How UNHCR helps refugees around the world

Following the inspirational UNHCR Nansen Refugee Awards on Monday, IKEA co-workers spent the Tuesday getting to know UNHCR better, including the major difference the new IKEA Good Cause campaign Better Lives for Refugees will make to many refugee children.

A look behind the scenes of UNHCR’s Syria crisis operations room and a briefing by UNHCR’s staff are just a couple of the highlights you can read about below.

Lorenz Isler: “Between helplessness and hope”

Lorenz Isler, Country Sustainability Manager, IKEA Switzerland
Lorenz Isler, Country Sustainability Manager, IKEA Switzerland

On the one hand, it was devastating to learn more about humanitarian crises all around the world. To get first-hand insights from the UN representative to Syria about the situation there as well as in the neighbouring countries was especially shocking and left me with a sense of helplessness.

On the other hand, the engagement of the Nansen Award winner Sister Angélique and the diverse UN activities brought hope which motivated me to support the good cause even more. I consider myself in a fortunate position being able to run the UNHCR and IKEA Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign from February to March 2014, doing something for people in need. By donating 1.5 CHF (1 euro) for every IKEA LEDARE light bulb sold in our stores to UNHCR projects in refugee camps, IKEA and its customers will help improve the lives of many people living in refugee camps.

Natalia Hahn: “Going beyond refugees’ basic needs”

Natalia Hahn, Group Sustainability, IKEA Services, Helsingborg, Sweden
Natalia Hahn, Group Sustainability, IKEA Services, Helsingborg, Sweden

We are all aware of the Syrian crisis that is going on today and the horrific living conditions of those affected. In times like this, we are acutely aware of the extreme need and deprivation people face worldwide, and organizations like UNHCR are on the ground making a difference. I am proud to say that I work for a company who seeks to meet some of those needs.

Through the IKEA Foundation, IKEA reflects its vision to create a better everyday life for the many people. And partnering with UNHCR does just that. Because of the IKEA Foundation’s partnership, UNHCR is able to do things they’ve never dreamed of, beyond meeting refugees’ basic needs. And the reason for this is that IKEA has committed to giving in a strategic and sustained way. This means that UNHCR can count on funds for a certain amount of time, and work accordingly, which allows them to plan into the future and to make some lasting and sustainable changes. IKEA is committing to enhancing the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people. And if that is not creating a better life for the many, I don’t know what is!

Fredrik Bengtsson: “Boots and Ties”

Fredrik Bengtsson
Fredrik Bengtsson, IKEA Global Communication Project Leader

I’m on a late flight coming back from the 2013 Nansen Awards hosted by UNHCR in Geneva, an event where people come together with the sole purpose of improving the lives of millions of refugees. I observe a man in a seat close to me wearing a tie and suit. An accountant? I can’t help but notice what’s written on his computer: TORTURE, GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE and POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS SYNDROME. Probably not your typical accountant.

According to Mr Ignazio Matteini at the UNHCR Headquarters, when working to create a better future for refugees you need to wear both “boots and ties”. The words are simple but linger in the back of my head and will prove to be helpful for my understanding of what it takes to help millions of refugee children.

This year’s winner of the Nansen Award, Sister Angélique Namaika, works hands-on rehabilitating thousands of children and young women in the northeast corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Using Mr Ignacio’s words, Sister Angélique and many others work in the field – boots on – providing refugees with comfort and emergency relief as well as long-term sustainable solutions.

If a crisis becomes too overwhelming, such as in Syria, displacing and haunting more people than any superhero could handle on her own, UNHCR puts on a tie and reaches out to foundations, nations, NGOs and private donors for resources to continue the work in the field. Closest to me, I am amazed by the innovations and humanitarian support that is coming out of the partnership between the IKEA Foundation and UNHCR.

For example, I didn’t realize the incredible change that light from solar-powered street lamps can make to improve personal safety in refugee camps. It’s not really the first thing you come to think of – solar-powered street lamps. Of course, food, water and shelter are essentials – but so is personal safety.

