Knowledge Base

Voice from the Field: A UNHCR Emergency Response Coordinator in Bangladesh


UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, was one of the top charities nominated by giffgaffers for this December's charity vote, committed to refugee relief for the people who need it most. Right now, they're supporting refugees all over the world, including those fleeing violence in Myanmar. Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams from UNHCR recounts a day in the refugee camp for them in Bangladesh.

 We were extremely proud to be one of five extremely worthy causes shortlisted for December’s charity vote as a result of nominations by giffgaffers – thank you.


For many of you, it may have been the first time you had heard of UNHCR or, as we are commonly called, the UN Refugee Agency. To give a brief introduction, we are the global lead for refugee emergencies, dedicated to protecting over 65 million people worldwide who are currently forcibly displaced from their homes. We deliver an array of vital humanitarian aid, such as emergency tents, and long-term programmes, such as business skills training, and are currently working in over 125 countries.


One of the fastest growing and most severe refugee emergencies is in Bangladesh, where an estimated 626,000 refugees have streamed across the border from Myanmar since 25th August. This is the equivalent population of what would be the fourth largest city in the UK all arriving in just 3 months.


To try to convey exactly what is happening in Bangladesh, we’d like to share with you a personal account of a day in the Kutupalong refugee camp and extension site in Cox’s Bazar, written by the UNHCR Emergency Response Coordinator Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams and recently shared with supporters on our website and social media channels.

Imagine the terror of trying to survive, trying to feed your children and maintain some sense of comfort when you’re losing your loved ones, or watching your home being burned to the ground. These are some of the people I’ve met here in Bangladesh.


Many are women, trying the best they can to be mothers to their scared and distressed children, though they themselves are struggling to make sense of the last few months. One mother lost her daughter the day before. She was trying to be strong for her other children, but they were all clearly shaken. They had lived a long time in fear, never knowing when they might be the next victims of the violence that had taken so many of their relatives and neighbors.


Several women told me about witnessing young girls abducted, and fathers, sons and brothers arrested and never seen again.




I’ve met many others at the UNHCR Transit Centre, where the most vulnerable new arrivals can stay for up to three days before being relocated. These are the families needing special assistance before they can continue: the elderly, those with disabilities, pregnant women, new mothers and malnourished or sick children. There are several families who survived a horrible boat capsize. Of the 42 people on board, four were killed. Twenty-two others were injured badly enough to require hospital treatment.


I also see tenacious, dedicated UNHCR colleagues who make me proud of the organization that I still believe in after 20 years of service. UNHCR teams are out in the field, at the borders, in the camps and transit centres, early in the morning until well into the night. 



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I know colleagues who left this morning at 4:30 to get to the border areas. Last night, I was on the phone getting information until almost midnight.


We’re trying our hardest to reach everyone who needs our assistance, even the farthest outreaches of the camps and settlements where vehicles cannot go. Today I’ve walked over seven kilometres and climbed the equivalent of 16 flights of stairs. One colleague told me about a day he clocked over 18 kilometres. He was tasked with identifying vulnerable families and ensuring that everyone with specific needs was accessing critical services. He interviewed almost a hundred families that day and had the sore feet and proud smile to show for his efforts.


Colleagues from many different countries and backgrounds – former bankers, teachers, engineers from numerous religions and countries – are all working together tirelessly to plan new settlements for newly arrived families. No matter the weather, whether it’s heavy rain or a brutal sun, they’re doing everything from laying down roads in the transit centre to managing a counselling session for a dozen Rohingya women. These women survived sexual violence and are strong enough to share their terrifying stories.


I’ve met so many brave Rohingya families who have little more than the clothes on their back and the weight of their trauma and loss. And the painful memories of the violence that forced them to flee their homes.


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Yet as the sun sets over the latest development of the Kutupalong extension site, I’m surrounded by the sounds of hammering, sawing, animated chatter and laughter as families build new homes with bamboo, cord and plastic sheeting that we’ve given them.


I see children flying kites they’d fashioned from plastic bags and bits of twig, finding joy when their toys finally soar high above them. I smell the aroma of dinners being cooked for families to share together, using the kitchen sets UNHCR provides. I know it can be hard to explain how important such simple utensils are in an emergency, but without them, how would people cook? How would people start to rebuild their lives? 


I will make this clear: there is so much work to be done. The needs are so great. But that simply means there is so much we can do, that there are so many people who can be helped.


The smiles I see on the children’s faces show this simple truth: every effort, every donation counts.  


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 UNHCR-visibility-horizontal-Blue-RGB-v2015.jpgJoung-ah Ghedini-Williams is UNHCR's Emergency Response Coordinator in Bangladesh. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building better futures for refugees.


If you'd like to use your Payback to make a donation to UNHCR once you receive it, you can. Your donation will go towards improving the lives of vulnerable refugees globally, including the hundreds of thousands currently stranded in deteriorating conditions in Bangladesh.


 Text "GGUN58 £1" to 70070 (you can adjust the amount to £2, £3, £4, £5, or £10 if you like)

or visit the giffgaff community fundraising page on JustGiving to make your donation.


If you'd like to know more about the member-nominated charities this year, keep an eye out on the blog or visit the charity nominations thread in the community.


What a wonderful report. The tireless work these people do is truly amazing...... We take so much for granted living in the UK without realizing just how fortunate we are. What a worthwhile cause for Giffgaffers to contribute to.


Another very worthy cause.


So nice to see people are willing to help each other.

Kudos to giffgaff for profiling charity finalists!


I hadn't heard of this organisation although I knew of other agencies helping with the crisis.  There is such an imbalance in the world, it's not fair, and we are so lucky in the west.  Thanks for bringing this to our attention.