International Rescue Committee (IRC)

The life of an aid worker in Dadaab

I have been visiting the International Rescue Committee’s programs in Kenya, including Dadaab in the northeast, where the IRC is assisting Somalis who have fled the region’s worst drought in sixty years.   

Last week, I wrote about the heart-wrenching generosity of Somali refugees in Dadaab who are giving of what little they have to help newly arrived families in need.  Today I want to pay tribute to the personal sacrifices of my IRC colleagues in Dadaab — truly an outstanding group of nurses, nutritionists, doctors, social workers, and field office and logistics specialists.

The IRC has over 100 full-time staff members working in Hagadera, one of several refugee camps in Dadaab.  They represent the gold standard of what all aid workers strive to be.  Most are from Kenya or other countries in the region — a few come from and live in the nearby town of Dadaab itself. We also recruit many part-time staff from among the camp’s refugee residents.

Together, these inspiring colleagues serve over 120,000 Somali refugees who have settled in and around Hagadera camp. Their work is physically and emotionally taxing: providing emergency medical care, nursing severely malnourished children back to health, and attending to women and girls who have been raped during their journey from Somalia.

For most IRC staff members in Dadaab, the work day begins around 7am. Many are still working late into the evening, taking advantage of the scant quiet time they have to handle the administrative and logistical aspects of their jobs. And at the IRC hospital within our compound there is 24-hour coverage.  

At the end of the day, these dedicated aid workers can’t help but take their work home with them. And in fact, most live in the IRC compound, in housing very similar to the refugees’ own shelters.  They are also subject to the same restrictions that define a refugee’s life in the camp:  Because of the poor security situation in the Dadaab region, there’s no stepping away for a break after work hours — everyone is restricted to the compound.

Aid worker housing around the world is always simple, but especially so in Hagadera. A shortage of resources for the humanitarian response means that nearly half of the full-time staff members housed in the IRC compound are living in tents that were intended as temporary shelter. (These tents become practically uninhabitable when the sun heats them to oven-like temperatures. Some IRC staffers have lived this way for two years.) The rest live in basic 10x10 structures built from cement blocks.  

During my visit I’ve had the privilege of sitting down and sharing meals with some of my colleagues in Hagadera camp. (The staff’s diet is built around rice and goat – there is little else available in this arid region of Kenya. To an outsider it might seem a little monotonous, but it is typical fare here and fuel for tackling the never-ending workload.)  I've asked them about life in the camp and what would make their jobs easier.  But talking about their own lives and needs does not come easy to them.  Instead they want to talk about how to bring more resources and attention to the human tragedy they are responding to.

At the same time, the staff can’t say enough about the critical role their refugee colleagues play in the relief effort.  When pushed, though, they will eventually talk about what could improve their own well-being in such a challenging work environment: less tent living, and some simple exercise equipment to help release stress after a long day. And visitors bringing chocolate are always welcome!  

The drought response in Horn and East Africa requires the best aid workers in the business, and we have them — but not nearly enough for the scale of the crisis.  More resources are needed across the board. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I hope that the world can show the same spirit of charity and personal sacrifice that the Somali refugees and IRC staff in Dadaab exemplify.

Sue Dwyer is the IRC's vice president of program quality.

To Help

Donate Now: The IRC is scaling up relief efforts to aid people devastated by the drought that is ravaging East Africa — the worst in 60 years. We need your help.

1 comment


It is truly humbling to read

It is truly humbling to read about the work of the IRC and all the other aid agencies, currently doing their utmost in the Horn of Africa. Writing and posting a cheque are so easy, most of us who do so, wish we could do more, something practical, but our own personal circumstances prohibit that kind of action: so we send prayers, and hope that the rains do come. Keep up your amazing work IRC, you make me proud to be part of the human race.