Catherine Okello: Work and Family Go Together

IOM Uganda 's Catherine Anena Okello
Tuesday, May 28, 2019 - 23:00

CATHERINE ANENA OKELLO is an Operations Assistant with IOM Uganda, until recently based in Kyaka II refugee Settlement. Born in Pece Pawel in Gulu Municipality in northern Uganda, Catherine did not have the rosiest of childhoods, getting caught up in Alice Lakwena’s and Joseph Kony’s insurgencies, facing Karimojong cattle rustlers, and having to sleep in the bushes at night to avoid abduction.  The first girl but second born out of 13 children, Catherine was an early migrant, moving from Gulu to the neighbouring Kitgum district, and then to Lugazi in Central Uganda to continue with school, eventually earning a Bachelor’s in education at Kampala’s Makerere University. She would then move to Bentiu State in South Sudan to teach adult literacy before returning to become the first head teacher of Pader Girls Academy in Pader district, east of her birthplace of Gulu. Catherine is married to Albino and they have two children, Abigail and Benjamin. When we meet at her home in Mukono, 20 KM outside Kampala, Catherine is on maternity leave, having given birth to Benjamin months earlier. Here is Catherine’s IOM story


The School that I opened in Pader was very unique. We had both formal education and vocational training. But we also had ex-combatants of the LRA war, and some of them were child-mothers, really. So I would enter a school and the first people to receive me were the children of my students. So, sometimes I felt like one big mother.
And then IOM happened, in 2009. One of my students was an ex-combatant who had been abducted by the rebels, taken to Sudan, and returned to Uganda by IOM. The programme coordinator was following up on that student and that is how I first got into contact with IOM. Later, IOM wanted to open up an office in Pader and they advertised a case worker position; I applied and I was recruited.
I felt this was a much bigger opportunity for me to advance my career. It was a dream-come true to join this international organization. My first assignment was as a caseworker with the community-based reintegration programme, which focused on ex-combatants. It also involved aspects of counselling, to know how the reintegrated people were getting on.
Since then, I have moved into different roles within IOM, starting with Pader field office (reintegration programme), Abim sub-office in Karamoja sub-region (livelihoods project); Gulu (reintegration) Kyangwali and Adjumani refugee settlements (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene projects); Country Office (Immigration and Border Management project and then Resettlement Operations.
After joining the Resettlement Operations team, I was in Kampala for a year, before moving to Kyaka II refugee settlement in February 2016.
Looking back on this journey of nearly 10 years, I believe IOM is a place where, if you want, you can easily get opportunities to grow. If the organization was not that open whereby they care about staff growth, they would not have allowed me to move to all these other projects.  The other thing I have learnt is that even if we have little resources, IOM wants to deliver, to have an impact. When I just joined IOM, my boss told me that “you are in the field office but your office is in the field, not in office”.
And that is what I believe – that I have to be hands on; get involved with the people and get things done.

I feel moved when I work with vulnerable populations such as refugees. Sometimes we do not have all the answers, but at least I want to try to use my position to direct them to where they can get assistance.
But working among refugee communities, I also kept learning how to approach them. For instance, generally speaking, South Sudanese refugees want you to be honest with them. If you can’t be in a place, tell them in advance and give them a reason. And you have to work through their leaders, because they tend to follow what their community leaders tell them.

My work varies, depending on the day; but generally it involves administrative duties, meeting refugees and answering their questions, linking up with the different partners within the settlement, coordination with Office of the Prime Minister, and closely with UNHCR, Operating Partners and implementing partners, and also doing home visits for some of the refugees, etc.
Sometimes you need a refugee to undergo a certain procedure but this person does not have a telephone – or the phone calls won’t go through – so you have to drive up to their home to inform them of the next step. Sometimes at the field level, in coordination with Kampala, we also help to arrange selection interviews, cultural orientations, and medical missions – of course in close coordination with our colleagues in the Migration Health Division.

I love the fact that we are very operational, up to the grassroots level; a lot of the time you are able to ensure quality control.  Then, the team spirit within IOM is very strong. For instance when colleagues come from Kampala or field colleagues go to Kampala and you see the way we receive each other and interact, it’s quite warm. You feel you are one family and you are for the same cause.  I remember when we were in Adjumani and some friends from other organizations were surprised and they would ask whether we were all selected from one place. But we were all from different places, only that we worked very closely together for one mission. So that team spirit gives me the boost to work harder.
Also, when you are in IOM, you can learn a lot of things if you want. For instance, I am an operations assistant/admin finance, which means I know something about HR, policy, and other things, and these things help you to grow.

I think the aspect of orientation needs to be improved on, so that people know what the entire organization does, its core values, its vision and mission. There is giving you a document, but you may read and never understand. It’s not the same as someone sitting with you to say, you are welcome, this is how we work as a team, this is what we do.
Senior Managers also need to interact more with their staff both in the field and in Kampala to get a better understanding of how the staff work and their living conditions. That would improve staff motivation.

The refugees and migrants we serve have a lot of potential, but as social workers, we cannot know that potential until we give them time and platforms to express themselves. Related to that, psychosocial support is something that IOM should do more of across all our work. The people we serve have often endured trying or traumatic experiences and continuous counselling would be very helpful.
I also found that it is important for us to respect the diversity of the mobile populations we serve. Where they come from there will be cultural or tribal differences and we need to understand and respect those differences, instead of simply treating them all by a single globalized standard.

We need to love our work. I love what I do and I try to do my job well not for my boss, but for IOM and the people that we serve. 
Outside of work, I love my family a lot and that gives me the push even more. Work and family are both key and they go together. You have to work for your family, but you also have to have a family.

* Catherine was speaking to Richard M Kavuma.
* Weeks after this interview, Catherine was transferred to the Country Office in Kampala.
* For more information, please contact IOM Uganda Public Information Officer, Richard M Kavuma. Email:
[email protected] Tel +256 312 263 210.  MOB: +256 772 709 917 / 700 646 403;