Building refugee camps reminds me why shelter is a basic human need

The despair and misery I have seen in my work with the UN has made me realise my skills as a civil engineer have a direct impact on the survival of refugees

Building refugee camps reminds me why shelter is a basic human need
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Charles Campbell constructing a shelter in Bakassi camp, Maiduguri, Nigeria.
Photograph: UNHCR

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This article titled “Building refugee camps reminds me why shelter is a basic human need” was written by Charles Campbell, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 20th December 2016 07.41 UTC

I have always wanted to be a civil engineer. I wanted to build, to create structures that would serve the communities around me – roads, bridges, dams – the bigger the better.

My journey with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) started on 19 September 2001 in Sierra Leone. For me, it was an initiation into a surreal world where I decided which families could stop moving and restart their lives in a safe and secure home, and which families could not.

Since then, I have supported UNHCR operations in 18 countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Working in the field is vastly different from any other work environment. The extreme urgency when preparing and completing refugee camps means there is no time to take a step back and breathe. Such was the case in Cameroon in 2014, where I was responsible for constructing the Lolo refugee site.

While working in Lolo, a small Christian village in the east of the country, I received an urgent call late at night from the UNHCR emergency coordinator. More than 100 refugees had crossed the border from Central African Republic (CAR) and were arriving at the site. It was raining heavily and we had no shelter ready for them. These families had been walking for over a month, surviving on leaves and shoots – essentially anything they could find. They were being hunted by a CAR rebel group. Many were severely malnourished. They had sunken eyes, emaciated frames, swollen chapped feet and torn clothes barely covering their backs.

Bakassi camp, Maiduguri, Nigeria.
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‘I have supported UNHCR operations in 18 countries across in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia’: Campbell at Bakassi camp, Maiduguri, Nigeria. Photograph: UNHCR

Their despair and misery affected me in a way I had never experienced before in all my years working with UNHCR. Seeing people in these circumstances reminds you why shelter is a critical determinant of human survival in an emergency.

There was no space in Lolo that night, but I negotiated with the host community to convert their only primary school into a temporary shelter. The school was in very poor shape; there were large holes in the roof, the walls and floor were severely cracked, and doors and windows were missing. In the rain, I worked with the carpenters to cover the roof, windows and floor with plastic sheets.

I have built thousands of shelters for people in need. I have never before, however, felt that my actions would have a direct consequence on the very survival of those people – I did that night.

Over the years, I have witnessed families host displaced families five times their number in their tiny homes and communities. These are often already very poor people on the margins of society, yet, incredibly, they are willing, with open arms and hearts, to welcome people fleeing conflict and persecution.

These communities inspire my work and affirm my commitment to do whatever I can do to help shelter refugees.

  • Charles Campbell is raising awareness of UNHCR’s Nobody Left Outside campaign, which highlights the challenges faced by displaced persons in meeting shelter needs.

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