in the camp, my family thought it best for me to live with my extended family in the city of Fulcarea, a long walk from the camp. My auntie Kadiatu, accommodated me despite the fact that her home was already full of people, and she helped me to recover.

A captive audience listens to Yarrie Bangura speak at the Australia for UNHCR Mother's Day Lunch.

When I was 10 years old, our family was told they would be moving to Australia. I was told Australia was the last continent on earth.

I remember the day when we were told our documents to travel to Australia were ready and that we could leave. It was such a happy moment. My hope for the future was restored and I kept day-dreaming of a new life with peace and a great future. The process took a long period of time but on the 9th of November 2004 when the time came to fly to Australia, I thought it was a trick and too good to believe. When my mum started to get her African dress ready and cooked a very delicious meal and I ate so much that my clothes could not fit me, then I knew it was real.

"At Sydney airport, my eyes were everywhere and I said to myself that I am in heaven because it was so beautiful and breathtaking, and so multicultural! I had no idea there would be so many people from around the world!"

My extended family came with us to the airport, and as we were about to pass through security to the boarding area, they were in tears which made me emotional too. When we boarded the flight to Australia I waved goodbye to sorrow, sadness and poverty. The journey took three days to arrive in Sydney. At Sydney airport, my eyes were everywhere and I said to myself that I am in heaven because it was so beautiful and breathtaking, and so multicultural! I had no idea there would be so many people from around the world! I was full of joy.  I had no doubt that I was the happiest person on earth. That night I could not tell if I was dreaming or if it was all real.

Dressing up for my new school and seeing my future begin in the greatest country is also one of the best feelings I have ever had. Putting on my new school uniform increased my self-esteem and it was a joyful moment to feel like a student. My parents, especially my mother, told me and my brothers and sisters that if we studied hard we would be successful in life. I started wondering and questioning myself, ‘how can I be educated, when I do not know how to read or write?’ In Australia before I enrolled at school, I watched television programs all the time, particularly the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’. I was amazed and surprised when I saw a coloured woman on TV, talking to people of different race and nationality and watching her inspired me; if she can make it, maybe I can too!

In Africa, school students were sometimes beaten as punishment. So school was a fearful and scary place for me at first. I didn’t know what to expect but I soon realised my new school was so different and wonderful even though it was challenging learning for the very first time to read and write. My teachers were excellent; they were so patient with me and totally committed to help me achieve my best. I loved it and it really changed my life. I began to read and write; my understanding of the world opened up. On the way to school, I would see people of different nationalities going to work which was amazing and then I started picturing myself in their shoes. I have always prayed to God and each time I pray, it gives me faith and strength that nothing is impossible. 

A year after I arrived in Australia, I started having nightmares. At night I could not sleep and my eyes stayed open. I would cover my head with my blanket and my body would be shaking. I could not bear to be alone at home during the day or night. I would start to see something like a quick flash and all of a sudden someone calling my name. Every night when I closed my eyes I was in a battle field, people being killed, rebels chasing me, gunshot everywhere, and I tried to save the people in my dreams. I wondered why my past was haunting me; I was so confused, why was I experiencing this when I knew I had left everything back home. I was depressed and it was getting out of hand. 

"Writing was like counselling and healed me of my experience, and when I began writing all the nightmares vanished; it was unbelievable how I could put my experience and feelings into words."

I told my mum and she said to me that if it continued we would seek help. So I started writing; I decided to go to a bookshop to buy a notebook, and I would describe what was happening to me because I could not tell people what I was going through but with my writing I could express my feelings, my thoughts and my story. Writing was like counselling and healed me of my experience, and when I began writing all the nightmares vanished; it was unbelievable how I could put my experience and feelings into words. It was like a divine gift from God.  Some days I still write lyrics or poetry and short stories.

I feel so lucky and favoured by God to be in Australia because I have a golden opportunity to study human rights and international development at university. The reason why I chose to study this is to one day assist those back home who are victims of war and to contribute to African development. UNHCR has been one of my biggest inspirations to study this course because their support of refugees in Africa has been tremendous. When I saw their supplies at the refugee camp for the first time it was really a relief to know that someone cared about us. Here I am today, speaking at an Australia for UNHCR event, supporting their mission and objectives. This is a dream come true and a moment I will never, ever forget.

UNHCR helped me to be the person I am today, and all I ask is that you help them. With your support, UNHCR will continue to help so many other people, just like me.
Thank you, and happy Mother’s Day for Sunday, Mum.

