From the Rohingya refugee crisis to a global crisis: Supporting children, one emergency at a time

A humanitarian worker's journey as he juggles his passion for helping the most vulnerable while parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aaliyah Madyun
Man stands with two boys
18 August 2020

Abdulkadir (AK) Musse is a Senior Emergency Coordinator for UNICEF’s Emergency Division, where since 2013, he has provided technical support for UNICEF’s emergency and humanitarian response efforts in conflict and natural disaster areas across the globe.  He has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in Sudan, the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh and was responsible for coordinating the Nepali earthquake response. In 2016, he provided technical support to the European migration crisis in Macedonia and Serbia.

He has been on the ground to provide frontline support to the most vulnerable in Syria, Nigeria, Venezuela, Papa New Guinea, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Somalia and South Sudan.  In his work AK is guided by a strong sense of responsibility to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to succeed and thrive. 

What motivates you to be a humanitarian worker and support people affected by crises around the world? 

Every time you see the news you will see the desperation and the devastation that the children of the world are facing. Imagine that your child is in a better situation, but a similar child is suffering somewhere in the world. That child is lacking the opportunity, which you might have the power to provide. So, I have the power, I have the means to help these children that are in need. And that is what motivates me – that every child in this world has the same right my children are getting. Morally it doesn’t make me comfortable that my child is living a happy life while there are children out there that I can help but I’m not addressing that. That doesn’t work for me. 

Man plays with children

You’ve stated that your experience as a child living in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) greatly influenced your desire to become a humanitarian worker. Can you tell us how this experience helps you design innovative responses to the problems you encounter today? 

Childhood experiences are very important, it forms how someone behaves and acts when they grow up, so it helps me a lot. When I was young there was a conflict in eastern Ethiopia, where my family was from. I was five or six-years-old when we ended up in a camp. I remember seeing the humanitarian workers in the camp and mimicking them, copying them – how they acted, how they walked, how they talked. I even learned my first English words from them. And after I grew up and received my education, I knew that I wanted to enter the humanitarian field. It is my passion. Because I knew what the priorities are of what a child needs. It helps me to lead UNICEF operations by putting the child’s needs at the center of our response. I always promote the idea that when you put the child at the center of programming you will ensure that you get whatever it takes for that child to survive in terms of health, nutrition, immunization, WASH [water, sanitation and hygiene] and primary education – all the things that a child would require.  And this is because of what I have seen when I was that age. 

Man vaccinates a child

You have a long history in Sudan dating back to 2004 when you helped establish and manage the first UNICEF emergency response in El Geneina in West Darfur. It appears that the saying, “Once you drink from the Nile, you are destined to return’ is true. What are some of the things you have observed in regard to the situation of children and young people in Sudan today? 

I was in Sudan in 2004 at the beginning of the Darfur crisis and then in 2005 I moved to South Sudan where I was Chief of Field Officer(CFO) in Juba and Malakal till early 2010. I haven’t been back to Sudan until this year. Although the situation was also very bad at that in all child deprivations including conflicts in many areas in the country at that time., What I see now is more desperation in terms of the economic crisis which has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. When you talk to average people and ask them about their living standards and affordability it is very challenging for them, especially the youth.  They have never experienced these types of difficulties and here is a risk of the country losing their most productive asset which is young people – that is if the situation doesn’t change. Furthermore, I am surprised to see still we have some recurrent violence in Darfur after 15 years which is still affecting many children and youths in Darfur. This needs more grassroots level peacebuilding efforts from everybody so we don’t lose more lives.  

What do you think UNICEF can do to help?

Number one, we need to advocate for these children and youth and inform the world what the socioeconomic situation is in the country and how it is affecting the future generation of this country.  There are so many young, productive Sudanese, boys and girls, who have finished high school and college, but there is no labor market that can absorb them. What we can do as UNICEF is to continue to work with the government and international organizations and see how we can provide life skills, trainings and capacity building – something that they can become self-sufficient. Not only training them but giving them what we call kickstarts, an injection of resources and giving them the skills that can help them create private businesses, join the private sector, government institutions and even international and national organizations. For example, if you train someone to become an electrician and you give them the tools to do the job, they will be self-sufficient. If you give them training for carpentry, midwifery or any skill that is required in the market and you give them what they need to start that job that will retain them in the country and they will become a peaceful and productive asset for Sudan in this very difficult transitional period. These efforts will reduce outmigration of these young Sudanese. That is what is missing I think and not happening sufficiently.  

Tippy tap demonstration

You are a humanitarian worker but also a parent. How do you balance these two roles? 

It can be very difficult. I give a lot of thanks to my wife who is a very strong woman and plays the biggest role. But also, with technology these days, I can dedicate time in the evening for my family wherever I am.  Depending on the time zone, we have a call time with the whole family. I’m also connected to all their school websites and I see their marks and their performance in school online. When I travel home, I go to all the parent-teacher conferences and my children’s teachers have all my contact information and we agreed that they let me know any ‘red flags’ before it becomes bad. So, I have a strong engagement with the school. 

Thanks to God my kids understand what I do, and they support me. My eldest daughter is studying political science and international relations and she is part of the Model United Nations. She is also a very strong gender advocate. My youngest child is eleven and will be moving to grade six.  He enjoys seeing the pictures I bring back from my work. One day I was going to Geneva for a meeting and then he asked me, “Is there a problem in Geneva? What happened is there fighting?” And I told him you know I don’t travel always where there is a problem. And he laughed and said, “but you always go where there is a problem.” 

When I am at home I try to do as much as I can to be with them and dedicate my time to them. And thankfully UNICEF gives me the opportunity to have flexible working hours and flexible modalities between deployments. 

You are used to traveling to crises but today the entire world is experiencing a crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a humanitarian worker, and parent, what advice would you give to parents who want to speak to their children about COVID-19?  

Parents COVID is here to stay with us until vaccines become available. My advice to parents is that they are making sure that their children and close relatives are aware of the risks and how to protect themselves. 

And also be a role model. When my family heard I would be going to Sudan they were worried about me. But, my children went with me to go shopping and we bought masks, a lot of hand sanitizers and hand wipes so that I could be safe. 

I have four teenagers and I always remind them of the risks, not only the risks to themselves but what they can bring to their family. You give them the responsibility, don’t lock them in, but increase their awareness and help them to be responsible.  As a parent don’t restrict your children, because it is not good for their development. If you keep them home all the time it is not good. If there is an opportunity to play outside, let them play. That’s what they need, that’s what their brains need, that’s what their bodies need.