August 20, 2016 12:00

I Did Not Choose DRC, It Chose Me

Karolina Sklebena during a humanitarian response to refugees from Burundi in DRC, 2015. Photo: Jan Mrkvicka, People in Need.

World Humanitarian Day story of Karolina Sklebena, Country Director, People in Need mission in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

Karolina started as a Finance Officer two years ago. Based in Bukavu, she now manages a team of three expatriate and 37 national staff, and the mission’s annual turnover of 3 million USD.

Supporting those less fortunate

When asked what motivates her, she says, "I think it is important to support people who are not as fortunate as we are in where they were born and what their governments and foreign entities are doing with their countries.” She believes that all people should have equal access to innovations and assets of the modern world.

First impressions of DRC

Karolina’s beginnings in DRC were sometimes difficult due to her struggle with Congolese French which is not exactly what one learns in school. "I was surprised by how developed certain parts of DRC were, by how unequal the society was, and by the outstanding differences between cities and villages," she describes her first impressions of the country.

Karolina soon realised that she worked with a team of dedicated Congolese humanitarian workers who remained very positive despite having been through a lot. And what do the Congolese and Czechs have in common? "Both like beer," Karolina laughs. "Otherwise, I think there cannot be two nations more different," she adds.

Brightest memories

Karolina enjoys visiting project sites, speaking with her colleagues about their work and life, and finding ways to make things better, easier and more efficient. She likes the challenge of being in a constantly changing environment surrounded by different people.

One of her many bright memories from the past two years is her mission’s recent strategy workshop. “Everyone was involved and the atmosphere was great," illustrates Karolina, "and I was very touched when I held in my arms my colleague’s two-day-old daughter whom she named after me.”

The scariest part of the job

But life and work in DRC are not just a series of nice and heart-warming moments. The eastern part of the country suffers from years of instability and it is challenging to work in this volatile security environment. "I am responsible for the security and safety of all my colleagues, thus my greatest fear is that I make a mistake that might harm someone’s health or life,” says Karolina.

Life outside work

In her free time, Karolina plays volleyball and tennis, reads and spends time with her friends. She stays in touch with her family and friends in Czech Republic via Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp. She has a boyfriend and a group of good friends in DRC. Nevertheless, she misses certain things from her former life, such as cheese, coffee shops, cinemas, exhibitions and walking outside at night without any problems.

Living abroad changes your life

Two years in DRC have brought a lot of changes to her life. "Living abroad always changes your life and living here is an unforgettable experience. I have a great team of people around me who make me feel at home, even though some days are tough," Karolina describes her experience.

Ambitions for the future

"DRC is a forgotten or overlooked country with many years of repeated crisis where traditional humanitarian approaches are no longer sustainable. My team has a lot of great ideas and there is real potential to change things in this country. I would like to build on this and realise a lot of innovative projects with a long-term impact on peoples’ lives," Karolina concludes.

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This story is part of Alliance2015 World Humanitarian Day campaign, featuring stories of humanitarians working with our members. For more information about the campaign and other stories, please click here.

Read Karolina's story in Czech on our member People in Need's website.