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"I know how difficult it is to look for shelter": A day in the life of a humanitarian shelter advisor in Ukraine

Man with microphone in the middle of a room with other people.

Omer, a shelter advisor for CARE Ukraine, conducts a workshop for CARE staff. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

Omer, a shelter advisor for CARE Ukraine, conducts a workshop for CARE staff. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

Omer is a Shelter Advisor for CARE Ukraine, offering technical advice and expertise in relation to the shelter response in conflict-affected parts of the country. Here, he talks to CARE about his motivation for working in the shelter sector, his work in Ukraine and why dignified shelter is more important now than ever.

Can you tell us about your background – what made you want to start working in the humanitarian shelter sector?

I’m originally from Syria. I left my home country and moved to Turkey in 2013 when I was 18. I worked very hard to learn Turkish so I could continue my education, and I graduated from a Turkish university with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.

I experienced being a refugee and I know what it’s like to be in such a vulnerable situation. I remember when I crossed the border with my family, I didn’t have a passport, so we crossed illegally. It was a very tough experience for me. When we arrived in Turkey the first thing we were looking for is shelter, somewhere to sleep so we were not in the street. So, I know how difficult it is to look for shelter, and that’s why I want to support people who are in that vulnerable situation.

Can you tell us about your journey from studying in Turkey to your current role as Shelter Advisor in Ukraine?

When I was a student, I co-founded a volunteering group to help Syrian refugees who wanted to continue their education in Turkey. We supported them with Turkish language courses, and how to apply to university. After I graduated, I wanted to work in a more relevant sector to my background as a civil engineer, and that’s how I found a role with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as a Shelter Program Assistant.

I then started working in CARE Türkiye’s cross border program, which was a unique experience, supporting internally displaced people in Syria. In northwest Syria there are many settlements – informal and formal – and there’s no government, so the people there are relying on humanitarian assistance.

Currently my role with CARE Ukraine is quite similar, but the context is very different. Here, fortunately we’re not dealing with settlements yet, and I hope that doesn’t change, because settlements are a last resort. We don’t want people sleeping in tents or very basic shelter. Here our program is more focused on repairing and rehabilitating shelters which have been affected by shelling.

Temporary beds inside a football stadium indoor concourse.
Many shelters in Ukraine have opened in office spaces, schools, gyms, factories - or in this case, in the Lviv football stadium. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

What does a typical day look like for you working in Ukraine?

No day is the same! But I’m in touch with all our partners to support them technically when it comes to shelter and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) related topics. NGOs here are quite new to humanitarian work so I spend around half of my time working with them to understand what shelter and WASH programming looks like. We also support on proposals, and we assess the situation of Ukraine’s buildings and houses in impacted areas. We also deliver events such as a recent shelter workshop, working with national NGOs.

Your job involves working in an active conflict zone – what impact does this have on you from a mental health perspective?

I saw an interesting article about the mental health of humanitarian workers recently. I really felt for the person who wrote it, talking about how sometimes we forget about our own mental health when working with vulnerable people. It definitely impacts your mental health to work in a war zone, especially as it’s my first time being an expat working outside of my home country or Turkey. But my colleagues are all amazing people and that’s how I am dealing with the challenges and overcoming any difficulties.

Makeshift beds inside the ticketing area of a train station.
At the train station in Kyiv people who are in transit can receive water, food, hygiene articles, baby food and diapers, blankets, clothes and other much needed supplies. There is also the possibility to stay the night. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

Going a bit broader than Ukraine – we’re seeing increasingly frequent extreme weather events. How do you see this affecting shelter needs globally?

With climate change and increasing temperatures, having adequate shelter is really crucial. In contexts like Africa or the Middle East where there are many settlements, the needs relate to ensuring there are more durable, dignified shelter solutions. But this requires a shift in mentality from donors, who often don’t fund the NGOs who want to shift from very basic shelters like tents to more long-term and dignified solutions. Temporary solutions and more transitional shelters are suitable for the contexts where we know the conflict or disaster will have an end, but it’s not applicable everywhere. The war in Syria has been going on for more than ten years and the people have been living in tents since 2013. So, thinking about more dignified shelter is really crucial – globally and especially at this time.