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At a glance: Yemen

Field Diary: Life as a UNICEF Emergency Coordinator in Yemen

© UNICEF Yemen /2011 /Halldorsson
“Knowing that somebody had to sacrifice for me so that I could advance, makes me do my job. That has made me into the person that I am,” says UNICEF Emergency Coordinator Opiyo Nixon as he works at UNICEF-supported Yarmouk school in Yemen.

By Hedinn Halldorsson

HARADH, Yemen, 29 June 2011 – It’s noon and we are in a UNICEF-supported school in Haradh, north-western Yemen, close to the Saudi border. The bell in the schoolyard has just rung, telling more than 1,000 students that it’s time for recess.
In seconds, UNICEF Yemen’s Emergency Coordinator Opiyo Nixon is surrounded with children. It’s the end of spring, there is dust all over and the heat is suffocating.

Juggling priorities

With record-breaking rates of malnutrition, the widest gender disparities in the world, a rising influx of African immigrants, two parallel conflicts, civil unrest and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, Yemen is no place for beginners – and luckily Opiyo isn’t one.

In order for UNICEF responses to run smoothly under such conditions, someone with Opiyo’s background and skills is crucial. A normal day in the life of UNICEF Yemen‘s emergency coordinator is hectic. “I feel like I’m always juggling competing priorities. Which ball in the air should be prioritized if they all are equally important?”

Opiyo’s job is to ensure efficient emergency responses and preparedness at UNICEF. To achieve this, he monitors the situation on the ground and makes sure that sufficient emergency funds are in place to meet increasing needs. “I see the actual work taking place,” he says. That is the very reason we are in Haradh today.

The UN is taking over the management of a camp for displaced people, and one of Opiyo’s tasks is to make sure that the same services are provided to children in this camp as in the other two nearby camps that the UN runs. “I am following up on the work to make sure everything is ready,” Opiyo explains.

© UNICEF Yemen /2011 /Halldorsson
Before UNICEF got involved there were only 162 students at Yarmouk school in Yemen. Today, there are 1,628 from host communities as well as from the nearby camps for displaced people.

People who work with him say Opiyo is decisive. Seeing him work does nothing but confirm that. “Love me or hate me but this is how it is,” he says as he rushes through action points with colleagues early in the morning.

“Our efforts are bearing fruit!” Opiyo yells out, as he finds out that the 13 female teachers in the camp‘s school have attracted a large number of new female students. “I enjoy what I am doing,” Opiyo says. “Everything I do, I see it change someone’s life.”

‘Doing what I love’

Like many of residents at the camps, Opiyo has depended on the generosity of other people for most of his life. Now he wants to do something for others. When asked about the downside of his job, Opiyo speaks of being away from his loved ones as a sacrifice he has to make “in order for others to benefit.”

“If I were constantly with my family, I wouldn’t be doing what I love,” he insists.” That’s why I am far from home, my friend!”

Actually, Opiyo originally wanted to pursue a career as an English literature teacher. “I left after a year, it wasn’t my call.” He finally settled for sociology and after his first job working in the humanitarian field during his last year at university, there was no turning back. That led to further studies in Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as missions in Sudan and Afghanistan. He has been a UNICEF staff member since July 2010.

© UNICEF Yemen /2011 /Halldorsson
Yarmouk school in Yemen now teaches up to ninth grade, compared to only up to sixth grade just months ago. "Many good things have happened since I came here in January," explains UNICEF Emergency Coordinator Opiyo Nixon.

Born in western Kenya, he lost his father at the age of 12, and his mother a year later. “I remember that I felt then that I didn’t have any options,” Opiyo explains. “None of my relatives could assist me, so I decided I was going to make my own living. I was convinced that if I always did my best I would not be disappointed.”

Giving back to society

He managed to raise money to pay the primary school fees, and thanks to the headmaster and the generosity of an American family, he was able to continue his studies and enrol in public university in Kenya. “The family still follow me closely and they know that their investment is doing okay.”

Thanks to them, Opiyo has been able to improve not only his life, but through his work the lives of dozens of others, if not many more. “I believe that if you receive, you need to give back. And the only way I can give back with any degree of satisfaction is through the work that I do,” he says.



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