UNHCR has more than 17,300 staff, most of whom are based in the field. Meet Kristin Riis Halvorsen, who runs operations in southern Mexico.
By Tim Gaynor in Tapachula, Mexico
Name: Kristin Riis Halvorsen, 43, from Norway.
Why did you become an aid worker?
For as long as I can remember I’ve cared about justice, or rather, injustice in the world. I was lucky to grow up in a country where there’s a lot of emphasis placed on civil society engagement, and you get involved early. In high school, I raised funds for projects in Afghanistan and South Africa and ensured that visitors from these countries could travel around the region, talk to schools and meet with people. One thing leads to another. When I was studying for my Masters degree in Colombia, I came across a recruitment page for UNHCR. I read it and thought ‘this is interesting and meaningful’ and I applied. A few months later, I got my first job.
What is the most rewarding / challenging thing about your job?
The most rewarding thing about my job is, it’s quite remarkable, a gift, to be able to wake up every day and go to work and feel that what you do is meaningful. In the past 13 years I’ve never had a day when I woke up and thought ‘why am I doing this again?’, because the work to me is always meaningful. We’re close enough to people to see the tangible results of what we do.
I currently supervise four different teams covering the whole of southern Mexico. My job is making sure that the office can operate. The team has grown from 20 staff when I started in 2018. This year we are set to grow to 150 staff, to respond to a huge growth in the numbers of asylum-seekers, mainly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. People are running for their lives. Ten or 15 years ago it used to be single, able-bodied young men doing this trek across Mexico. Now it’s large family groups. When you see a grandmother, or a seven-months pregnant woman crossing the border, there’s something indicating that the situation back home has just left them really no hope.
For me, the hardest thing is being the person who has to live with the decisions about what we can and cannot do. Sometimes we’re faced with complex, protracted situations where donors at some point start looking elsewhere. In Uganda, it meant sometimes having to stand in front of a woman with four or five children and explain that ‘you’ve been in the country so long, you’re not going to get food anymore.’ For those of us who are close to the people and know their needs so well, to understand that we won’t be able to do everything that’s needed, that’s really heartbreaking. It would have been amazing to live in a world where no one was forced to leave their home. It’s a wonderful job, but I’d love not to do it.