PALO ALTO, Calif. (KRON) — A Palo Alto woman is being highlighted by the United Nations in a new video series for her extraordinary dedication to helping refugees in East Africa.
Catherine Wiesner is stationed in Nairobi, Kenya, where she works for The UN Refugee Agency helping families who fled from Burundi.
“A major part of my job has been to oversee our assistance programs for refugees from Burundi. You may or may not have ever heard of (Burundi). It is a small and quite beautiful country in the middle of Africa. Five years ago there was a dispute around the presidential election. And there were protests and there were crackdowns. More than half a million people ended up fleeing the country in all directions,” Wiesner said.
Burundi shares borders with Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Families fled to these developing countries, into refugee camps with very poor conditions. Wiesner visits the camps, talks with refugees living in limbo, and helps them figure out how they can begin “thriving” instead of merely “surviving.”
Catherine Wiesner (United Nations Refugee Agency)Wiesner grew up in Palo Alto and went to high school across the street from Stanford University. She credits her parents for shaping her into being a global citizen who is curious about the world and driven to help others.
Wiesner said her most rewarding moments including reuniting children with their parents, as well as assisting refugees who want to return home.
“One time I was in a reception center in Burundi and I was just chatting with some of the kids. There was one boy and I asked him, ‘Who are you excited to see tomorrow when you get back to the village?’ He just said ‘Papa.'”
Catherine Wiesner (United Nations Refugee Agency)The moment still makes tears well up in Wiesner’s eyes because of the emotions she saw in the boy’s eyes.
“For thousands of people that’s what the refugee experience represents for them. It’s not just dislocation from your home, but it’s also dislocation from the people who you love the most,” Wiesner said.
“I feel blessed that I work for an organization, the UN Refugee Agency, that represents international solidarity,” she said.