Latin America

A Filipino humanitarian’s #GiftofHope to the Rohingya, other refugees

Loreto Palmaera

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A Filipino humanitarian’s #GiftofHope to the Rohingya, other refugees
'The good thing is Filipinos are resilient. We learn from every mistake, we convert threats to opportunities, and we are able to still give when we ourselves have outstanding needs. Those are our traits.'

When people are forced to flee war, conflict, and violence, they often leave with nothing but the clothes on their back. While living in displacement, they also lose their ability to earn and spend. (READ: Unspeakable tragedy as Rohingya refugees flee to safety)

As a way of providing protection, the cash-based interventions of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency, help reduce the risks displaced persons face.

Cash assistance makes them less likely to resort to harmful coping strategies such as survival sex, child labor, family separation, and forced marriage.

Throughout 2016, more than 2.5 million refugees have benefited from the program across 60 countries.

Humanitarian work 

I joined the UN Refugee Agency 3 years ago to lead the implementation of the cash assistance program in Lebanon for refugees from Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and other countries.

I was responsible for setting up the program, developing its standard operations procedures, dealing with financial service providers, and coordinating with other agencies to roll out mechanisms to provide cash assistance to refugees.

Prior to joining UNHCR, I have worked in various humanitarian operations in Indonesia, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Philippines.

HUMANITARIAN AID. As part of UNHCR’s emergency humanitarian
operations for Rohingya refugees in
Bangladesh, Palmaera (2nd from
left) helps pilot a cash assistance
program that would offer displaced
families empowerment and the
freedom of choice to address their own
needs. Photo courtesy of UNHCR

I was recently deployed to Bangladesh to support our emergency operations for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have fled conflict and persecution since August 25.

The speed and scale of the influx has resulted in a critical humanitarian emergency. More than 100 days since they were forced to escape to Bangladesh, the Rohingya’s humanitarian needs remain acute. (READ: The Rohingya and the port of last resort)

Urgent action is needed to provide shelter, health, and sanitation facilities, food and clean water, medical assistance, and psychosocial support.

The refugees who arrived in Bangladesh since August came with very few possessions. They have used the majority of their savings on transportation and the construction of their shelter, often out of no more than bamboo and thin plastic.

They are now reliant on humanitarian assistance and other life-saving needs. These are provided through in-kind commodities, although most are available in the local markets.

Serving as Cash-based Intervention Officer, my main role was to gauge the feasibility of using cash as an alternative to in-kind assistance and distribution of core relief items. Part of my job was to work with banks to provide potential payment solutions given the limited infrastructure in the refugee camps.

Restoring hope and dignity 

While it is true that the situation is still at the emergency phase, conditions at Kutupalong refugee camps allow key essential requirements for the implementation of cash-based interventions at a small-scale.

It has a dynamic free-market economy, and many of the refugees’ basic needs such as food, hygiene items, and shelter materials are available from the local market.

Cash assistance thus directly stirs and benefits the local economy by creating a multiplier effect. This also contributes to peaceful coexistence with host communities or countries, refuting the perception that refugees are a burden.

More importantly, access to cash empowers refugees and give them the freedom of choice to address their own needs. (WATCH: Rappler Talk: Atom Araullo shares #GiftofHope to Marawi, Rohingya evacuees)

Back here in Lebanon, every time I sign the payment request for the refugees’ accounts, I feel fulfillment and happiness thinking that tens of thousands of refugees will be able to eat, buy medicine, pay a rent and send their children to school.

Let me tell you a story about Tharwat, one of the 1.8 million refugees in the Middle East. (READ: UN highlights trauma of Syrian refugee children)

Tharwat, who fled the war in Syria, has spent 6 years as a refugee in Lebanon. She has constantly struggled to meet competing needs like putting food on the table and buying medicine for her ill mother.

Through the cash assistance she receives through the UNHCR, Tharwat has regained control over her finances and a corresponding boost to her dignity.

“The money I receive has changed my life. I now have the freedom to buy what I need the most, and that’s my mother’s medication. She would fall very ill without it. For me, food comes second,” she shared.

Why Filipinos should care

REFUGEES. More than 620,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh within 100 days since the renewed outbreak of violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state. Photo by Roger Arnold/UNHCR

As Filipinos, we have experienced a lot of hardships in life due to poverty and calamities.

The good thing is Filipinos are resilient. We learn from every mistake, we convert threats to opportunities, and we are able to still give when we ourselves have outstanding needs. Those are our traits.

Despite the hardships that we encounter in our day-to-day life in the Philippines, we are fortunate that Filipinos still have the freedom to enjoy our lives with our families without fear of persecution. (READ: #GiftofHope: Atom Araullo on why Filipinos should care about the Rohingya)

Today, we have the opportunity to demonstrate compassion and give help those who are suffering more than we do – those who are killed and persecuted, those who are forced to flee to save their lives.–

Loreto Palmaera is a Filipino humanitarian worker who hails from Tulunan, Cotabato. Since 2014, he has been serving as the program officer for the cash-based interventions (CBIs) initiative of the UNHCR.

If you would like to support UNHCR’s emergency operations for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, share the #GiftofHope today by donating at

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