Speech and poem reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

Yarrie Bangurra being presented with the title of Special Youth Representative to Australia for UNHCR by Chairman John W.H. Denton AO

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

'Invisible' Emergency in Ethiopia

Naomi Steer Ethiopian Mission - April 2015

A few weeks ago I visited the Gambella region of Ethiopia which over the last year has seen more than 195,000 refugees from South Sudan flee across the border.

This is one of the many ‘invisible’ emergencies UNHCR is dealing with at any one time. It is surprising that that there is little or no media coverage of what is one of the largest refugee crises in Africa today. In fact, Ethiopia is now hosting the largest refugee population in Africa with 700,000 refugees. And with only 10% of its operations funded, UNHCR needs much more support.

I had heard about the dire situation for refugees in the camps in Gambella when the emergency first began back in 2013. This was compounded by a very harsh environment (the week my visit temperatures were averaging 45 degrees). There is lack of amenities and many of the newly arriving refugees are malnourished and in generally poor condition. 

While the situation remains difficult, I was amazed at what my UNHCR colleagues and partners had managed to achieve despite the undeniable challenges.

On the day I flew in from Addis Ababa, there was an unseasonal break in the high temperatures. Rain clouds hovered but a torrential downpour only came on the last night making travel the next day tricky.
When the rain comes, large parts of the Gambella region, which extends across a swampy flood plain, become submerged. Last year two large refugee camps - Leitchuor and Nip Nip - were overwhelmed by flooding. This year, to avoid a repeat of the disaster, UNHCR is embarking on an ambitious plan to transport 50,000 refugees settled in the most vulnerable areas to higher grounds. It’s a race against time and UNHCR with its Ethiopian government partner ARRA are mobilising every conceivable form of transport including boats, helicopters and trucks, to relocate refugees to a new refugee camp JEWI ( pronounced Jowie) which has been carved out of the bush 12 kilometres from Gambella town.

Pagak Border Transit Centre

On arrival I go straight to the South Sudan/Ethiopian border crossing at Pagak. It is here that thousands of refugees crossed over when tensions between the South Sudanese President and his Deputy sent the country into civil war at the end of December 2013.

At the Pagak Border Transit Centre I sit down to talk with new arrivals who are about to be registered by UNHCR. Nyatiang Emok Dey tells me she had walked for seven days from her village in Upper Nile State with her three young children. She describes the trip to me as ‘very terrible’ and you can see the exhaustion in the bodies and faces of the young family. She is one of the thousands of mothers who have fled South Sudan. In fact 90% of the camps I visit over the next few days are made up of women and children.

Sitting quietly beside Nyatiang is an old woman who could be anything from 50 to 80 years old. It is hard to tell but her rheumy eyes have clearly seen years of hardship. Nyayul Chol doesn’t know her age. She tells me she arrived with her grandson after travelling by truck and then walking the rest of the way. She looks so frail I wonder how she managed. Once in the camp she will be issued with a package for the elderly – a special ration of maize, a commode, extra cooking utensils, mattress, extra blankets and crutches (if necessary) and eye glasses. 

Nyayul is one of the many elderly people I meet in the camp. This strikes me as unusual as often older people will stay back in the village despite the dangers. But it appears that everyone is upping stumps from the hardest hit South Sudanese states of Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei. These new arrivals will be taken to either Kule or Tierkidi camps not far along the road.

Kule Camp

We travel that road to Kule camp ourselves with a steady stream of locals herding their cattle or selling local produce. Kule is home to about 47,000 refugees, most of whom arrived after a second wave of violence hit South Sudan in May 2014. My first meeting is with community leaders elected by their fellow refugees to voice their concerns and needs. They list food as their number one priority followed by shelter, education, livelihoods and SGBV prevention.

The women leaders give firsthand accounts of being attacked collecting firewood outside the camp or taking their maize and wheat grain to the nearby ‘shanty’ town to be milled. There is a primary school but no secondary school. Umjimma Abdahado, a 43-year-old mother of seven, suggests the need for a ‘women’s friendly school’ so women can also learn to read and write - a sign of the social changes resulting from displacement. Back home in South Sudan, men would be more literate and would handle ‘outside business’. Here, with so many husbands or fathers absent, women are having to take on new roles and need to be literate to do so.

