Jersey's first UN Junior Professional Officer, Johnny Rebours comes to the end of his time in Lebanon

19 March 2024 | Johnny Rebours
Johnny shares his reflections on his time as the first Jersey-sponsored UN Junior Professional Officer, and his next steps.

Well, my time as a Jersey-sponsored Junior Professional Officer with UNHCR has come to an end, and what an experience it has been. As I sit here on a London bound train, I feel the rollercoaster of emotion and interactions I’ve ridden the past 2.5 years. It’s been turbulent from the beginning, and truthfully, I don’t think it’s an adventure I would recommend for everyone. But for those who are interested, who have a yearning to help, and to challenge themselves, you should seriously consider this opportunity. It has been an immense privilege to work for the United Nations, and I have had an incredible time. I have also at times felt conflicted, out of my depth, and frustrated, often all at the same time! Leaving this job in Lebanon at a time when the country is being bombed daily is another emotional toll that we - my wife and I - are having to get to grips with.

Last week I was sitting at home listening to faint explosions of bombs dropping in towns and villages we know, a mere 5km away where colleagues live and where olive trees grow. On one Saturday afternoon, we could hear the whir of a drone overhead and then another far louder bang. A plume of smoke rose just over the hillside marking another killing.

Due to the war along the border, my work over the past few months has been all to do with supporting the 87,000+ people who have been forced to abandon their homes through fear of destruction from the fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah. Our office has been managing the response. Seven schools were opened to house people who have been displaced and UNHCR has been providing mattresses, plumbing, partitioning, heating, and everything else needed to try and make people’s lives more comfortable. Many people are staying with friends and family, so it’s a difficult task trying to reach them also, as they are now spread out across the country. The team is coordinating with governors and mayors, and the whole situation is very tense, unpredictable, messy, and fast-paced. Thankfully, our expert team can provide resources and knowledge to try and steady the runaway train as much as possible. Humanitarian work in a crisis is not straightforward, I am quickly learning.

In my short two years, I fulfilled two positions in Field Office Tyre working for the protection of 150,000+ refugees. I spent over 300 hours in Tyre office management meetings. I hired seven staff and had to let four go. I visited tented settlements along the Blue Line and peered out over the 12 foot militarised barrier into Palestine. I sat in the UNHCR Representative’s office and chatted. I drank tea with Syrian labourers in their temporary homes in Lebanon, and I had iftar with colleagues observing Ramadan. I visited Geneva, and Turin, meeting more than 30 other JPOs posted from 12 different countries around the world. I even found the time to get married. To say it’s been a life-changing and enriching experience would be an understatement.

On the flip side, seeing behind the curtain is not always pretty. You realise that the United Nations is not perfect. People are fallible, programmes do not always go as planned, external factors and events cannot always be predicted. From the outside, you hope that the biggest organisation on the planet would have ALL the answers. You soon realise the naivety of that wish, and I sometimes found that a difficult pill to swallow. I found the bureaucracy, the slow movement, and the levels of hierarchy that needed to be traversed a challenge, especially as I was used to dynamic, small, fast-paced and under-resourced organisations in my previous work.

Yet, the impact of this behemoth of an organisation can often be great. The scale of our remit was huge. In my first role, every single day 100 families were supported by the centre I was running. Although you cannot compare like for like, in previous charities if we had supported 100 families in a year we would be happy, so I felt the awe in the sheer numbers, and I did see people having their lives touched, changed, and made better due to the intervention we could provide. Our office would be the first ones out in a storm, helping repair people’s structures, and we were the first ones there when disaster struck, like a fire or an accident in a Syrian settlement; always on the frontline of any activity to do with refugees in South Lebanon. When bombs started falling in early October 2023, we were mobilising mattresses, blankets, and other essential items the very next day for people who had to flee their homes. Our impact was huge. Being part of that relatively small office but carrying the very big name of UNHCR felt like a responsibility, a privilege, and a challenge to uphold the values of the Refugee Convention in its purest form - helping people where they needed it.

That is not to say I didn’t feel conflicted many times along this journey. The United Nations should be held to its utmost account, and so if I saw resources not going as far as they could or that people were not pulling their weight, I got frustrated. But, it's not fair for me to say the whole system is like that. I have had one experience, in one office, in one country. Sure it could be more efficient, but can an organisation of this size really be as reactive as smaller movements or NGOs? If I’m honest, I know it’s unrealistic to expect that. A big takeaway from this experience is seeing how an organisation like UNHCR can support and build local capacity, as we do through funding partner organisations in Lebanon. The role of the larger organisation is to leverage political will and to channel funds where they are most needed, supporting local expertise, which certainly happens in South Lebanon.

My experience has been transformative, and I like to think that in some small way some people’s lives were helped through my work. The preconceived notions I held about the UN have been challenged, and whilst I’ll never stop holding power to account, I do now see much clearer the value that UNHCR has in the world. In the same vein, I am even more in tune with how troubled and turbulent that world is, and so if anything, I have even more urge to continue helping people where I can, and for now that continues with the UN. I have found a job in Beirut as a Project Development and Reporting Officer with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Beirut, another UN agency working on migration issues. It will be another steep learning curve I’m sure, and I am excited to get started.

I’m so grateful to Jersey Overseas Aid for this opportunity, and I hope people in Jersey realise how much of a momentous feat it is to have Jersey represented in this exclusive programme.

For anyone considering applying for the JPO, I would say that if you are able to take the plunge, do it.