A day in the life of Gemma, a refugee protection officer in Iraq


Gemma Woods has worked for UNHCR since 2007 and has been deployed in Yemen, Tunisia, Kenya and Iraq. In May, she joined UNHCR’s operations in the Kurdish region of Iraq as a Protection Officer and was on the front line of UNHCR’s operations as millions of Iraqis fled Islamic state militants later that year. Here she recounts a typical day on the emergency frontline during the influx of internally displaced Iraqis into the Kurdish region in August 2014…

6:00am I love this time of the day – still, cool, quiet – but even at this time of the morning you can feel the earth hinting at the heat that will come. I work at the UN compound in Erbil, the capital of Iraq Kurdistan. The compound is guarded at all times by UN and Kurdish security forces. Barbed wire traces the tall, concrete perimeter walls and it takes some adjusting to working in this way and it’s not always easy.

As the sun rises we get security clearance to travel to the newly established Khazair transit camp, located between Erbil and Mosul. While Kurdistan has been more stable than most parts of Iraq, with the recent conflict we have to be incredibly careful. Our safety is important because only then can we ensure the safety of the people who depend on UNHCR’s support.

7:15am As the convoy leaves, my workday starts. The radio beeps with frequent security updates from the UN base, I reply to emails and make phone calls to arrange meetings for the day, at the same time as finishing a monthly report. UNHCR is never quiet – we talk constantly – to our colleagues, to the people we’re supporting, to other NGOS, to the government authorities. We talk and we listen.

9:30am Today, I was supposed to be following up on selected cases of extremely vulnerable camp residents but dozens of new families have just arrived at the camp. The past few days and weeks have completely overwhelmed our resources and as quickly as we establish new camps with Kurdish authorities, they’re full. Today people are coming on foot, holding the hands of children and carrying the elderly. They’re wearing the exact same clothes they had on the day the militants rolled into town. Everyone is horribly traumatized and many have lost family members due to the conflict. The needs of people are so great. Everyone needs so much more than food, water and shelter.

10:00am Camps are busy places but at registration points there is always a heavy silence. Even the children are quiet. I can’t possibly imagine how everyone feels but I hope that our presence can reassure and at least we can make people physically comfortable while they wait for registration. I do a quick check to see how registration processes are going and then help to distribute water and snacks, as I talk with people for monitoring purposes.

11:45am It’s getting hot now and by midday temperatures will be well past 45 degrees Celsius. The expression ‘Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’ comes to mind and I think they should add UNHCR workers to this list! I can’t complain. At the end of the day we get air conditioning and a shower back at our accommodation. The people who’ve arrived today, they have nothing except the basics we can supply them with.

3:30pm I next head to check on a young man named Mohammed, paralyzed from the waist down, who came with a group of recent arrivals. His neighbours helped him escape after his family was killed in a bombing. He was in and out of consciousness when he arrived and in very bad shape. I find him and he’s awake and alert. I arrange for a full assessment with a community services colleague so that we can establish a proper support plan for him. He’s scared and worried about the future, perfectly aware that he could be a burden on his neighbours. I reassure him but I feel worried too. I worry about so many of the people I meet. How can I not? Everyone that we work with is vulnerable because they are displaced but with cases like this, I don’t know what would happen if it wasn’t for our protection staff.

4:15pm I’m being called on my hand-held radio by our driver – the convoy has to leave so that  we can meet our security curfew and so I start to head back to base. It’s then I hear two little familiar voices calling my name! Eman and Leila are best friends and they think they are my protectors around the camp, not the other way around. They escort me back to the 4WD and promise to come and say hi when I’m next back in the camp.

4:30pm As we leave, I call the office updating them on developments and highlighting the special cases that need to be monitored. I’m already thinking about the reports I will need to finish this evening and I know it will be a long night but as I glance out the window, I see my little protectors grinning and waving, and it’s the little human moments like this that make it all worthwhile.


Sep 25 2015
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