Nyakhor: the very name symbolises the ongoing cycle of violence South Sudan has experienced. Nyakhor means ‘child of war’. Thirty-five years after being born in conflict she now sadly sees her own children becoming ‘children of war’. Nyakhor however is determined that the time in refugee camps won’t be a wasted opportunity for her family. ”We will not sit simply like blind men or women but we will do something,” she tells me.

There is certainly no ‘sitting still’ in the child friendly space funded by UNHCR and run by partner Plan Ethiopia. The under 5 ‘safe place to play’ is a hive of activity with kids turning out amazing Lego constructions: bridges, supply trucks and wheels. Most of the staff  are also refugees and they are glad of the small income this work provides. 

There are so many unaccompanied children here who have become separated from their parents during the fighting. They are fostered out to relatives or other families and receive a special package of Non Food Items including clothes, blankets, books and school supplies. I hand over some basketballs and soccer balls which are quickly swept up by the kids in a fast and furious game on the rocky ground.

Nutrition Centre

Next stop is the Nutrition Centre run by NGO partner GOAL Program. Myamal Galwak sits quietly in the Outpatient Therapeutic Clinic nursing her nine month old baby who is contentedly sucking on a sachet of peanut based high protein Ready-To-Use-Food called Plumpy’nut – all the while giving loving smiles to mum and coy ones to me

The staff say this tiny but healthy girl was at death’s door two months ago when she arrived in the camp severely malnourished and sick with watery diarrhoea. After being put on an intensive feeding program she has gained weight and is on the road to recovery.

Adequate nutrition is a big issue here and high levels of malnutrition persist. Last year UNHCR and WFP mounted an extraordinary appeal calling for help to fund feeding needs for displaced people inside South Sudan and for refugees like the people I am meeting now. Australian donors through Australia for UNHCR responded by donating over $600,000 in support. Across Gambella the very high rate of Crude and Under 5 Mortality rates have been reduced to acceptable levels largely due to the efforts of UNHCR and its partners managing diseases such as malaria, dehydration secondary to diarrhoea and complications of severe malnutrition.

Tierkidi Refugee Camp

Shelter is another big need. Standing on the hill looking out over Tierkidi refugee camp I see the neatly ordered rows of tents stretch out below me. Despite being here for more than nine months, 85% of the camp still ‘lives under canvas’. With the average tent life only six months, upgrading accommodation is really urgent and I am hoping Australia for UNHCR can provide support in this area. 

I visit a family in one of the transitional shelters with bamboo walls, mud daubing and a thatched roof based on the traditional village home called the 'tukel’. It is surprisingly cool inside and Nyakong Loung Louy has somehow managed to create a welcoming home for her family. A table holds neatly stacked cooking pots and dainty tea glasses. Sleeping mats hung over a roof beam. Nyakong tells me she comes from Bor, ‘a proper town’ where her husband had a good job working with NGOs. Her 16-year-old daughter, Nyaku, arrived here at the camp before her. Believing she would never see her family again, she tells me, she was overwhelmed when she was reunited with her mother. 'I couldn’t believe I would see her again. I thought she might have died. But when I saw her standing there I was overwhelmed and thanked God. You think you will be separated but then you come together again,' she still says with disbelief and amazement in her voice. 

RADA Rehabilitation Centre

If I need any further evidence of the resilience of refugees here and the commitment of UNHCR and its partners to do their best, my last stop confirms it. We arrive at the RADA Rehabilitation Centre. Inside, a number of disabled men are exercising with great purpose on stationary bikes, treadmills and a bench press.

Enoch Dak is the Chair of the Committee for Disability. The 21-year-old comes from the Upper Nile. Disabled from the age of two by polio, Enoch appears very small in his wheelchair. However, after I strike up a conversation with him, he is very engaged and emanates a huge determination and spirit. He tells me after his village was attacked, he fled with his aunt and her 7 children. At first he wheeled himself in his tricycle wheelchair along the dirt road. He then got a punctured tyre and the family was unable to push him in the mud. His aunt and cousins then carried him for five days. He says they saw no other transport in all that time.

Arriving at Pagak with thousands of other refugees at the height of the emergency, Enoch spent 21 days living without any support facilities. As newly elected Chair of the Disability Committee he is working with UNHCR and other partners to improve conditions for the many disabled in the camp, including latrines with room enough for commodes, more wheelchairs and crutches. 

