From getting supplies into a war zone to setting up thousands of schools in just months – these are the unexpected challenges Aussie humanitarians face in order to keep children safe.

Day in day out, UNICEF field workers are on the ground working to keep children safe. Their roles are anything but straightforward. They go down roads with no name, cross war zones and climb mountains.

Faced with seemingly impossible challenges, they have to think on their feet and find creative solutions to some of the most unexpected challenges.

Here are three challenges you wouldn’t expect, but Aussie Peta Barns from Perth has seen them all. 

Smoke rises from an explosion on the outskirts of Sana'a, the capital of Yemen © UNICEF/UNI182886/Hamoud

Stopping a conflict to deliver vaccines

In war-torn Yemen, more than 12 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance. UNICEF is one of the few international aid agencies still on the ground working to deliver medicine, food, and vaccines to those who need it most.

But this is no easy task.

In her role as an Emergency Logistics Manager, Peta Barns was part of the team tasked with getting life-saving supplies into the war-torn country.   

Yemen is blockaded so most supplies have to be shipped in by boat. With commercial vessels no longer visiting the country, the team had to find alternatives and used fishing vessels to deliver critical supplies.

“We had to hire fishing boats, 
put them across the ocean
and hope like hell they got there.”
Urgent humanitarian aid supplies are unloaded from a ship by UNICEF staff at the port of Hodeidah, Yemen © UNICEF/UN026930/Alayyashi

Vaccines however are a different story. They need an unbroken cold chain to keep them effective. “We can’t put vaccines on a boat. Vaccines like to be cold and they have to move fast, so we have to airlift in vaccines to a country.”

For Yemen, this meant finding a way to land a plane in a country under siege of aerial bombardment.

“We had to get special permission from the various authorities to allow planes to land.” 
“For about an hour we had a window to get
the supplies in. So the plane landed, we
quickly unloaded it and then it took back off.”

The UNICEF team have thankfully been able to keep the supply chain of vaccines to Yemen going. “Despite all these challenges we’ve been able to continue to get vaccines into Yemen and children are still able to be vaccinated,” says Peta.
A shipment of vaccines from UNICEF is unloaded at Sana'a International Airport © UNICEF/UN0147212/Madhok

For UNICEF’s teams, conflict is often the hardest barrier to overcome when delivering supplies to children in need.

“Sometimes you just can’t,” says Peta. “The hardest job is to say we just can’t physically do something, when you realise you’ve tried every option, a through z, and there’s just nothing that can be done.”

“But generally, you can work things around. It’s a very rare situation where we can’t get something in.”

“I personally have used donkeys, camels, trucks, bicycles to move supplies.”

“You do whatever you can.”

“It’s a very rare situation where
we can’t get something in.”
Whether it travels by plane, boat, drone, donkey or even reindeer (yes, really), our fearless humanitarians do everything they can to reach children in need with life-saving supplies.

But we need your help. Will you send a box of life-saving vaccines to keep children safe from disease?
The Cox's Bazaar refugee camps expanded rapidly, taking over a national forest and crossing traditional elephant migration paths. © UNICEF/UN0157346/Nybo

Diverting elephants in a refugee camp

In August 2017, thousands of Rohingya refugees crossed into Bangladesh, fleeing persecution and violence in Myanmar. Peta was on the border helping to manage the sudden influx of people in urgent need of support.

“We started to see a trickle of people coming across the border. In a couple of weeks, it had gone from a trickle to a flood. Tens of thousands of people were coming across every day.”

“Tens of thousands of people
were coming across every day.”
Humanitarian organisations worked together to support and settle a population roughly twice the size of Canberra in just a few months.

“People would come off the boat and they’d be put on a bus to go get vaccinated. Then they were given a small plot of land, some tarps, some bamboo. These are people who are traumatised and all of a sudden they’re building a structure for themselves.”

The lack of infrastructure quickly became a challenge. “We had to put in water points – there was no water there. There were no roads, there were no latrines.”

“These were the day-to-day challenges we we’re dealing with.”
As the refugee camp expanded rapidly to accommodate the thousands of people crossing the border daily, it took over what used to be a national forest. This presented a new challenge: part of the refugee settlement had expanded across an existing elephant migration route.

About 12 months ago, an elephant entered the camps, trampling the bamboo and tarp shelters, leading to four deaths.

The people living in the camps have now organised elephant response teams and built watch towers so elephants can be spotted in advance and diverted. 
Pictured: Mohammad, 14, stands guard in a watchtower overlooking the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. “I’ve seen two elephants since I’ve lived here,” he says. “The last time I saw an elephant was six months ago. It walked into camp in the middle of the night. It was about two in the morning. People woke up and started screaming. That’s when I saw the elephant.” © UNICEF/Nybo

Setting up 1,500 schools in 18 months

Every child, no matter where they live, deserves a future where they can fulfil their potential. Unfortunately due to conflict, natural disasters or displacement, thousands of children are not in school.

During the first 18 months of the Rohingya crisis, UNICEF set up almost 1,500 learning centres, and distributed hundreds of thousands of backpacks to children fleeing the violence in Myanmar.

The learning centres were equipped with a UNICEF school-in-a-box, which contain all the basic learning materials a small classroom needs: pens, pencil, chalkboard, and a curriculum.

Our school-in-a-box kits means children can get back in the classroom as quickly as possible in an emergency, keeping them safe and ensuring they don’t fall behind. 

“You open it up and within 10 minutes,
you’re operational as a school.”
Children wearing UNICEF backpacks return home at the end of their school day at a UNICEF learning centre in Cox’s Bazaar. © UNICEF/UN0146814/Knowles-Coursin

Each child was also provided with a UNICEF backpack and their own pens and pencils.

“A lot of the kids came across with nothing,” explains Peta. “They literally had the clothes on their backs.”

“For some of them, the backpack is the only thing they own. That’s their one thing that no one can take away from them.”

“For some of them, the backpack
is the only thing they own.”
“They’d decorate their backpacks, and then in the evening, when you were walking through the camp, you’d see kids cleaning their backpacks because they wanted to make sure it was clean for the next day.”

“They’d hold it up and wave at us and say ‘look we’re the same’, because they’ve got a UNICEF backpack, I’m in a UNICEF t-shirt.”

“It was always a very emotional moment. We could see the impact of what we were doing.”

Ehsan, 7, attends a UNICEF learning centre for Rohingya refugee children in Cox's Bazaar. The learning centre provides Ehsan and other children a place where they can gather safely to study and play. © UNICEF/UN0157359/Nybo