Anna King – On the ground with UNHCR
While Australia swelters through summer, more than one million displaced Syrian refugees endure the challenges of winter in Lebanon.
University of Melbourne alumna Anna King knows those challenges well. Now in her sixth year working for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Anna (MA Development Studies, 2012) has spent the past 12 months based in Lebanon in her role as senior external relations officer.
Through her duties liaising with governments, advocating for support for UNHCR and communicating the impact of the crisis to the outside world, Anna’s years on the ground have given her a firsthand view of the difficulties refugees face. Despite this, reality can still prove to be confronting.
“I went to the Bekaa Valley where a lot of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live because it’s close to the Syrian border,” recalls Anna. “It’s really cold – mountainous, where you can go skiing. I see beautiful vineyards and next to that a dairy farm and next to that a big plot of land. I don’t know what it is but I see all these children there working in the fields, so I ask people, ‘What are they doing? It’s winter’ and the locals tell me they’re harvesting potatoes.
“There are these little kids – some of them look really young, like six years old – in the freezing cold, working in the field harvesting potatoes. That’s their normal day and that’s not what six-year-old kids should be doing.”
Anna King, senior external relations officer, UNHCR Lebanon
The Syrian conflict, ongoing since 2011, has seen more than 6.6 million Syrians displaced within the country and a further 5.6 million seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Lebanon hosts the second-largest number of Syrian refugees outside of Turkey.
Refugees experience a life of daily struggle, with around 70 per cent in Lebanon living below the poverty line. Winter presents additional hardships. Below-zero temperatures and inadequate housing – often tents or abandoned buildings – make the experience particularly brutal.
For aid workers, it’s a complex environment to navigate. Anna began her career in the NGO sector and received her Master of Development Studies from the University of Melbourne. She draws on that experience in her work with UNHCR, much of which involves delicate relationship management between parties that may have very different aims.
“Quite a large part of my job is diplomacy,” says Anna, “and often the refugee situation, as it is in Australia, in Lebanon, in Europe and in the US, is quite a politicised issue. Governments have an agenda and they want to use this issue.
“Obviously you get frustrated with the bureaucracy and the politics – you just want to help people.”
Frustrations aside, Anna says she’s in it for the long haul.
“I really do see myself working for UNHCR for a very long time because it’s an organisation where, after a certain number of years in one position, you have to move to a different place.”
That variety, she says, is something that appeals. With stints at UNHCR in Oman and at headquarters in Geneva, Anna has had her fair share of trying different cultures on for size.
“I really enjoy living – not just visiting, but actually living – in different countries, and getting a real feel for that country and the politics, the economy, the people, the society of that country. This job offers me that, which I think is really incredible.”