Roberto Mignone is a Principal Emergency Response Coordinator, deployed to support UNHCR’s response to emergencies worldwide. In 2016 alone, Roberto was sent to Burundi, Senegal, Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, Venezuela, South Sudan and Iraq. Here’s what he had to say about his experiences in just a few of these countries, delivering the help made possible through your generous support.

April

A strong earthquake hits the coast of Ecuador in an area where many Colombian refugees live. Ecuador hosts the largest number of refugees in Latin America so UNHCR was already present in the country. This meant we could respond very quickly to the needs of people displaced by the earthquake.

I arrived at the same time as the first airlift of UNHCR aid, which brought supplies like thousands of tents, sleeping mats, mosquito nets and kitchen sets for people in the worst hit areas. In fact, I helped set up the very first tent in one of those camps!

There are 12 of us in UNHCR’s Emergency Service Team, ready to be deployed anytime, often within hours. The first step in any emergency is to assess the situation. We try to involve refugees and others under our mandate right from the start, including women, youth and the elderly, to understand their needs and bring in their skills and ideas.

 

Roberto with Siona, a child in Colombia's southern Amazonian region of Putumayo.

Photo: UNHCR / M. H. Verney / April 2008

August

I’m sent to South Sudan to help UNHCR teams design a plan to keep assisting people forced to flee, while making sure our staff are safe too. It is often a difficult balance to find in such dangerous environments.

UNHCR is very much field-based. We reach people in even the most remote locations. Physically being there with refugees is key to protecting their rights and ensuring they get the help they need. It’s called ‘protection by presence’.

Civil war started almost three years ago in South Sudan. A peace agreement was signed but in July conflict broke out again, forcing more families to flee their homes.

On my last day in the country, I get a bad case of malaria.

September

After some rest and medical care, I head to Iraq, where the government is planning a military offensive to retake the country’s second largest city, Mosul. When I arrive, UNHCR is stepping up preparations to receive people displaced by the fighting.

I start working with our local teams to plan the emergency response, to ensure we have enough tents, camps and land to shelter fleeing families and give them the protection they need. It’s a race against time, working with the government to find suitable sites to shelter these families.

After a few days, I get sick again and have to be evacuated. Clearly I haven’t fully recovered from the malaria. This job can be physically, mentally and emotionally very hard. Still, I wouldn’t trade the work I get to do in the field for the world.

When you’re on the ground during an emergency, you see that every contribution from our donors makes a difference, even if it just allows us to buy one more bucket or plastic sheet to help shelter a family. When you’ve lost everything, even a little is a lot.

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