Meet UN volunteer Ratha Pathmanathan: The right woman in the right place
Few United Nations Volunteers, UNVs, can be better suited for their tasks than Ratha Pathmanathan, a Relief, Reintegration and Protection Officer working primarily with internally displaced people in Juba.
Ratha knows more about armed conflict and its many horrific consequences than most. She hails from Jaffna in the far northern, Tamil-dominated part of Sri Lanka, host to a long and brutal civil war which killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands of others.
“I saw people I know die and others being forced to flee. It is a cruel experience to have, but here it serves me well. I’m used to coping with extremely difficult situations and severely limited resources without complaining, and that is helpful,” Ratha Pathmanathan says ever so calmly.
Twenty-five plus years of experience of working with and for people, who have fled their homes to seek shelter elsewhere, in their country or abroad, probably contributes even more to 46-year-old Ratha’s professionalism than her master’s degree in Sociology.
Before embarking on a professional career path that has never strayed far from refugees and the displaced, she volunteered as a teacher for Sri Lankan children living in camps for uprooted families. From there, Ratha moved on to posts with national and international non-governmental organizations and with different entities of the UN system. No prize for guessing that UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, was one of them.
With that said, Ratha’s reason for becoming a UNV and working for the more than 30,000 displaced people staying at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan’s protection site in Juba may sound paradoxical.
“I came here to learn something new,” she says, with my raised eyebrows prompting her to add that the UNMISS protection sites are “unique”.
“First of all, it has armed protection, which makes access to the area a lot more restricted than I have become used to in other settings. Another difference is that here there is little or no government involvement, with everything being run by the mission and humanitarian partners,” she explains.
Ratha’s quest is learning, and she wants it to be lifelong: about different setups and arrangements for displaced people, about working in an international environment, about as many countries and cultures as possible.
She became a UN volunteer – “being a UNV is all about learning” - in March, but at that point she was already quite familiar with South Sudan and its neighbour to the north, having already worked for a couple of non-governmental organizations in Aweil, Darfur and Juba. In fact, Ratha worked here during the referendum on South Sudan’s independence in 2009. That’s a time of peace and optimism that she remembers fondly.
Ratha Pathmanathan is part of a four-person-strong Protection of Civilians operations team tasked with all sorts of coordination between the peacekeeping mission, the humanitarian actors working in the protection site, the Community Management Committee, elected by the internally displaced themselves, and ACTED, the international non-governmental organization running the protection site.
“To put it simply, we liaise between these parties. We are the interface between UNMISS and the humanitarians. We deal with challenges appearing in the site by coordinating a response and referring different issues to the most appropriate actors,” she says, adding that it is a job that is not always met with much sympathy or understanding.
“It is hard for many residents to understand why we are ‘just’ coordinating and not providing goods and services, and sometimes people get angry because of that.”
Little may they know about the sources of frustration that Ratha herself is facing, some of them related to being a woman in a culture where men customarily call the shots while subdued women do most of the real, practical work.
“Sometimes people ask me why they should listen to me. They can become defiant and angry, and it happens a lot,” she says matter-of-factly.
Another challenge in Ratha’s line of work is to make the right calls based on information which often turns out to be inaccurate.
“There is sometimes a difference between what is said, what is not spoken and what is actually meant. It could come down to language barriers, or a lack of trust, or a tendency to say what one believes to be what we want to hear. Whatever the cause, in the end it can lead to us making the wrong decisions.”
Making up one’s mind can indeed be difficult, with some choices made being more painful than others. In a protection site the size of reasonably-sized town, there is bound to be drama, and Ratha has the dubious privilege of being privy to much of it.
“I strongly remember a woman I met who had been severely beaten by her brother-in-law. I don’t know which broke my heart most: the senseless violence or that she did not dare to file any kind of complaint.”
The Ark, a retired Swedish rock band, may have been on to something in their hit single “It takes a fool to remain sane”, but Ratha Pathmanathan opts for gardening, listening to music and meditation to stay serene.
“I’m very interested in spirituality and meditation is my way to inner strength and patience. It makes it possible for me to remain kind and helpful in most stressful situations, and I’d like to believe that this way I can also do a better job.”
Ratha takes pride in the quality of her work, which is one reason she prefers to move on to new tasks on a regular basis.
“I want to continue to work with refugees and the displaced because I like the feeling of having become rather good at it, but I want to do so in different settings. I fear that I might some of my motivation and curiosity if I stay for too long in the same place, doing the same things.”
As of now, however, Ratha thoroughly enjoys her job, and never more so than when she is out and about in the protection site, connecting with and assisting its many and diverse residents.
Yet her favourite moment as a UN volunteer was the first time she witnessed people leaving her preferred working space. She was part of a repatriation operation, flying some 80 internally displaced people back home to Akobo.
“Their happiness was incredible to watch and be part of, and to see the euphoria when they met their relatives, waiting for them at the airstrip in Akobo, as well. It gave me a lot of hope to see that they [the displaced] actually do have something fantastic to look forward to.”