Real talk: The thrills and risks of being a female humanitarian worker

UNHCR ‘veteran’ Aurvasi Patel and ‘rookie’ Eujin Byun share their thoughts on career, family and when it’s okay to cry at work.

UNHCR’s Eujin Byun holds a refugee baby in her arms at a refugee camp in South Sudan. ©UNHCR/James Jamba Charles

39 per cent of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency’s staff are women. That figure dwindles to 22 per cent when it comes to high-risk duty stations like Afghanistan and South Sudan, where Aurvasi Patel and Eujin Byun are based.

Aurvasi Patel has been with UNHCR for almost 30 years and is currently the Deputy Representative in Afghanistan. She has worked all over the world protecting refugees and displaced people, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Sri Lanka and Tajikistan.

Eujin Byun joined UNHCR in 2012. During the Syria crisis, she spent two years producing stories in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. Since 2016, she has been based in South Sudan as a spokesperson.

Aurvasi and Eujin sat down with UNHCR’s digital editor Marta Martinez to openly talk about their reality as women humanitarians in the field.

Eujin Byun (left) and Aurvasi Patel (right) working in the field. (UNHCR/James Jamba Charles; UNHCR/Mert Gokhan Koc; UNHCR/Donna Corcoran)

Do you remember specific moments in your careers as humanitarian workers in which your gender played an important role—either positive or negative?

Aurvasi Patel: I was in Bosnia during the war in the 1990s. In those days I was one of a few females in the humanitarian arena. When you were in a room full of men and you were sort of the “token,” men were gracious in giving you the floor and you got stuff out. I was a young woman talking about the rights of internally displaced people and protection of civilians, trying to help them understand what UNHCR was about and what we did and why we did it. In that context, my gender helped a lot.

After the Srebrenica genocide, we had to evacuate the Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims]. You had to pass checkpoints and then as soon as they saw a woman it was like: ‘No, no, no. It’s too dangerous.’ You have to either go back or negotiate your way in. Because of your gender, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be allowed forward to get on with your work.

Eujin Byun: I had a very similar experience in July 2016, when a crisis broke out in South Sudan. They had to quickly evacuate me out of Maban, one of the remotest parts of the country. Then I came back and they had to evacuate me again because a group of humanitarian women had been raped in Juba. I asked them, ‘Can I stay? I think in Maban I will be safe. I can do my job better inside of South Sudan.’ They had to evacuate because they couldn’t allow any security risk. Although I fully understood why they had to, I kept asking them, ‘Can I stay?’

“Because of your gender, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be allowed forward to get on with your work.”

On the positive side, I feel that, when I talk to refugee and internally displaced women, they open up more when it comes to talking about sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) or child protection than they would with a male colleague. They rarely see a foreign woman and it’s easy for them to approach me and they welcome me in their community. At the same time, as a young woman it’s very difficult to be accepted by the community leaders, who are dominantly men. When I go to focus group discussions and then I ask something, they would say something like, ‘What do you know?’

Aurvasi: Here in Afghanistan, where they have strict gender roles and separation, my gender greatly benefits me. When the High Commissioner for Refugees came, his female senior adviser and I were allowed to go and speak to the women and we were able to get a lot of information. When it’s the men, I have also been able to ask, ‘Can I join?’ And invariably I am allowed to go to the discussions with the men because I’m a foreigner. It’s quite interesting here that it can work favorably on both sides.

A young girl waits in line with her mother at a UNHCR distribution activity in Kabul, Afghanistan. ©UNHCR/Jason Tanner

Are there any stereotypes that annoy you or situations that repeatedly happen to you just because you’re a woman?

Aurvasi: First they’ll say, ‘You’re a young person,’ and then, ‘You’re a young woman,’ and then, ‘What would you know? You’re a woman.’ And then, ‘Why aren’t you married and why aren’t you back home?’

Eujin: I get it all the time too [laughs].

Aurvasi: ‘Why don’t you have children?’ In societies such as Afghanistan, but also in the Balkans, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan, invariably there is this expectation that at a certain age women should be at home having children. So that will come out in the conversation, whether you’re planning or not. I’m always joking that it’s not UNHCR or the work I do, it’s just my very bad taste in men that’s resulted in me being single. [Laughs]

“Invariably there is this expectation that at a certain age women should be at home having children.”

Eujin: Yeah, it happens to me too. Especially now, at my age, people are asking: ‘Are you married? Where’s your husband? How many children do you have?’ And then eventually when I say, ‘No, I’m not married, I don’t have children’—immediately they’ll say, ‘What’s your problem then?’

For national staff it’s much harsher. They receive very negative comments from the community and even from staff sometimes. That’s because of tradition and cultural perception. Most of our national staff have left their families and children in neighbouring countries, so they’re supporting them while working in South Sudan.

