About the Author: Greg Shaw serves as the Great Lakes Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). He is responsible for monitoring U.S. government contributions for protection and assistance efforts for refugees and internally displaced persons spread over seven countries and 4.2 million square kilometers in East and Central Africa.
As the sun began to set on this remote stretch of the Ubangi River that forms the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo, the overworked outboard engine on the World Food Program (WFP) speedboat my colleagues and I were on whined miserably. It's tiny 60hp motor pushed toward the village of Boyelle Junction, where we hoped to find shelter for the night. Groups of small children on the river bank, often wearing only tattered clothing and some with protruding stomachs indicating the onset of malnutrition, waved excitedly as we passed. As the shadows grew over small mud and straw dwellings nestled under the monumental trees forming the Congolese Rainforest Basin, we had a chance to reflect on what had been quite a day.
Our task was to visit the villages of Malala, Yoi na Yoi, and Gnamoba in the Republic of Congo to talk to refugees and village elders, as well as colleagues from WFP, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and NGO partners ,who are working to provide services to these refugees communities. At the crack of dawn, we left the quiet, tree-lined avenues of the Republic of Congo's capital city of Brazzaville and boarded a twin-propeller UN Humanitarian AirServ plane -- the chariot which was to fly us to Impfondo. Despite an unannounced airport closure that delayed us by several hours and almost scuttled the trip, we managed to take off and make our way over the wide, brown Congo river. As I looked down at the river, broken into dozens of small channels by swampy verdant islands, I thought they probably looked very similar to what Joseph Conrad described over 100 years ago.
We landed in Impfondo and made our way to the riverbank, where we jumped into our WFP boat and headed several hours upstream to a number of Ubangi refugee settlements. In 2009, over 100,000 Congolese became refugees when they fled ethnic fighting in the DRC and crossed the Ubangi into the Republic of Congo to live among the 102 settlements, spread along a 700km axis of river. The United States, through the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), partly funds a number of projects in this area that provide protection, food, water, shelter, health care, and education to the refugees. Providing these services to any group of this size can be a daunting task, but doing so over such a wide area creates a particular logistical challenge.
That day, we were going to verify and evaluate the delivery, quality, and relevance of school structures; shelters; food commodities; latrines; water wells; and health centers that the United States partly funds through contributions to UNHCR, WFP, and NGOs . Along with going to the field to determine the adequacy of the services we are helping to fund, I also work with host government, international organization, and NGO partners to identify and address gaps and shortages and to help make plans to improve refugee protection and service delivery.
One of the most important aspects of our visits are town hall meetings with the refugees themselves to hear their needs and the types of things they wish to see happen back home in order for them to feel safe enough to return voluntarily. As we left our last village past a chorus of singing children, James, a refugee and volunteer secondary school English teacher, asked me to thank everyone back home for all the assistance the United States had given to the refugees. He also hoped to acquire an English-language dictionary to help his students in the classes he held under a large tree on the edge of the village. With some logistical assistance from colleagues at Embassy Brazzaville and UNHCR, we were able to deliver one shortly thereafter.
As night fully enveloped this portion of the Ubangi, far from any city lights, we were treated to the sight of a billion stars in every square millimeter of the heavens framing the glowing Milky Way. We disembarked and carefully crawled up the rickety wooden steps that had been shoved into a steep embankment. As we made our way by candlelight down a narrow village lane -- past bleating goats and makeshift outdoor kiosks to the old dilapidated guesthouse that would be our home for the night -- it occurred to me that I am privileged to have the best job in the universe.