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Roisin De Burca: Rising to a challenge

These profiles feature former UNICEF staff members. Their stories highlight their work to improve the world for children.

"This has been the most challenging time of my life," says Roisin De Burca, with a hint of understatement.

Ms. De Burca, who stems from County Tipperary in Ireland, worked for UNICEF from 1994 to February 2003. "The job of Child Protection Officer is an evolving job," she says. "New challenges arise all the time …" That word 'challenge' again. A story from Ms. De Burca's time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) provides some idea of what she means.

In 1997, based in Goma, DRC, the UNICEF team was trying to help refugees who had fled inland and were being hounded by rebel forces. Ms. De Burca was chosen to fly into the jungle, along with a project officer from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to see what had happened. "One of my UNICEF colleagues on the plane told me later that he took a picture of us because he thought he would not see us alive again," says Ms. De Burca.

Those fears seemed about to be realized when Ms. De Burca and her colleague were greeted by heavily armed rebels. But, to their surprise and relief, the rebels were not aggressive and told them that the refugees were 'over there' – which turned out to be two and a half hours' walk away. By the time the UN officers got there, it looked as if they wouldn't make it back to their rendezvous with the plane.

"By some miracle, the rebels who accompanied us found two bicycles," Ms. De Burca says. "They deemed it wrong for me to ride a bike, so a soldier with a gun over his shoulder rode with me hanging on the back." Both she and her colleague caught their flight.

'What mattered was the living'

The next day Ms. De Burca and her colleague returned to the refugees.

"In less than an hour I had found 12 children, all severely malnourished and dehydrated. I sat in the dirt with them, using a syringe to try and get some water into a dehydrated baby. Suddenly, a man was behind me, asking: how could I sit there? I didn't understand what he meant. He said: 'You are surrounded by dead bodies.' I was so focused on what I was trying to do that it no longer mattered that there were dead bodies around me. What mattered was the living."

In all, more than 3,000 separated children were found in the jungle and brought to the safety of Goma. The majority of them were under five years of age.

Next Ms. De Burca was Child Protection Officer in Sierra Leone – a no less demanding post, involving such tasks as negotiating the release of abductees from rebel camps. Stresses on staff in such situations, and on their families, are clearly immense. Mobile phones have helped, Ms. De Burca says.

"During the emergency in Sierra Leone, I phoned my mother at least three times a day to inform her of what was going on. At any time she could also phone me. This gave me enormous peace of mind to tackle the work that was before me."

Ms. De Burca them became the project officer for emergencies in UNICEF’s regional office for West Africa, based in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. When Ms. De Burca phoned home, her mother would be forgiven for hoping she didn't use the word 'challenging'.



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