For Bol Gatkuoth, this is the second time he has become a refugee. He spent his youth in a refugee camp where he says he got his education at both primary and secondary school. Returning  to South Sudan in 2009, he started working with the rehabilitation of child solders but then war broke out again and he fled with his young family, first to the UN Compound in Malakal, South Sudan and then on foot across the border. On the way his young child died from dysentery.

It is almost unimaginable to me how this smart young man still has any optimism after what he has endured but Bol tells me 'you have to look to the future'. Facing perhaps many more years in exile, he hopes to get a scholarship to enable him to undertake a Masters in Social Work so he can help people.

A number of the disabled men I met were victims of disease but there were others like 19-year-old Gatiwal who lost his right leg after being shot in the conflict back in South Sudan. UNHCR and RADA helped him get a prosthetic leg fitted in Addis Ababa. Gatiwal tells me the fitting rubs against the smashed bone in his upper thigh but he says stoically that ‘I am proud now to be standing on two legs again’.

I feel quite humbled by the strength of those I have met - both refugees and aid workers. When I apologise for only being able to bring a few footballs, one of the staff kindly admonishes me. ‘What you (Australia for UNHCR) have given is not a little thing, it’s a great contribution. And it’s more than funds or balls. You coming here make us feel that someone is looking after us. It’s not a minor thing.’ 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Women Together: Conflict, Courage and Hope in the Congo

Naomi Steer - National Director of Australia for UNHCR

Five years ago, Major General Patrick Cammaert, the Deputy Force Commander of the United Nations Mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) despairing of the use of rape as a weapon of war declared, It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern wars.

It was as shocking to hear then, as it is to recount now. For many women and girls in the conflict-prone eastern provinces of DRC, sexual violence has become a sad reality of everyday life. Some 350 rapes are reported every week, yet this is only a fraction of the true number committed.

But today as we mark the UN International Day of Non-Violence, there are some small green shoots of hope.  After decades of brutal civil war and atrocities wrought on the entire civilian population, the DRC has for the first time in years some relative stability.

And in a world where minds are rightly focused on devastating suffering in Iraq, Syria and South Sudan, the current situation in DRC represents a rare window of opportunity for change that we cannot let slip.

Women and children refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image: Thomas Mukoya.
In June, all UN member states voted unanimously to adopt Security Council Resolution 2106 on conflict-related sexual violence. Building on a series of previous UN Resolutions on Women, Security and Conflict, Resolution 2106 seeks to put substance to the words and reinforces the work that the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and others are doing to implement prevention and support programs on the ground for victims of sexual violence.

It is also an opportunity to push forward on the strong messages being sent by the Australian Government. The Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop recently addressed the Australian Dialogue on Sexual Violence in Conflict, saying, we cannot accept a world where women are considered collateral damage of war. We have to work together this is a matter for the good minds in all sectors legal, military, government, policing, humanitarian, diplomatic, judicial and NGOs. We need practical, tangible actions.

It is a call echoed by former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and UNHCRs Special Envoy Angelina Jolie who led the specially convened Global Summit in London in June to End Sexual Violence in Conflict and where Jolie called for the world to work together for women in the DRC. The Australian Armys Lieutenant General David Morrison also addressed the Summit, lamenting  we live in a world where the squandering of women's talent, the traducing of their potential, is a global disgrace.

As I often point out to the refugee and displaced women I speak to in conflict zones, violence against women is a problem across the world, including in Australia. However in our country we are lucky to have the support of government and legal and social systems to support victims of violence. Vulnerable refugees and displaced women have neither the protection of their own country or often their host country and must rely on the support of humanitarian bodies like UNHCR.

A young Congolese woman at a UNHCR refugee camp. Image: Thomas Mukoya.
In the DRC were talking about violence against women and girls happening on an extreme scale because of a collapse of rule of law and government and infrastructure. It is in this vacuum that UNHCR is funding a number of grassroots programs.

One of those programs is headed up by Sister Angelique Namaika a catholic nun who operates a safe haven for women and children in Dungu, Orientale province in northeastern DRC. Here, nearly everyone I spoke to when I visited recently has been a victim of the notorious militia group the Lords Resistance Army (LRA).

Supported by UNHCR, Sister Angeliques group La maison des femmes runs a bakery, literacy classes, psychosocial counseling for victims of sexual violence, and also an agricultural project that literally embodies those green shoots of hope springing up in the DRC.

