Mohamed Alkalifa Ag Mohamed lived as a refugee in Mauritania for six years before returning to Mali where he works for UNHCR as a communications assistant | Photo: Credit: UNHCR/CHADI OUANES
Mohamed Alkalifa Ag Mohamed lived as a refugee in Mauritania for six years before returning to Mali where he works for UNHCR as a communications assistant | Photo: Credit: UNHCR/CHADI OUANES

Many humanitarian operators working for the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR have first-hand experience of being forced to flee their homes. One example is Mohamed, who fled from Mali to Mauritania and today works as a communications assistant for UNHCR in his country. Oleksandra, who was forced to flee twice, also currently works at UNHCR -- in Dnipro, Ukraine.

Many members of the UN Refugee Agency's staff can count on first-hand experience of displacement, UNHCR said in an article published Friday (August 19) on its website to mark World Humanitarian Day, when hundreds of thousands of humanitarian operators are celebrated around the world.

The experience of fleeing their country before working for the UN agency inspires and informs the work of many members of staff, UNHCR said.

The article titled "I am you and you are me: UNHCR staff draw on first-hand knowledge of displacement," tells the stories of Mohamed, who is from Mali, and Oleksandra, a Ukrainian, who both work for the agency after experiencing what it means to be a refugee.

Mohamed, 'simple words are enough to make refugees understood'

Mohamed Alkalifa Ag Mohamed knows that a few simple questions can make a difference between hope and despair for people who have fled their homes, UNCHR wrote.

His family had spent years opening their door to fellow Malians displaced first by drought and then by violence before having to flee their own home when war broke out in Mali in 2012.

After fleeing to Mauritania and settling near M'bera refugee camp, Mohamed started visiting centers receiving newly arrived refugees and observe how they were welcomed by humanitarian operators, the article explained.

"At these moments, I realized the importance of a few expressions, such as 'Are you comfortable? Please have some rest. How can I help you? Please have some water...," the operator was quoted as saying in the article.

"I saw the relief on many refugees' faces who felt safer as they felt understood... It reminded me of what I felt when I arrived," said Mohamed, who returned to Mali after six years and now works as a communications assistant for UNHCR.

Oleksandra, 'I try to explain to the displaced that they may never be able to return home'

Oleksandra Lytvynenko, an assistant protection officer in UNHCR's field office in Dnipro, Ukraine, was forced to flee her home twice, the article said. The first time she fled fighting between government and pro-Russian forces in her hometown of Luhansk in 2014. At the time, she packed only a few summer clothes, thinking she would be gone a few weeks at most, but she never returned.

Living as an internally displaced person in the city of Sievierodonetsk, she initially struggled to find work, but her background working with children and families for local authorities in Luhansk led her to a job with UNHCR, the agency said.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, she was the head of the field unit in Sievierodonetsk. She and her team evacuated to Dnipro after several weeks organizing distributions of food, shelter materials and other essentials during the day, and sleeping in a bunker at night.

"The second time (I fled), I knew what to bring, what clothes. I brought a bit of summer, a bit of autumn, a bit of winter -- not like the first time" Oleksandra was quoted as saying.

"The second time, I understood that I will not come back". This, she said, is the hardest part of her job -- explaining to displaced people that they may never be able to return home.

"I understand people and that they have left behind everything -- houses, relatives, everything. But I explain to them that life continues," she said.

"I am a displaced person and it means I have a huge number of displaced people among my relatives and friends, and that's maybe why I feel better if I'm helping people."


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