We must focus on how to protect human rights in humanitarian crises, to save lives as the first priority and reduce the number of potential victims of this difficult time
This story is part of the United Nations in BiH series of personal accounts highlighting extraordinary work during COVID-19 response and recovery; marking UN75.
I am Saria Aboukaf, and as Empowerment Officer and a team leader, I have been responsible for preparing weekly schedules and plans for implementation of the activities in Women and Girls Center (WGC) and Boys on the Move (BoTM) centers in Ušivak and Blažuj Temporary Reception Centers (TRC). Hand in hand with empowerment officers, I used to conduct door-to- door visits with women and girls, to understand the most important problems and challenges that they experienced due to COVID-19 pandemic in the camps, provide prevention information on how to protect themselves according to WHO recommendations by hand- washing, social distancing and what to do in case one of the family members gets infected. I connect them through our empowerment activities and psychosocial support sessions to be strong, and get appropriate support to overcome the quarantine hard time and to help mitigate the increased risk of domestic violence and abuse.
I grew up in a multicultural environment, a combination of middle eastern and western culture, and with my prior knowledge about refugee’s and migrant’s customs, ethical traditions, languages (Arabic and Persian) and the ability to communicate with them, was the most important thing that helped me to build trust and confidence with the women and girls, thus they were really open to sharing their concerns, needs, happy and sad moments with me.
The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented public health crisis. During the past period, working hours were reduced and preventive measures related to the outbreak of COVID-19 were observed during our psychological support sessions. And because my field of study and my interests in life is software engineering, I always had a belief that technology can also be a powerful tool of empowerment for migrant and refugee women and girls, and survivors of gender-based violence, and because technology plays key role after COVID-19, as a team leader I worked on designing plans, finding solutions, implementing and following-up tasks remotely as far as possible, to activate the virtual methods as an alternatives in emergencies. My another major point to be taken into consideration due to COVID-19 was to ensure communication with women and girls in the camp using social media platforms as a way to stay close to them, build a link between them, maintain continuity in light of the challenges, difficulties and obstacles that were facing all of us in this difficult period and the most important thing to spread the fact that women and girls are not alone through this.
The global panic over the Coronavirus outbreak and the fear of the unknown was the only talk; people used to ask about it, share about it, constantly watch and listen about it on TV, and all this tension has been hard on me too. The other thing that has bothered me in the wake of COVID-19 was the social media and harmful consequences of the publishing and sharing of information that has not been scientifically or officially confirmed, and this constant pressure led all of us to more of frustration. After a while, I have adapted to the new norms, followed up the WHO preventive guidance for Coronavirus, and personally minimize watching, reading or listening the news about COVID-19.
In the wake of the pandemic and its persistent impact on each and every one of our community members, staying safe and keeping healthy during the outbreak of COVID-19 was one of my biggest challenges, keeping my family safe from one side and beneficiaries from other side. I was sure more than ever about the importance of maintaining mental health to face the new normal, overcome fear of unknown, negativity and overthinking. Substantially overcoming personal challenges and providing help and support to those we work with was the hardest part of my mission.
In the process of recovery, I think it is important to focus on collective efforts and learning how to face any adversity or pandemic in the future, such as COVID-19. I still focus on spreading awareness among the surrounding community, starting from myself, my family and passing through my workplace through raising awareness, avoiding panic or anxiety and taking all preventive measures recommended by WHO, such as personal hygiene, sterilization of the body and wearing masks and respect social distancing. On the other hand, as UNFPA team leader in Ušivak and Blažuj camp, I used to talk with almost all age and gender categories, follow up sensitive cases of gender-based violence that have been identified more during COVID-19, and work closely to make greater efforts to promote gender equality and empower them, so that the achievements gained in advance can be recovered as soon as possible, and ensure that the culture of gender equality is not only a temporary thing we share in our workshops in camps but also a constant action that must be generalized to the whole communities.
My husband, my first line support through all this, always encourages me to share my thoughts, talk more and express my feelings. He doesn’t typically say a lot but he always gave me the best advice, to believe more about myself and what I can give to the world, he used to say “ We can always gain new knowledge, skills and experiences no matter good or bad the situation is, it will change sooner or later”. His patience is the primary cause that has helped me to reduce stress and relieve my constant fear of the unknown. I have a strong faith that, togetherness is the power of human beings. We must keep on going forward to build the best version of ourselves, and to never forget that tiny pleasures sometimes can mean a lot.
Now that we are all looking forward to the fast recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must cooperate and work closely to tackle the interlinked issues, overview the new challenges and minimize them as much as possible. This includes the global climate change, the economic setbacks, the global health issues, poverty, women rights and gender equality, and access to food and clean water. One of the topics that should be particularly addressed in the time of pandemic is tackling unemployment because a lot of people from all age groups were affected by increased unemployment rates related to COVID-19 crisis, thus they unexpectedly became very vulnerable and depressed. I believe that we must focus on how to protect human rights in humanitarian crises, to save lives as the first priority and reduce the number of potential victims of this difficult time.