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Protect the vulnerable

September 3, 2014
Stephanie Perham

Ethiopia has more refugees living within its landlocked borders than the City of Vancouver has people.

Imagine then the enormous task facing Royal Roads University alumna Stephanie Perham and her colleagues with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

Perham coordinates programs for refugees living in four regions of the Horn of Africa country, which now hosts some 630,000 refugees. That’s more people seeking safety from conflict, starvation and persecution than in any other African country. Yet little international attention is being paid to their plight.

When we speak to Perham by telephone, the Master of Arts in Human Security and Peacebuilding graduate has just returned to the house she rents in a walled compound within the center of the city. It’s Friday at 6 p.m. in August, an early end to the work week. Perham, who has worked for UNHCR in Senegal, Uganda, Kenya and the Ivory Coast since graduating in 2009, normally clocks 10-hour days, and often works longer hours, including weekends, during field missions in the refugee camps.

“It’s challenging,” Perham says. “You’re exhausting yourself but you know everything you do and every step you take helps ease these people’s suffering. It’s what drives you.”

There is a lot to do. Since January, more than 188,000 people have fled renewed fighting in South Sudan, while refugees from neighbouring countries such as Somalia and Eritrea continue to arrive in Ethiopia.  With conflicts in the Ukraine, Gaza, Syria and Iraq dominating news coverage, Perham says the emergency response operation for South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia is underfunded by $67 million. At least two more refugee camps need to be built by the end of the year, bringing the total number of refugee camps to 24.

“There is so much going on in the world, no one is paying attention to what’s going on in the middle of Africa,” Perham says referring to the ongoing violent conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

“Many of these people are peasants and farmers and traders and in the case of Somalis they are predominantly nomadic. Many are fleeing extreme violence.”

Developed countries have committed $23 million so far to UNHCR’s South Sudan humanitarian operation in Ethiopia, she says, with $90 million needed by year’s end to meet refugees’ basic needs.

Some of the South Sudanese arriving at camps survived on leaves and wild fruit as they walked through the bush often for more than 20 days to reach safety. Perham’s job is to make sure programs designed to help these refugees are effective. She is also responsible for narrative and financial reporting to worldwide government donors that support the refugee operation in Ethiopia to explain exactly how funding has been spent.

Her daily job resembles that of a jack-of-all-trades. Perham monitors sanitation, shelter and nutrition projects, as well as literacy and trades training for refugee youth. One of the projects she monitors ensures that survivors of sexual violence receive treatment and legal support.  Through a wide variety of essential support, UNHCR, the Government of Ethiopia’s refugee agency (ARRA) and their humanitarian partners support refugees to hold elections and integrate democratic governing processes at the camps.

A huge issue at the moment is trying to dissuade young Eritreans from making the perilous journey across Sudan and Egypt to reach Europe by boat, in the hopes they can send money home to their families.  

“The situation in Eritrea is uncertain,” Perham says. “There’s an exodus and constant migration of young people. The route to Europe is very dangerous.”

Perham’s concern for the refugees she serves is deep-seated. She remembers travelling with her mother to Rio de Janeiro as a young girl, where her eyes were opened to how many people had to survive on the streets. After completing her undergraduate degree, Perham moved to China where she taught English and Korea where she trained flight attendants in at a specialized women’s university academy.

It was Royal Roads’ Human Security and Peacebuilding program, Perham says, which equipped her to move into humanitarian work, a field she plans to continue working in for many years.

“I truly benefitted from the program,” Perham says. “While I’d travelled and had all of these experiences overseas, Royal Roads gave me the foundation that enabled me to enter the field.”

School of Humanitarian Studies Prof. Ken Christie has high praise for Perham, who he says is a credit to Royal Roads and Canada.

“Stephanie is one of the most committed and energetic people I have ever met in the field of peacebuilding and development,” Christie says. “Her willingness to assume new duties often at personal costs bear witness to someone who is compassionate and committed to the difficult and sometimes dangerous work she does to improve people’s lives.”

While Perham doesn’t see her family as much as she’d like to and has given up many of the comforts of home, she's thriving in her career. “Pursuing this type of career requires sacrificing the normal life that Canadians typically live and substituting that with something completely new and unpredictable,” she says.