I encourage you to explore the work of UNHCR. And maybe most importantly, try to find a way you can support them, too.

Mirjana Vukša: “Because every person counts”

Mirjana Vuksa, Country Sustainability Manager for IKEA Austria
Mirjana Vuksa, Country Sustainability Manager for IKEA Austria

Spending two days with the UNHCR team and getting the opportunity to understand their “boots and ties” way of life – working in refugee camps as well as in offices – was an amazing experience.

UNHCR helps those people who are forced to flee their homes because of war, conflict or natural disaster. Refugees are caught in the situation they didn’t cause. They are people in need who lost everything. Every case is unique, because of the tragedy each person went through. Refugees’ stories tell more then we can imagine. More that we want to imagine. Not only that they lost their homes, but they also experienced terrible things.

The “boots and ties” helpers go beyond expected to help people who need it the most. While they work with governments, NGOs and partners, such as the IKEA Foundation, they are also “on the ground”, over and over again risking their own lives to save others.

One refugee without hope is too many, but the increasing number is alarming. The fact that more than 20,000 people per day have to leave their homes is just discouraging. In this emergency situation, there is no much time to discuss the opportunities. These people need help and they need it immediately.

Getting to know the whole story, it was easy to understand why the IKEA Foundation found a way to support these people and help them through difficult times. The way UNHCR speaks about cooperation with the IKEA Foundation made me feel even more proud to work for a company that cares. It is inspiring how the IKEA Foundation chose to help. Not simply by giving money but by addressing problems, understanding people’s backgrounds and finding sustainable solutions for their future.

The campaign Brighter Lives for Refugees is where all of us get the chance to support the good cause and to contribute to a better life for people in need. Through our donation we will be able to improve education in refugee camps, reconnect displaced families and to improve emergency shelters.

All our efforts will count because every person we help counts.

Meeting the laureate of the 2013 Nansen Refugee Award, the amazing and inspiring Sister Angélique, has rounded our impression during these two incredible days.

Jan Christian Thommesen: “It takes  generations to create a country, but only 600 days to tear it apart”

Jan Christian Thommesen - PR & Communications Manager IKEA Norway
Jan Christian Thommesen – PR & Communications Manager IKEA Norway

The iWitness trip to Geneva has left me speechless. So many impressions, emotions and such despair. Coming from Norway and having strong humanitarian traditions, it’s still hard for me to fathom the complexity and the scale of the crises we now face around the world. I want to take a moment to give you some impressions concerning Syria.

We were lucky enough to sit down with UNHCR’s man in charge of the Syrian crisis, Mr. Tarik Kurdi. What he told us still haunts me and probably will for a long time.

Rewind 600 days to before the crisis. Syria is a wealthy secular country with no debt, self-sufficient and quite the destination for neighbouring countries when it comes to vacations. Syria was the model. The place to visit. The good example. Today there’s almost nothing left. The fighting is escalating, a total of 13 different armed fractions are battling on the ground and the debt is rapidly growing.

Imagine if the entire Norwegian population were put on the streets as internally displaced.

Imagine their homes destroyed.

Imagine if they were abused, raped and tortured.

Imagine if they were forced to eat grass, because there were no rats left…

If you add two million refugees on top of this, you have the situation in Syria today. It is just the absolute epitome of cruelty.

UNHCR doesn’t wait for a ceasefire before they run to the rescue. They have to find an opening, and they know that opening could be lethal. They do it anyway. It’s their mission.

The IKEA Foundation is the biggest private contributor to UNHCR. The IKEA Foundation is the philanthropic arm of the IKEA Group. I’m just so proud to be a part of a company that prides itself on making a better everyday life for the many people. The partnership with UNHCR is the best example of this in my book.

In front of the UN Palais in Geneva
In front of the UN Palais in Geneva
    Juli Riegler