Refugee response: Right place, right time, right skills

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Mel Phadtare attended RedR's refugee response workshop in the summer of 2016. One year on, we caught up with Mel, now Head of ActionAid's Humanitarian Response Programme in Greece.

I was an environmental practitioner for many years, working in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. My work was very focused on environment and natural resource management - but throughout, I was working with people, including marginalised communities living in poverty in Vietnam and Laos. And although I’d never worked in a humanitarian context as it’s traditionally understood, I realised after I did RedR’s course that actually, the work I was doing did have a humanitarian dimension.

I first came to Lesvos Island in 2015, while studying for my Master’s in environmental sciences, policy and management. It was quite apparent that the small island and its residents were struggling to cope with all the new arrivals. I initially went up to volunteer at one of the camps because I could see all the litter drifting down the hill: I had done some WASH work and waste management in the past, so thought I might be able to help. I only spent a short time in the camp, but was determined I’d go back after finishing my degree.

Back to Lesvos

And I did. In 2016 I returned to Lesvos, where I ran into ActionAid. They were hosting an exhibition of refugee women’s knitting and handicrafts, as part of a protection and empowerment programme. They told me they were looking for a Programme Manager - they needed someone who was a veteran project manager and team leader, accustomed to working in a chaotic setting. I had 20 years of professional experience and, after meeting with the Country Director, I was asked to come in pronto. It was really a matter of being in the right place at the right time - but also of having the right skills.

I managed the Lesvos programme for six months before being promoted to Head of ActionAid’s Humanitarian Response Programme in Greece, and relocated to Athens where I oversaw a team of 11 in two camps, again providing protection services and empowerment activities to women refugees.

Back to Lesvos

"I'm so glad I did RedR's training!"

I knew of RedR through word of mouth: the UK in particular has a great reputation. I saw on ReliefWeb that RedR were coming to Zagreb and my heart started beating! By sheer coincidence I had been planning a holiday to Croatia at the same time. I know these courses can be quite expensive, but this one was really accessible. I thought, I can’t ignore this opportunity!

I’m so glad I did the training, I really am. I was impressed with the trainer, and the composition of the group: there was an interesting range of experiences, and I think people were interested in me sharing my own experiences, too, which were quite different from theirs. The content and message were very relevant to the situation on Lesvos.

13,467 refugees have landed in Greece

since the beginning of 2017, according to data from the UNHCR (last updated 24th August 2017)

Read more from the UNHCR

"When we ensure the humanitarian principles are respected, we’re providing a better service."

The course was a fantastic introduction to the humanitarian principles and conventions. I was already familiar with the Sphere standards, because I’d used them in the past (as they relate to environmental compliance, e.g. the number of people that could use one latrine). I also knew of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) - but I hadn’t really connected it to anything ‘bigger’. So although I was familiar with some of the tools, the training crystallised a lot of things for me. I was eager to learn as much as I could, in a condensed way, with a nice group and with really good trainers.

Basic humanitarian principles like neutrality and impartiality are so relevant to our work. Neutral and impartial service delivery is vital, but not always easy. When you’re working on the ground and you get close to beneficiaries, there is sometimes an unequal distribution of services. When we ensure the humanitarian principles are respected, we’re providing a better service: the team can engage positively, and maintain neutrality and impartiality, when they’re escalating beneficiaries’ requests and concerns.

It was also great to learn about coping mechanisms and stress management, and child protection issues. We come across these a lot in our work: cases of abuse, and burnout among volunteers. I’ve definitely applied this knowledge. For example, I hired a clinical supervisor for my team to manage burnout and stress issues, because I learnt during the training, and then saw for myself, how disastrous these can be for the team. So that’s something I maybe wouldn’t have done without the training.

A holistic approach to needs and dignity

ActionAid’s approach is quite holistic. The protection and empowerment team now includes several cultural mediators, along with a teacher, psychological support, and fitness instructors: we run yoga, Zumba, and taekwondo classes. We’ve also created women’s safe spaces, so they can come in and tell us what they need - there are things they might not be comfortable saying out in the open. Women in the camp can learn from and mentor other women. This in turn facilitates other conversations. The empowerment programme includes a skills-building element, which addresses learning, creativity, and possible future integration or livelihoods. So although a lot of our work focuses on meeting basic needs, we also try to optimise people’s time, while they’re sitting there all day long in the camps. It can be very boring, as you can imagine!

A holistic approach to needs and dignity

Looking forward

ActionAid’s camp-based programmes have recently ceased due to both a lack of funding and a changing wider context. However, we’ve worked hard to ensure another leading NGO can absorb our programme and continue providing the camp-based services we set up. In tandem, we’re part of an innovative initiative that focuses on urban service delivery, alongside multiple actors: community groups, NGOs and the municipality. This is a critical need and I’m really pleased our programme can continue in a new strategic and much-needed direction.

As for me, I’m about to combine my humanitarian experience with my interest in environmental equity through a deployment to Colombia working in climate change under the EU Aid Volunteers programme.

Mel has blogged for ActionAid and EU Aid Volunteers. Read about her experiences:

This interview took place in June 2017.