Feature: Just another day in the life of a UN volunteer

5 December 2008
UNV volunteer Pham Thi Hue visits person living with HIV at his home

From treating AIDS patients to rebuilding confidence for war-scarred villagers to dealing with cattle rustlers, more than 7,500 United Nations Volunteers (UNV) fan out around the globe every year, giving their time, hearts and sweat to helping some of world’s most deprived and traumatized people.

From treating AIDS patients to rebuilding confidence for war-scarred villagers to dealing with cattle rustlers, more than 7,500 United Nations Volunteers (UNV) fan out around the globe every year, giving their time, hearts and sweat to helping some of world’s most deprived and traumatized people.

As the UN celebrated International Volunteer Day, it was just another regular workday for the volunteers, both national and international, in 140 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, people like David Forest who gave up the comforts of his usual job to become a political affairs officer in sweltering Burundi, or Pham Thi Hue, tending HIV/AIDS patients in Vietnam.

“I am a kind of journalist-adviser,” says Mr. Forest, whose function makes him an interface between UN peacekeeping missions and the country at large, producing reports to help the local government and UN mission understand potential causes of violence. “I have to follow and analyse political and socio-economic developments in Burundi.”

For Eliana Rueda, a civil affairs officer with the UN Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT), the focus is on Quick Impact Projects (QIPs), the highly effective low-budget UN initiative that brings grass-roots aid to thousands of people in small communities, from repairing leaking roofs in schools to opening vocational centres to refurbishing sanitation facilities.

“Through QIPs we seek to contribute to the reinforcement of state authority, the promotion of intercommunity dialogue, and the creation of conditions for a safe and sustainable return of internally displaced persons (IDPs),” she says.

When Lubna Abdalla Lasu, a Sudanese, volunteered for UN peacebuilding in her homeland, cattle-rustling was probably not uppermost in her mind. But that is exactly what she is having to deal with in her area of operations.

“Most of the youth are unemployed, so they steal cattle to sell and do business with and also, unfortunately, to buy weapons,” she explains. Dealing with the situation requires sensitivity to the local culture and society, something Ms. Lasu is well placed to explain to the UN mission and local authorities.

Wild animals, this time, were not on the mind of Charles Kisamba from the Democratic Republic of the Congo when he volunteered his medical services to the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire (ONUCI), but again they are rife in his area of operations in the north, where his vehicle became stuck.

“We could not get out for fear of wild beasts,” he says. “So we hung around until the return of the first villagers who helped us get out of the quagmire. It was an unforgettable day for all of us involved.”

On the other side of the world in China, Canaria Gaffar left her hometown of Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in the vast country’s far west, to go to Nanning, capital of another autonomous region, Guangxi Zhuang, to gather information on how the non- governmental organization (NGO) AIDS Care China successfully carried out its mission to support the HIV-infected.

“These are people who face those marginalized in society such as drug addicts,” she says. “It’s not easy, but they’re not judgmental and they're really providing significant care and support.”

But a problem she herself faced concerned her own food. It was virtually impossible to find places that served halal food to a Muslim like herself and she had to cook almost all of her meals. Still such minor inconveniences could not compare with the invaluable experiences she gained, she says.

Further south, in Cambodia, Christina Duggan from Ireland is helping families to deal with rising food prices. “The work is exciting and varied. One week you can be travelling to small, local communities to meet village leaders, another you would be carrying out research in the busy markets of the capital Phnom Penh exploring the potential for new rural based businesses,” she says.

Meanwhile to the east in Haiphong, Vietnam, Ph?m Th? Hu?, herself HIV-positive and a UN Volunteer since 2005, is working on a pioneering initiative to increasing the participation of people living with HIV themselves in planning and implementing HIV/AIDS activities and other efforts to improve their lives, families and communities.

“I am now so satisfied with my present life that often I forget that I am HIV-positive,” she says. “Or rather, I have managed to forget that being HIV positive is something which can stop me having this wonderful life. During the day, I busy myself with community work. At night, I hold my son’s hand and help him with his first attempts at writing. This happiness is like a dream I never thought I would live to see become reality.”

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is supporting her son’s tuition fees.

Another flick of the globe brings round Haiti, where Sophie Picavet, a French civil servant, now coordinates civil affairs reports coming into Port au Prince, the capital, from the provinces – counterfeiters making mischief in Jérémie, drug traffickers continuing to cause trouble in Trou du Milieu, criminals arrested in the gang-ridden red zones.

“To be a volunteer is to enjoy a light feeling of freedom, to have left the well-balanced life at the ministry back home,” she says. “To give less importance to material thing, to relieve as much as possible the suffering of other human beings, sufferings I could not have thought of before, to be opened to the richness of people participating in the work of the UN, to laugh about the last Congolese [police] joke, to taste a Creole dish prepared by a National Police colleague.”

As Claire Whelan of Norway, a political affairs officer in the UN mission in Kosovo, says: “If you want to you get to know fascinating people from all over the world who like you are working away from the safety and comfort of what you know from before, you will have a great opportunity of doing so as a UNV volunteer.”


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