How I Became An International Aid Worker: Sogol Akef
What does your job involve?
I work in a team of engineers to provide support and technical advice to different WFP projects.
People mostly associate us with the rebuilding that happens after a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane, which is definitely one of the most important parts of our job. However, we also support the construction of roads, bridges and warehouses for longer term development in various countries, as well as carry out assessments to prepare for disasters before they happen.
Why did you choose this line of work?
I grew up in Iran during the war with Iraq. Witnessing the devastating impact it had on the lives of normal people, and also growing up among refugee communities from Afghanistan, I always wanted to work in a role that involved helping others.
My interest and background in engineering gave me a route into this industry - I knew I could use it to rebuild damaged infrastructure, and support communities recovering from conflict and natural disasters.
The aid and development industry has become notoriously hard to break into - what route did you take into your current role?
After University I got a job as an engineer in Afghanistan for one of the UN agencies and worked my way up, becoming an operations manager in Sri Lanka and then a project manager in South Sudan.
However, I still wanted to expand my knowledge, so spent some time working for private engineering consultancies in a number of countries. This helped me to gain additional experience, whilst giving me the chance to obtain my engineering registration and chartership.
A mix of the right training and first-hand experience in the field was key to getting my current role at WFP.
Can you describe a typical day?
Every day brings a different challenge! I always spend part of my day discussing projects, resources and staffing with various team members and focal points around the world.
Often I will travel to a country where we have an engineering project underway. Once there, I will meet directly with the communities impacted by the work we are doing to discuss their needs and concerns. This could mean anything from meeting families in their homes, to hosting a community meeting with village elders.
Recently I've been working with communities in South Sudan to build roads - the current conflict and weather conditions can make it impossible to get around. Getting input from the local community is crucial.
I love being in the field because I get the chance to connect with the people we are helping and meet team mates that I've only ever spoken to on the phone!
What have been your career highlights to date?
I would have to say the construction of 1000km of roads in Afghanistan. This took three years and meant that remote villages were able to easily reach health facilities, schools and markets - something they had not been able to do before.
Seeing for myself that the roads we had constructed were making it possible for girls in the area to go to school, was one of my proudest moments.
What were the biggest challenges in getting where you are today?
The sacrifices I've had to make in terms of my personal life have been the most challenging. I'd be lying if I said the opportunity to travel and experience new cultures wasn't one of the most exciting parts of the job, but it can mean large chunks of time spent away from family and friends.
It is also difficult to maintain friendships throughout the years when you change locations often. Social media helps for sure!
What advice would you give to someone who hopes to work in a similar role?
Do you have passion for helping people and experiencing new places? If so, then think about what skills you have that can contribute to the work the UN does. Remain open to new experiences, even if you have to learn new skills, take a step back or make some sacrifices along the way.
Source: World Food Programme