Aurvasi: In countries experiencing conflict, women end up taking on roles and responsibilities they never envisaged, including becoming humanitarian workers. Often they end up becoming the chief breadwinners of their families. Working outside of their home is accepted, as their income is needed for the survival of the family.

“For national staff it’s much harsher. They receive very negative comments from the community and even staff.”
Mmone Moletsane is a Child Protection Officer for UNHCR in Ethiopia, originally from South Africa. (UNHCR/Oli Cohen)

What about women refugees in the countries where you work? How does your gender connect you with what they’re going through?

Aurvasi: It’s quite difficult for women particularly, because they’re stereotyped and they haven’t had the opportunities they deserve. They’re the survivors. That’s what I’m always amazed about: women’s strength in keeping the family together—probably because of our DNA, because they are the ones who gave birth to the child. Even when they’re not the head of household, they will do anything to protect their kids.

“You cannot do this work long-term if you feel frustrated at the beginning of your battles.”

Eujin: For me it’s the same thing, which is: resilience, resilience, resilience of women. That amazes me every day. Two years ago in Maban I interviewed 25 mothers and every single one of them said, ‘I’m doing this for my child to survive, to make a better future for my child.’ When I saw the women suffering in the camp, I struggled. When I heard about SGBV incidents, I felt frustrated. One Sudanese refugee mother said something to me that I will always keep in my heart: ‘This is a long battle, where there is no winner and loser. I am not fighting for me but for the next generation.’ You cannot do this work long-term if you feel frustrated at the beginning of your battles.

I always think how unfair and random it is that, as a woman, depending on where you are born, your life experience will be completely different.

Aurvasi: I’ve always said that, especially when the Royals have babies. Here is a child born to this very privileged family and, at the same time, in a village in Afghanistan a little boy or a little girl is born. The fates of these two kids are so disparate. It’s happiness on both sides of families that the child is born, but one is going to be in an extreme difficult situation because of being in Afghanistan. Then compounded by the fact that if you’re a girl, you’re treated as a lesser of a being. In western Afghanistan we have a terrible drought and we are seeing a lot of child marriages. You have this four-year-old, six-year-old, eight-year-old who is sold off. I am sure it has broken their fathers’ hearts to do this, but in a report a man said, ‘It was either to do this or all of us starve.’

“We see so much injustice and discrimination but at the same time we see the hope and resilience.”

I’m constantly telling staff to remember how lucky we are. Whatever problems we have, in relative terms, are minor and there’s so many people out there that would love to have our problems. It helps in keeping the positivity and the energy.

Eujin: Actually yesterday, I went to the refugee camp and one of the girls, who is 17 years old, was waiting for us at the school. She was in her last year of primary school and she was the top student. But her father is not allowing her to go to secondary school. She wanted us to help her convince her father and we are currently following up with him. In the evening, I was talking with my friends about their kids in Europe and what soccer team they are going to join and then suddenly I started crying thinking about that girl. She was so desperate to continue her education while her father wanted her to get married and have children. I think it is one of the challenges in the work we do, we see so much injustice and discrimination but at the same time we see the hope and resilience, as though they compensate each other.

A young refugee girl studying in Maban County refugee camp, South Sudan. ©UNHCR/Eujin Byun

How have other women helped you in your career or how have you helped other women?

Eujin: I was in Lebanon during the Syria refugee crisis. I saw children and women living in tents when there was a huge snowstorm and then when I entered my house with a heater, a roof, nice food—I just cried every day. Then I got very good advice from a senior officer. She said, ‘If you cannot accept those differences, you cannot continue your work as humanitarian. Somehow you have to accept them and then you have to move on, because you are there to assist them and if you are suffering from their situation you cannot support them.’ It was an amazing advice. I always get that kind of advice especially from senior female staff like Aurvasi. We see the number of women in senior management is increasing and that actually has a huge impact, so that we can learn from them. It’s really inspiring to hear your story, after 30 years with UNHCR—I don’t know how you could do that [laughs].

“I will cry as well, even after 30 years. But I just try and hope that it is not in a field setting.”

Aurvasi: I still really, really love my job and I’m very excited to get up and go to work. Of course you have one or two bad days every decade [laughs]. I actually enjoy management. I enjoy bringing out what I can with a team. That’s one of the most critical things you’ve got to be able to do—to support one another and bring out the best in each other. Like you said, I sob like a baby in any movie. And I will cry as well, even after 30 years. But I just try and hope that it is not in a field setting. Our job is to help the people and therefore us being emotional in some instances might work, it might help them to feel that we’re empathetic, that we understand, but in other situations it might be the opposite—‘How is this woman going to help us if she’s crying? We do enough of it ourselves and we need somebody strong and determined.’ Of course we’re human, so as much as you want to have this emotion, sometimes you just have to deal with it and accept that it’s probably not the right emotion at that right time.

