UNHCR stories from the field: “The pandemic is much more
than a health issue”

UNHCR, 9 February 2021

“Stories from the field” is an interview series providing insight into the daily lives of some of the Nordic and Baltic UNHCR colleagues, working for the organization all over the world.

This is an interview with Swedish Toloe Masori, Protection Cluster Coordinator with UNHCR in Erbil, Iraq. Toloe Masori started as Junior Professional Officer (JPO) in 2014, based in Amman, Jordan and has also worked in Lebanon and Syria. She is specialized in international law, human rights, and refugee law.

​Why did you choose to work for UNHCR?

“I’ve always wanted to work with human rights and international law, and chose to specialize in refugee law. I graduated in 2009, and then went to Cairo to volunteer with an NGO called AMERA (Africa and Middle East Refugee Agency). The organization provided legal support to refugees whose refugee status determination (RSD) interviews were run by UNHCR. That experience made me realize that this is what I wanted to do professionally.

I went home and started applying for jobs, but it was very difficult – the UN as an employer required a lot of previous experience to be considered. Instead, I got a job with the Swedish Migration Agency and worked there for over four years, before managing to transfer to UNHCR. My initial opportunity was as a Junior Professional Officer (JPO) in Amman, Jordan, which was in line with my preference to work with supporting refugees in the field.”

How would you describe your work?

“My current position is a coordination role. I’m in charge of what is called cluster coordination for protection in the north of Iraq. In the country as a whole, there are over 590,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), including more than 142,000 IDPs in camps. Additionally, more than 1.7 million returnees need specialized protection services (N.B.: these numbers reflect the situation before recent camp closures). My role is to coordinate the protection partners on the ground who respond to the needs of the people who are internally displaced, or returnees.

In practice, this means a lot of meetings to ensure that the work of different partners do not overlap, to provide support to partners where it is needed, and to advocate on behalf of them, as well as on behalf of internally displaced people. For any protection incidents inside or outside of the camps, we advocate at the level of governments and donors. During the sudden camp closures in Ninewa, Iraq, which took place over the last month, we coordinated the protection work in Ninewa and raised protection concerns and other issues that arose due to the camp closures.

This is a very particular type of role, and it is new to me. One of the most interesting parts is how closely I work with and support NGOs. Although UNHCR does some direct implementation itself, a lot is accomplished through UNHCR’s implementing partners, including NGOs. Ultimately, my role is not to represent UNHCR but the protection cluster that help those that have been forced to flee.”

What are some of the best experiences you’ve had, working for UNHCR?

“Working in Syria was really interesting, because of the situation in the country. I arrived in January 2018, right as the fighting erupted in eastern Ghouta, outside of the capital, Damascus between armed groups and the army.

At the time we were living only a few kilometres away, and we could hear the bombs falling. It’s a strange feeling. You hear it, but it is not your house that the bombs are hitting. Simultaneously, you know that people are suffering and dying.

In December of the same year, I was on a mission to eastern Ghouta. We could witness the destruction – what we had heard months earlier. We saw the conditions under which people were living. We were there on a donor mission focused on legal support and shelters. That experience was emotional and eye-opening – first hearing the bombs and then seeing the aftermath, while trying to provide support to those suffering.”

What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced, working for UNHCR?

“Working for UNHCR in Syria was very challenging, as UNHCR is impartial, yet operates in a highly politicized environment. All you want to do is focus on your mission – providing protection, shelter, and basic necessities to people in need.

I worked as Reporting and External Relations Officer, and as such had to be extremely careful in my wording in external documents in order not to jeopardize UNHCR’s presence on the ground. The gap between expectations and reality was considerable. The situation was much more difficult than just “helping people” – that is important to underline. Sometimes humanitarian work is made to seem glamorous or simple. Having said that, people on the ground are extremely dedicated. And once you are there and get to see the impact of your efforts, it is all worth it.

Now, during the pandemic, I have worked with two operations. For the first six months, I was based in Lebanon focusing on Syria. Since September, my work has been concentrated on Iraq. The UN’s practice is to stay and deliver. It has been challenging, but everyone is doing their best.

Another aspect is the unpredictability of what we are facing. We talk about the pandemic as a public health issue, but for vulnerable communities it is so much more than that. The issue also has socio-economic aspects, with many countries in the Middle East in parallel going through a financial crisis. As a consequence, people are losing their jobs and livelihoods, and many cannot support their families. A lot of protection issues have come up as a consequence of COVID-19. Next year, there will probably be even more severe consequences.”

Original article here.

This article was written by Nannie Sköld.

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