In a remote agricultural clearing 80 women toil together on individual plots of land growing maize, rice and cassava. It is tough work but also restorative. As one woman, who had two sons kidnapped by the LRA - one returning to her with his right arm chopped off and the other dead - tells me I thought I would die with sadness but now with these other women for the first time I can think ahead. Woman after woman told me of the importance of this support, the opportunity to earn a livelihood and to be independent.

A Congolese refugee woman proudly shows the produce from her land. Image: Australia for UNHCR.
Further east in the beautiful but still dangerous hills of North Kivus Masisi country where the most active militia group the M23 retreated to last year, I met young girls aged as young as 12 years old, who had been rescued by UNHCR from one of the towns many brothels.  They were just little schoolgirls. According to NGOs in the area, prostitution and survival sex has gone hand in hand with conflict and the expansion of mining in the area.

UNHCR funds a rape crisis centre and health clinic in Masisi where rape victims receive post exposure prophylactics, counseling services and assistance reporting rape to the police. UNHCR also has funded mobile courts to bring perpetrators to justice.

Believing prevention is the key, UNHCR is now focusing on sensitization programs working with local communities to bring awareness about women and girls rights. These include street theatre, comic books and even a TV Soap series that is widely watched in DRC about the challenges a girls soccer team faces with sub themes of sexual harassment and violence, forced marriages and survivor sex.  

In a discussion group I attended, after a film on rape was shown, the audience was asked for their reactions. One of the local men stood up and said, very honestly, I know now that its not right to rape women. I heard a woman say that she now understood that rapists can be prosecuted. This might seem small, but these are real signs of change.

A theatre group at a refugee camp teach Congolese refugees about ending domestic violence. Image: Thomas Mukoya.
As the Australian Government calls for new ways for government and the private sector to engage together to promote foreign aid initiatives we look to opportunities to work with government and other Australian actors in DRC including the mining sector to help stop the endemic of sexual violence and to ensure men and women can live in dignity and safety.

Our country, through more than 80,000 individual Australians who donate to Australia for UNHCR gives more to UNHCR on a per capita basis from the private sector than any other country. While the domestic asylum debate dominates the headlines we should not forget that Australians in their thousands are actively supporting women in places like DRC with tangible and practical help.

This comes at the same time that both the Australian government and global leaders have highlighted this issue as one of the most compelling issues women face globally right now. Now, on the International Day of Non-Violence, we should grasp this unique moment to help the entire Congolese nation take a stand against the tragic culture of rape that has pervaded it for so long.   

Women Together: Conflict, Courage and Hope is a photographic exhibition taken during a recent Australia for UNHCR mission to the DRC. The exhibition is at the Nishi Gallery, 17 Kendall Lane, New Acton, ACT and will run to Sunday 5 October

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Take action on World Humanitarian Day

Today is World Humanitarian Day, which is our opportunity to celebrate the spirit that inspires humanitarian work around the globe. When we asked our staff what being a humanitarian meant we got a mix of answers. “Someone that puts others before them.” “Being kind to other people and respecting their rights.” “Seeing beyond race or religion.” Or as someone said to me, “it means the love of humanity.”

As the head of Australia for UNHCR, it’s my job is to ask Australians to support someone who has no one else to rely on, in another country thousands of kilometres away who they are unlikely to ever meet. The fact that we currently have 70,000 Australians who are doing just that is something very personally inspiring, and it’s also a strong message that Australians do care about refugees.

UNHCR is a unique organisation to work for with 80 per cent of my colleagues working on the frontline, often in remote places and conflict zones. Today we are raising funds for UNHCR’s emergency operations in some of those places through our Action Hour campaign, which we just launched in Melbourne.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

On the frontline of the South Sudan crisis

Right now, conflict-torn South Sudan is facing one of its biggest crises with thousands of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries and many more displaced within the country itself. As in so many conflicts, it is civilians – ordinary men, women and children – who suffer most.

I went to see for myself what the situation was like on the South Sudan border during a recent three-day visit with UNHCR colleagues to Kakuma refugee camp where Australia for UNHCR has funded projects for a number of years.

Crossing the border

I went first to Nadapal Border Transit centre where I spoke with newly arriving refugees who had travelled there by truck, bus and the last kilometre by Kenyan taxis (a rather incongruous sight in the bush). Many had been stranded on the other side of the flooded river and had spent a nerve wracking time fearing they might be forced back into South Sudan.