The beauty of our job—aside from the amazing work we are privileged to do—is the peers and the friends that you forge. They become the surrogate family and the morale boosters. They’re there for you, they understand what you’ve been through.

You have both undergone some really dangerous situations while working in the field. Aurvasi, you were trapped in a car during a terrorist attack by the Taliban in 2008, and you, Eujin, were in South Sudan in 2016, when a series of women aid workers were raped. Did you ever fear for your lives? How did your colleagues help in those situations?

Eujin: I think fear is there, clearly. Even greater after this rape incident, because it feels too close to me. Ever since then I think the fear is there among the female staff. But that’s why the colleagues here in this environment are so important—hearing that I’m not the only one who is afraid, that it’s okay to be afraid. And then we jokingly say that we’ll protect each other. We we sit together, we drink tea and we talk about those kinds of fears and it actually helps a lot.

“When you’re at work, you’re family.”

Aurvasi: I seem to be one of these people that can think in danger situations, so I was able to manage it and of course once you get out of it, you think, ‘Oh my god, any of these scenarios could have happened.’ You’ve got to be mindful that it could happen again. In Afghanistan today the security environment is so difficult and a large number of humanitarian workers were killed last year. My representative at that time and the deputy did an amazing job in keeping the team together. After the attack, I remember all of us having takeaway pizzas because nobody wanted to go home. The way it was managed was wonderful in terms of reminding us how when you’re at work, you’re family.

Aurvasi Patel speaking about Afghanistan at the United Nations Association of Austria. ©UNA-Austria

Beyond stereotypes, there’s always a moment when a woman asks herself about having a family and how that will affect her career. How do you deal with the feared question?

Aurvasi: Family is very important. You really, really need to balance the two because you can end up in a situation where you’ve put your heart and soul in the organization and that’s fantastic, but then if you’re bitter and twisted about the fact that your other part of your life has been neglected, or you have a realization that you could have done more, then there’s no going back. It’s not really healthy for you either, and then unhealthy means it will affect you and your work, and at the end of the day that means it’s going to impact the delivery, and the person at the end of that chain is going to be a beneficiary.

Eujin: For young female professionals it’s important to see role models, because they are the path that we want to follow. It’s quite inspiring for us to see a lot of women in senior management positions, telling us that it is possible to have a family and work, and that it is fine to be single too. In my age group we are talking a lot about whether it is okay to stay another year in a dangerous duty station like South Sudan, when you’re not married and don’t have a baby, or should we move on and leave UNHCR to have a family. But when we see a lot of inspiring senior female staff, we say, ‘Yes, she achieved that much. I can do it.’

“At the end of the day, if you are a happy person inside, you will make it in whatever you do.”

Aurvasi: When we start our careers in many ways as women—and also as men because that perception of the ‘provider’ is still there and in whichever society you talk about—there is always this thing of being successful and to be successful you’ve got to be this way and that way. When you reach a certain age you start thinking, what is the important thing about life? Is it very much about getting to that level of being seen as a director or is it really having a good balance in your life and knowing yourself?

It’s important to know yourself and don’t let the pressures of your peers, your family whatever pushes you into having a very successful career because that’s so important, to the detriment of what your own self says that makes you happy. Because at the end of the day, if you are a happy person inside, you will make it in whatever you do and whatever choice you make.

What would you say to a young woman who is thinking about starting a career as a humanitarian worker?

Aurvasi: I started in this kind of work when it was very different. Humanitarian workers were respected. They were much more secure. The environment has become quite dangerous. However, it’s probably the one of the most rewarding careers. It does really make you appreciate what you have. I think giving to others and helping others is always going to be a maternal instinct. As women we have this DNA—in 99.9 per cent of the cases—that makes us want to do this kind of work. I think it’s a very privileged job for women. My advice is know yourself, know what you want to do, know what you want to contribute and then go for it.

“With more and more SGBV incidents being reported by women, more female humanitarian workers are needed to support them in the system.”

Eujin: I don’t think there was one single day I regretted having chosen this job. Of course there’s the day that I fear for any kind of a security incident, and the day that I am frustrated, but at the end of the day, when you see those women pushing their children to go to school or stepping forward to protect each other, it’s all okay. There is a lot of work to be done as a female humanitarian worker and there is a certain advantage. With more and more SGBV incidents being reported by women, more female humanitarian workers are needed to support them in the system. I really encourage more fellow women to join us!

Are you thinking about pursuing a career as a humanitarian worker? Learn more about career opportunities at UNHCR.