Frontliners for refugees: Simon Denhere and Christine Khavetsa
To mark World Refugee Day 2020, we bring you two stories of our colleagues from Kenya, whose purpose in life is to help refugees, despite all challenges.
Some of WFP’s impactful work happens in refugee camps such as Dabaab or Kakuma in Kenya. There are dedicated colleagues in the field who make things happen for WFP. Two such colleagues are Simon Denhere, who works as Head of Office in Dadaab and Christine Khavetsa, who works as a Programme Policy Officer in Kakuma.
A Zimbabwean, Simon started his career as a supply chain officer for UNICEF, “crossing the street” to WFP in the 90s as a procurement officer in Zimbabwe. There he helped deliver food to five refugee camps along Zimbabwe’s eastern border with Mozambique, a country immersed in a civil war at the time.
“Whenever I visited the camps, it was very gratifying to see how the long hours I had spent drafting tenders and contracts for suppliers and transporters in Harare have turned into bags of maize meal, pulses and jerrycans of oil in the hands of thousands of families,” says Simon, a seasoned commodity market specialist and an experienced procurement practitioner.
Simon currently leads a team of about 60 highly dedicated people in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, where nearly 250,000 refugees and asylum seekers receive in-kind food and cash transfers every month. He also fosters partnerships with other agencies, partners, national and county government agencies in support of the refugees and resilience projects for the host community.
“Dadaab is a challenging environment, with high levels of insecurity due to proximity to the Somali border and its complexities have only worsened with the detection of COVID-19 among refugees,” Simon explains. “My team acknowledges the challenges but is highly motivated and determined to serve because we all know that WFP’s food distributions are lifesaving and cannot be stopped.”
Born on the hills of Ingolomosio in Kakamega, in the highlands of western Kenya, Christine Khavetsa cherishes beautiful memories of her childhood, a time of fun and endless play. “There were no dull or stressful moments, only the occasional disappointments that came when I couldn’t catch a butterfly, or my home-made trap failed to catch a bird, or a bee stung me for interrupting its hop from one flower to another,” says Christine.
After graduating from Egerton University in Kenya’s Rift Valley in 2008, Christine joined WFP as monitoring assistant in 2011 in Kenya CO. After working in Dadaab refugee’s camps supporting smallholder farmers and beneficiary services in different capacities, she moved to the Kakuma refugee camp in 2019, where she currently supports management and implementation of the self-reliance activities as part of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework in Kenya.
Christine likes every part of her job, but her heart heavily leans towards the agricultural activities. “They remind me so much of my happy childhood days and I love it. But unlike my home — the western Kenya highlands — Kakuma is in the arid county of Turkana, a region that sometimes goes for two years without a single drop of rain.”
To improve the aridity of the soil in Turkana, WFP’s engineers have found a solution: rain water harvesting. “When it rains, sometimes far off in the hills across the Ugandan border, water flows through the settlements wreaking havoc but minutes later, the land is dry again,” she explains. To fix this problem, WFP embarked on building dams and pans to harvest the surface run-off and make it available for agricultural production.
“I work on project management, supporting the construction of these water harvesting structures that are making the arid land suitable for farming through irrigation,” she explains. As part of her job, she also travels several times a week to one of the water pans built by WFP, which currently irrigates a horticulture farm in Kalobeyei settlement. “I meet with the community leaders to understand the issues, and we often hold coordination meetings with partners and the local government.”
Added challenges due to COVID-19
As Covid-19 is spreading across Kenya, Christine and Simon’s daily lives became even more challenging.
“Dadaab is under lockdown; any movement in and out of the region is prohibited by the Government to stop the spread of the virus. This being a non-family duty station, anxiety among staff is increasing with each passing day, and with every new case of COVID-19. Managing these anxieties and high stress levels while not always having answers has been one of the most challenging tasks I have ever faced” explains Simon.
The current emergency keeps Christine away from her family. Nairobi, her current home, is a hot spot and travel restrictions are in place. Movements in an out of refugee camps are also limited. However, government has declared agriculture as an essential service to ensure food security. “These measures have meant that I remain at the front line and serve the community in Kakuma, which I love doing, but on the other hand, I have not been able to see my family for three months now. Sometimes, I am worried that my three children will get used to my absence and might not show me love anymore. We often talk and see each other through video calls. They keep asking when I will come home, and I’m sad that I can’t give them a definite answer.”
When asked what is the most uplifting part of their job, Simon and Christine agree: the human connection with beneficiaries.
“Beneficiaries become part of the family” says Simon. “I often lose count of the days and the hours until all my tasks in the camps are completed. Any little thing I do makes a huge difference in the life of a beneficiary. That’s enough inspiration,” he adds.
For Christine, the opportunity to use her talent and skills to improve the lives of refugees and see how her work can change lives is extremely compelling. “I see how we have empowered refugees to start producing food for own consumption, and now they are selling the surplus for income,” she explains. “I share their joy in their increased sense of purpose, dignity in owning a plot of land and in their ability to decide what to plant, when to weed and harvest. I share their dreams of sending their children to better schools. I can relate with them. I love my current role, which offers me the opportunity to connect deeply with the people I work with and for. It gives me a strong feeling of gratification.”