«We do whatever is possible»

Article, 16.05.2014

An engineer by profession, Henri Stalder has been a member of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA) since 2002. He has taken part in SHA missions in several countries in this capacity. Since January 2014 has Henri Stalder been made available to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Syria where he runs the shelter sector. This sector provides emergency accommodation to displaced persons and reconstructs damaged buildings. Henri Stalder embodies the various types of support Switzerland provides to the victims of the conflict. Interview performed in May 2014.

In the context of the war that Syria is facing, Henri Stalder and the UNHCR are doing everything to ensure that the shelters built or renovated by the agency will not be destroyed later on.

What is it like in Damascus today? Viewed from Switzerland, you get the impression that the entire Syrian capital has collapsed. Is this really the case?
Actually, no. Some areas have been less damaged in comparison with others. Likewise, parts of the city are more or less safe. Yet, it is true that nowadays (editor’s note: early May) insecurity has substantially risen: mortar attacks as well as searching of individuals and vehicles are more frequent. You sense the build-up of stress among the people the longer the crisis continues.

What does your average day as UNHCR shelter coordinator look like?
For security reasons, I live and work in a hotel. My work is two-fold. First, as shelter coordinator for Syria, my daily business involves discussing sector-relevant topics with partners – such as the Syrian Ministry of Local Administration, other international or UN organisations and implementing partners – in order to further develop activities in the shelter sector. Second, as head of the UNHCR shelter programme, I make sure, together with my team that the programme is running well and according to schedule. I normally work between 9 and 12 hours a day, and often during the weekend too.

Switzerland provides the UNHCR with funding. What is your take on the work realized by the organisation?
We do whatever is possible. We make public accommodations – of course very modest – available to internally displaced persons (IDPs). We also renovate building structures as much as possible so that people can live in them. In 2012 and 2013, we helped around 110,000 people through our direct operations in the shelter sector. We were also able to support more than 3.5 million people with relief supplies and cash programmes. Now we have to think about how we can act most efficiently to help IDPs and others seeking to return to their homes in order for the latter to find some stability again.

But how is stability possible when the war still isn't over? Don’t you ever anticipate that a building you reconstruct will be destroyed again the next day?
Well, we do not go to work in areas where there is a high risk of buildings reconstructed being destroyed again. Nor do we work in isolation. We are in contact with many players including the Syrian authorities. We want our work to be for the long term, as much as possible. We try to lessen the risks so that people return to their homes.

Are you able to leave Damascus and travel to other regions?
Yes, but it depends where. The situation changes on a daily basis, both on the ground and at the international level. Following UN Security Council resolution 2139, it is now possible to go to Aleppo on aid missions. However, each time you have to get a permit from the authorities for these missions, which takes up a lot of time and energy. Still, I am one of the people that goes to the field often. I like to see where we work and whether our projects are moving forward. I also want to see the people we are helping.

Do you sometimes feel afraid?
Personally no, but I do have concerns about our local staff who live in parts of Damascus that occasionally come under fire. I have a great deal of respect for these people who live under such conditions but never lose courage.

How do you yourself mentally process the suffering you see right in front of you every day?
You have to remember that you are trying to do something positive by being on this mission, even if you can't help everyone that needs aid. For example, if I go to one of our field offices, talk to people about the projects, and there is a constructive interaction, then that helps me a lot.

With your experience working on the ground in Syria, how do you see the future of this country?
The Syrian people simply want it to stop. All they want is to finally have peace again, that is the bottom line. Then, at some point, attention will turn to how to rebuild everything that has been destroyed. But getting to that point won't be easy.