Kathryn’s Story, South Sudan

Photo: An elderly South Sudanese man seeking shelter in the Juba, on of many amidst a large crowd.

An elderly South Sudanese man seeking shelter in the Juba, on of many amidst a large crowd. Photo by UNHCR/2014.

As humanitarians, while we struggle to meet the basic needs of displaced people around the world, we often find ourselves swimming in statistics, drowning in indicators. We accumulate a mass of metrics—number of blankets distributed, tonnage of food dropped, liters of water pumped from a borehole—in an attempt to measure our success and to assure ourselves that conditions are improving for the refugees that we serve. We seek, and often find, comfort in these quantifications. Because amidst the chaos, we erroneously feel that these are the only things that can be controlled.

As humanitarians, we respond to crises. We react to disasters. We are typically not in the business of prevention. We’re on the front lines, receiving those who’ve already fled the fires, who’ve already lost their husbands, their children, their homes, their countries. We work to protect those who have come seeking safety, giving them plastic sheets and buckets to replace the earthly possessions they’ve lost. It’s our mission to help them rebuild and continue with their lives until, if ever, it’s safe enough for them to return home.

As humanitarians, we become a repository of stories. We listen to accounts of flight, plight, terror, fear. Stories of lives lost, homes ransacked, villages burnt—stories of past trauma, spoken by real people standing before us.

As humanitarians, we absorb these stories into our hearts, into our blood. These stories become part of us as we bear witness to those whose lives trying to protect. In the best case, we use these stories as fuel that drives us to keep going, to work harder. In the worst case, we become numb to the sheer volume of suffering

As one of the hundreds of humanitarians in South Sudan, the greatest challenge I face is personal. Everyday I combat a sense of helplessness as I look into the face of the worst humanity has to offer—a humanity that has transformed humans into victims of war, victims of rape, victims of violence into the most vulnerable people on earth. With more than 1.5 million people displaced and 240,000 refugees in South Sudan, there are nearly two million people in need; two million humans with unique stories that must be heard. But I know that these stories of suffering cannot be quantified or captured within our statistics.

As a public information officer, I know that while we will never be able to describe the real suffering of the people with quantifiable data. At the same time, I also recognize that the true value of our work is impossible to quantify. It’s not that these statistics lie; it’s simply that they will never capture the complete picture of the work we’ve done or the stories we’ve heard. Data are incapable of measuring the human impact of a protection officer’s arm around a child who has fled violence alone without her parents or of the health worker helping a pregnant woman to the clinic. These are the daily interactions that make us real humanitarians, but are the same interactions that can never be accurately calculated. We work every day in a field where our value and impact can’t be quantified. The challenge is not to get overwhelmed by helplessness and preoccupied with statistics, but rather to recall and serve the human faces behind the figures.


by Kathryn Mahoney

UNHCR Public Information Officer, South Sudan

1 family torn apart by war is too many

Learn more about our work with refugees at UNHCR.org